In a previous blog post, I argued that to determine if an expression of humor was racist, it is necessary to carefully examine its impact. In this post, I want to consider a particularly ambiguous case:
Is this video racist?
start with a little background information: The video was produced by a
person of African descent (the one who played Obama) and seems designed
to make fun of Blagojevich, the former Governor of Illinois, rather
than the President. To the degree that this intention is, in fact,
perceived by viewers, the video can be said to poke fun of a subset of
white Americans who think/act like Blagojevich (i.e., identify with
Black culture), while at the same time showing that Obama can, if he
chooses to, embrace this culture with ease and comfort.
Never mind that Black culture, like U.S. culture, is too diverse and multi-faceted to be encapsulated by a single stereotypical perspective. Even if we, for the sake of comedy, agree to equate Black culture with hip-hop culture, determining the impact of this video on viewers is no easy feat.
I said the video seemed designed to make fun of the Blagojevich, not Obama. I personally think it does so effectively, but the video shows a relationship of sorts between the President and the impeached (and disgraced) former Illinois governor. Who is to say that viewers with strong anti-Obama sentiments won't see in this video proof that the President, like the Governor, is corrupt, or that he is, in fact, more "Black" than he has let us believe? Who is to say that these viewers will not then perceive this video as evidence for what they've feared all along, that Obama is more invested in the interests of the Black community than in those of "Americans"?
Is this a stretch? Recent research suggests otherwise. Consider, for example, a 2009 study by LaMarre, Landreville, and Beam, which examined viewers' perceptions of the Colbert Report and found that
...conservatives were more likely to report that Colbert only pretends to be joking and genuinely meant what he said while liberals were more likely to report that Colbert used satire and was not serious when offering political statements
While I think the study obscures the fact that sophisticated political observers on either side of the political divide are unlikely to find the Colbert Report ambiguous, it does offer relatively compelling evidence for the projective hypothesis - the notion, first introduced by Lawrence Frank in 1939, that "When people try to understand vague or ambiguous unstructured stimuli, the interpretation they produce reflects their needs, feelings, experience, prior conditioning, and thought processes."
The key is in the ambiguous content. Because of its ambiguity, a person can only determine what he/she sees by imposing (i.e., projecting) his/her self onto the content. This is the theoretical principle behind projective tests, like the Rorschach (ink blot) and the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT). That is, what a person sees in an ink blot reveals quite a bit about the person and nothing at all about the blot, because the blot is so ambiguous that it could be practically anything.
This video is not, of course, as ambiguous at an inkblot, but it's no less ambiguous as the TAT or, say, the Colbert Report.
This ambiguity makes it practically impossible to determine how it is perceived by viewers. One could, of course, design a study to do just that, and perhaps someone will. Until then, the best we can do is recognize that some viewers will laugh at Blagojevich and some will laugh at Obama and who does which is probably best explained by viewers' political beliefs, even though both Blagojevich and Obama are Democrats.
Is this video racist? Sometimes, it depends on who is watching it.