When I first caught a glimpse of Don Draper (actually actor Jon Hamm) satirizing an Amos ‘n’ Andy-type character during 30 Rock’s annual live episode that aired last week, I laughed…hard. Then I winced. I reckoned the backlash would be bad. The clamor wasn’t as loud as I feared it would be, but some smart people that I admire took issue. According to the Washington Post:

Jamil Smith, a segment producer at MSNBC’s “The Melissa Harris-Perry Show,” and Talking Points Memo reporter Ryan J. Reilly, however, both expressed their disapproval for the moment on Twitter. Smith tweeted, “And #30Rock has Jon Hamm in almost-kinda-yeah-actually-it’s-Blackface,” to which Reilly responded, “ ‘hey blackface will be okay if we’re meta about it,’ ’’ attributing that pretend quote to “no one.” Smith replied with the hashtag “#Fail.”

And my friend and fellow Clutch contributor, Renee, wrote:

Blackface is not simply something that is part of American history, it is an ongoing phenomenon – no matter how many times African-Americans state how unequivocally offensive this is. This skit attempts to place Blackface in the past — and by so doing — ignores the people who continue to be harmed by it. We are not post racial and we are most certainly not post Blackface. This is also Hamm’s second racially problematic skit. Yes, I’m counting.

Hamm did, after all, appear in an afro wig, smears of brown makeup, overalls and adopt a stereotyped old-timey black dialect. Explained that way, the skit would seem offensive, racist. But it wasn’t, at least not in my estimation. We are not living in post-racial America–not by a long shot. But race, racism and racial bias are more nuanced than they were in the 1920s when Amos ‘n’ Andy first aired, voiced by two white men. For that reason, I think we need to interrogate race with the more nuance. I don’t think blackface, or even, dare I say, “the N word” are always racist in their use.

Let me say first, that I am no apologist for hipster and ironic racism. And I’m not the sort who thinks comedy cannot be analyzed or that it can’t reveal the biases of a performer. I’ve discussed these things here. When determining whether so-called comedy is racist or a commentary on racism, it’s important to ask, “What’s the joke here?” As Asian American comedian Kate Rigg said to Andi Zeisler in Bitch magazine:

Kate, was Sarah Silverman saying “chink” in her one bit about jury duty different from you saying chink?

KR: You know what, it actually was not. Because her joke was not about the word “chink,” it was about racism. It was actually a very good joke, a very socially responsible joke. And everyone freaked out : “She said ‘chink’!” I’m offended when I see comics get onstage going “…and then I went to the Laundromat. Ching-chong, ching-chong, ching-chong!” Then I’m fucking offended. When someone tells a joke about Asian people and there’s no actual joke – the joke is the Asian people. The joke is [racist-comic voice] the funny way they talkie-talkie! “They don’t use proper diction! Only verb and noun! Verb and noun!” I just heard a comic that I respect doing that fucking joke the other night. An Asian comic. And I was like, “Dude! Write a punch line or you’re just being racist!” Read more…

In this case, 30 Rock was poking at both past and present racism in media. Character Kenneth the Page introduced the segment by saying, “NBC had the first two black characters on TV — sort of. For ‘Alfie and Abner,’ NBC hired one African American and one Caucasian because they thought two black people on the same show would make the audience nervous. A rule NBC still uses today.” He set up the satirization of past racism, while acknowledging that while everything has changed, everything has also remained the same. It’s hard to find a fully-actualized black character on television…in 2012. Blackness was not the joke here.

I was similarly unfazed last month when CNN reporter Susan Candiotti read an uncensored slur, found on the Facebook page of Jacob England, one of two suspects accused of shooting five black people in Tulsa, Okla. England (and Candiotti) used the word “nigger.”  This isn’t comedy; this is news. The suspect’s naked racism may help shed light on his motivations. Candiotti didn’t say “the N word” with animus, or, I imagine, lightly. She used it in the context of a quote in the middle of a news story. I’m no fan of the word, but “Nigger” isn’t like “Candyman.” Say it too many times and something bad happens. It does no good to the fight against racism to hide its reality.

Bottom line? Context–it matters.

We’re not too far from the bald racism that 30 Rock mocked. It is certainly understandable that folks would have a visceral negative reaction to blackface. But I think we need to sit with that reaction and move beyond it to evaluate what we see. It is exhausting to pull apart and weigh race in pop culture. But it’s necessary to move the fight for equality forward.

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