THE BLOG
06/23/2014 03:37 pm ET Updated Aug 23, 2014

The Comedy of Race on Vine

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Discussions about race and the Internet rarely end in laughter. This is perhaps, not very surprising. The Internet can be a hospitable place for hate speech. Racist images, jokes and commentary circulate online with ease. Anonymity and a felt disconnect from the immediacy of face-to-face contact enable a kind of "keyboard courage" that emboldens people to post content that they would be more hesitant to express without the screen as a buffer. Increasingly, websites are developing ways to address the kind of inane, racist language that flourishes in comments sections everywhere.

But if the Internet is anything, it is a place for amusement. A basic inventory of the most common types of viral videos would include cute babies, cat hijinks, pranks, and parodies of all kinds. While the media and scholars continue to express anxious concern about racial representations online, the millennial generation is taking to the Internet to explore race through laughter. What does the race-based comedy that younger Americans are producing and consuming look like?

To begin to answer this question, I turn to Vine, a service owned by Twitter that allows users to create 6-second videos with their phones and share them with followers. Vine has grown steadily since its launch in January of 2013 and now boasts tens of millions of users. The service's popularity among younger millennials and the high visibility of race-based humor provide an opportunity to consider how a generation growing up with the false rhetoric of a colorblind, "post-race" society in the age of Obama is thinking through the topic of race. From videos that simply perpetuate facile stereotypes to stinging satires of race relations in the United States, the videos below represent common strategies for representing race through a comic lens on Vine.

A majority of the most popular videos that deal with race simply recycle tired stereotypes. This plays out in the "white people vs. black people" genre of videos. Brittany Furlan and Simone Shepherd, two of the most followed women on Vine, take up this popular topic in the video below.

Like so many videos of this type, the video follows a straightforward formula where stereotypically "black" behavior is the primary punchline. Whiteness, represented by Furlan, is positioned as silly, or in the case of other videos of this genre, "normal." The comic payoff lies in Shepherd's embodiment of an over-the-top, violent and stereotypically irresponsible black femininity represented in the intensity of her attack and disregard for the baby.

Even more troubling are those videos where people of color simply bring to life stereotypes that have been used historically to denigrate them. Landon Moss, who boasts 2.4 million followers, created a video called "When Black People Smell Chicken" that could have come straight out of a script for a blackface minstrel show.

Moss catches the scent of chicken and with a high-pitched voice and cartoonish, bug-eyed expression begins to frantically search for the source. Moss is not alone. There exists an entire subgenre of Vine videos featuring African Americans manically performing an obsession with watermelon, chicken, and Kool-Aid.

A part of me wants to believe that these kinds of videos are examples of young people of color repackaging harmful stereotypes through the transformative power of comedy. But after watching hundreds of videos by the most popular Vine users, I am pessimistic. There is often little in the way of satire or at the very least, thoughtful representations of race in the most circulated videos.

That's not to say that smart, funny commentaries on race cannot be found among the more popular Vine videos. Andrew Bachelor, known best as King Bach, is the second most followed Vine user with over 7 million subscribers to his feed. In "I'm Never Gonna Change," Bachelor moves fluidly from a stereotypically "white" tone of voice, dress, and mannerisms to the stereotypically "black" register in a manner that highlights how behaviors and practices attributed to particular races can be seen as performances calibrated to meet the demands of different social situations.

But Bachelor's ability to code switch so quickly also points to the demands one can feel to perform the expected narrative of their race. A video by Vine user Childish Brandino demonstrates this point when a black character, thoroughly enjoying country music in his car, quickly changes the station to hip-hop once he realizes that a white person is watching him.

Part of the humor produced by both these videos lies in how they disrupt the viewer's expectations regarding racial identity. In doing so, they expose the limitations of stereotypes while simultaneously illustrating the pressure felt to perform a recognizable racial narrative.

Eric Dunn's most famous clip "Running Through White Neighborhoods" (2 million views) is more direct in its commentary on stereotypes about black male identity.

Dunn directly engages long-standing anxieties about black bodies in "white" spaces (in this case, the suburb), upping the ante by removing his shirt. What makes this video so funny is how Dunn places the popular perception of black criminality, represented by his shirtless presence in the white neighborhood, alongside his unthreatening, carefree romp as he joyfully proclaims in a high-pitched voice that he is "going to steal all your stuff." Dunn's conscious engagement of black stereotypes productively uses humor to shine a light on racist assumptions.

Race-based comedy has long been a useful site for understanding the fault lines, ambiguities, and absurdities of race in the United States. For better and/or worse, the Internet has democratized the production and dissemination of race-based comedy. Will this lead to a more open conversation about race in the United States that moves away from the fallacious logic of colorblindness? Or perhaps more pessimistically, will race become nothing more than a punchline where the evasive mantra of "just kidding" acquires more credibility? If we are to understand how young millennials reared on social media and viral videos think about race, we need to pay attention to what they are laughing at.