this is a series: previously
by Janae Acharya-Ramirez She-Her Cohen*
New York Times, July 6, 2042
Every high school freshman knows the history of the minstrel show in and its role in maintaining white supremacy. Thus the inherent problemicity in its recent resurrection, in parody of the original, as the “white show”, replacing black stereotypes of the slave and Jim Crow eras with white stereotypes from our recent past in white supremacist America.
These shows have become so popular they’re the main feature of virtually every “tent show” in the North American Consumer Region. The revival of that broader form, from which the new white minstrelsy was born, presents its own inherent problemicity matrix, coming as it does from the era of white supremacy.
Any representation of that dark period’s norms, attitudes and mores runs the risk of normalizing them.
This was demonstrated on these pages brilliantly last week by Harvard Professor Tanyika Balder-Dash Bhe-Bher** in bher essay “The Only Good Whitism…”. The shows are history, and any history of oppression without context amounts to the re-introduction of narrative pathogens. Her recommendations for placing Office of Civility and Acceptance regulators with every show is a good start.
Interestingly enough, the revival of the tent show derives in large part from the same necessity that created the original: summertime heat made indoor entertainment unbearable in the hottest months of summer before the development of air conditioning.
Now it’s the power grid crisis and electricity rationing driving people out of sweltering micro-apartments and public spaces–and into a cultural and legal limbo.
Licensed under arcane laws regulating “tent shows, circuses and carnivals” as old as the original shows, the productions operate entirely outside of Department of Inclusion regulatory purview. It might come as a shock to the average person, but the tent shows can virtually say or present whatever they want, without fear of penalty.
You might ask–and virtually all of us have attended or seen one of the shows–what problem one could have with shows portraying supremacist era whites in mocking caricature.
I contacted Michael Gruden-Silver He-Him, producer of “seven or eight” shows to ask if the shows are guilty of normalization.
“I see our role as instructional and fun at the same time. I categorically reject the shows normalize whiteness or whitism. I fail to see how ridicule is somehow normalization. We’ve never sought to present whites or whitism in a positive light.”
He’s also quick to point out a fundamental difference between the new shows, in which white performers portray whites, and the old shows, in which white performers in blackface portrayed blacks.
“We realized it would be degrading for a non-white to wear whiteface in any context.” He also rejected the charge that whiteface in this context is a “violent enhancement of ghostly whiteness” in the words of the Reverend Foremost Chastity Coates Bhe-Bher.
“Our performers wear whiteface only to complete the parody.” He says.
Despite their portrayal as dishonest, boorish or ignorant, the stock repertoire of comic foils–such as the “yuppie”, the “bro”, the “redneck”–become cultural figures of familiarity; and familiarity breeds not contempt but a measure of fondness. We can’t help it. The characters make us laugh. We chuckle and shake our head as if at the antics of an eccentric relative, and before we know it we’ve humanized whitism.
A recent study out of Yale examined the content of the four most popular shows over the last two years and found the same pattern affecting all, one of gradual softening of the shows’ portrayal of whites. All began with material duly and unambiguously contemptuous in its portrayal of historical whites; all ended the period with material, while still presenting them as the comic foil, portrayed them in a somewhat more sympathetic light.
It gets worse than that. Shows looking to get an edge on their competitors have taken to introducing innocuous caricatures, such as “the cowboy”, or “the sailor”. Worse still, the shows offering these characters seem to be finding success. Overtly positive characters can’t be far away. Rumor has it one show is working on a character called “the astronaut”.
Certainly the content of the shows will eventually be brought under control; even the producers seem resigned to that. But is control of content enough? Is content really the problem? Some forms are inherently exclusionary.
The white minstrelsy, like the black minstrelsy, is at its core caricature.In engaging in caricature we validate the practice of caricature. Even the appropriately negative portrayals of whites have this unfortunate effect: without contextual guidance, people will assume there’s some validity to other caricatures, such as those of blacks in the old minstrelsy. The dynamic is at work in the new minstrelsy as in the old: the audience believes it is laughing at something familiar.
It isn’t merely a question of content. Content is the least of it. The forms of the pre-liberation past, being products of it, are the problem, as evidenced by the white show’s progress. Hewing to all norms of justice inclusion, they nonetheless have the effect of bowdlerizing the past, of minimizing non-white suffering and even inducing nostalgia. Reversing the content of minstrelsy makes it no less minstrelsy. Existing entirely as a reference to that original transgression, it revives it.
Our experience with the new minstrelsy has revived Professor Balder-Dash’s call for “an end to satire as we know it”. I haven’t given up the hope satire, and comedy generally, can be saved, despite their inherent power dynamic. But we don’t need to curtail it until we figure out what’s going on. The white show has demonstrated that.
The good news is the shows are no longer escaping notice. Pastor Coates assures me bhe’s planning a national action soon to protest their continuing operation outside of regulatory scrutiny.
to be continued
*Regarding the proper placement of the colloquially named “pronounerific”, denoting gender identity, introduced in the early twenties and standard by the time of our story, appearing here as “She-Her”: it follows the surname, unless the surname is preceded by a hyphenated pair of surnames, in which case the–properly named–proidentitatem follows the hyphenation and precedes the surname [Ed. from the future]
**”Bhe-Bher”: specifically a black “She-Her” [Ed. from the future]