Video stirs up debate on stereotypes

A video series on YouTube has caused mixed feelings on campus.
January 26, 2012

For Maaso Kalema, the viral YouTube video of 27-year-old Franchesca Ramsey  — an African-American woman in a blonde wig — poking fun at “Sh*t White Girls Say to Black Girls” was more than a good laugh — it was a reminder of her life growing up in predominately white suburban Blaine, Minn .  

“That’s why these videos are funny,” the sophomore biology student said. “People can really relate to them.”

But across campus, Sarah Philippe didn’t see much to laugh about.

“It perpetuates the idea that white girls are dumb, ditsy and ignorant when it comes to race,” she said. “That’s a stereotype I always face.”

With millions of views and comments, the latest wave of YouTube videos using humor to tackle social stereotypes have sparked discussions about race relations around the University of Minnesota community.  

Some say the videos are exposing stereotypes in a new and powerful way.   Others say they are merely perpetuating them.  

But Kalema and Philippe join sociology of race relations professor Enid Logan  in saying they are not surprised the videos have gained so much popularity.

“They show most people are ready to talk about race,” Philippe said.   “They just don’t know how to go about it.”

‘Everybody’s laughing’

In the videos, people from all demographics flip the script by using satire to highlight offensive comments or scenarios they face in day-to-day life.

Everybody from “Latina girls” to “southern gay guys” haves gotten in on the joke.  

Even Minnesotans got in on the action when local KDWB anchor Dave Ryan  released “S*** People from Minnesota Say” on Tuesday.

Kalema’s first exposure to the videos came when her sister sent her a Facebook link to a video in which an African-American man in drag parodies phrases and mannerisms that are supposed to characterize black women.  

She said at first she thought it was funny — really funny. She shared it with friends who had similar life experiences.   They quickly developed inside jokes based on the scenes from the video.

But it didn’t take long for her to realize the joke could potentially be on them once the videos gained national popularity.  

“Once the video became so public, it lost its intimacy,” she said. “It wasn’t just a joke between you and your girlfriend who happens to be a black woman. Now it’s a national joke, and everybody’s laughing at you.”

Philippe said the videos were detrimental, but for a different reason.  

She said they discourage the types of conversations they are supposed to encourage because they make people outside of the populations highlighted feel further alienated from them.

“I really want to talk about this stuff,” she said.   “I really want to know more about other people.   But I’m afraid I’ll end up looking like one of the girls in the videos if I ask.”

‘In on the joke’

Professor Logan doesn’t think the videos pose the risk of perpetuating stereotypes, and said the potency of the videos most likely stems from their cultural relevance and truth.  

Though the use of humor can be an effective way to expose social and racial inequalities, she said satirists always run the risk of their material being used to support the behaviors they are trying to change.  

 That’s why Dave Chapelle  put an end to his Comedy Central show, she said.  

Humor has historically been a tool to enter discussions about taboo or uncomfortable issues, she said.  

“I think it feels like you’re in on the joke,” she said.

Kalema said it’s easy for people to enter these discussions through social media where they can “hide behind a screen.”

Kalema said Ramsey’s video about the relationship between white and black women would be offensive if the roles were reversed. But Philippe said it would only be fair to see a video about things black women say to white women to explore the unspoken issue of reverse-racism.  

Both Philippe and Kalema said they agree they could use the videos to better understand how they are perceived in society and begin to tackle the issue of race by analyzing their own actions.  

“I don’t think a video about cultural mannerisms is going to open a truly productive discussion about race,” Kalema said. “But it can be a useful mirror for us.”

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