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Zeeshan Aleem

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Is 30 Rock Racist?

Posted: 07/08/10 11:34 AM ET


Stereotypes can't be be used ironically if they aren't subverted. Over the course of years of episodes, there are few -- if any -- moments where Jordan's aracial soul might peep out from behind his patchwork mask of black tropes. The mask and he are indistinguishable; he is an authentic clown.

The only other black character with substantial lines on 30 Rock is named "Toofer" (you get two for one because he's both black and from Harvard). Toofer has a resoundingly minor role, but like Jordan, is also totally defined by his (lack of) blackness -- even named for his (lack of) blackness. Given that his defining characteristic is his intellectual prowess, it becomes apparent he is trapped in the wrong body -- he is "afraid of black people," and has enormous trouble communicating with Tracy. It is learned that he descended from a black Confederate soldier who harbored the fugitive John Wilkes Booth following his assassination of Lincoln. Connect the dots.

The tools and dexterity required to dismantle a stereotype must be proportional to the size of that stereotype. It follows that when dealing with ancient and colossal and hideous claims about a persecuted race, some very sophisticated utensils are needed -- and 30 Rock is laughably ill equipped for the task.

30 Rock fails two tests. The first test is to to ask if there is a forceful difference between past pernicious representations of a race and the contemporary one. In other words, does Tracy's embodiment of age-old stereotypes of the black community look meaningfully different from what Americans saw in antebellum minstrel shows or in Amos n' Andy in the 1950s? Intentions of writers are largely irrelevant in this test. Read about this tradition, watch it firsthand, and it's impossible to say they are dissimilar. Tracy, a black spectacle orchestrated by a team of white conductors, looks more like an homage to the legacy of minstrelsy than a disruption of it.

The second test doesn't require a historical grasp of latent trends in American comedy. In this test, a comic writer is required to interact with people of many different races, and even become friends with them. Once a writer acquires several close friends of a variety of racial backgrounds, they will experience the process by which unfamiliar ethnicities fade from exotic to banal, and realize that stereotypes are not simplifications or reductions of people, but rather, costumes that are worn involuntarily by those who are seen more often than they are heard. The main question of this test is: After de-exotifying people of color, do the racially-based jokes in the script retain their humor?

Labeling cultural artifacts as racially regressive is a complex exercise. Mark Twain was justifiably considered progressive on race because of the humanity of characters like Jim in his epic novel Huck Finn. Jim is gullible, effeminate, overly magnanimous, and more superstitious than the white child he accompanied down the Mississippi river, but his morality, intelligence, and centrality to the plot of the story represented an unequivocal attack on the institution of slavery and its legacy. It's fair to say Twain's text does more to challenge the racial norms of his day than confirm them. Where does 30 Rock fall in that dichotomy?

In her formidable collection of essays entitled Playing in the Dark, Toni Morrison argues that historically, imagined black identity has served as a critical space for white self-definition. Sort of the way a dark back drop in a picture can make the outlines of a light-skinned person more clear. When slaves were property, it makes sense that their identities were props . But this year in the U.S. a majority of people born will be non-white. In other words, we're a bit old for this. There's no need for banning all jokes relating to race, but is it really that hard to find characters in white-dominated casts who aren't defined by their non-whiteness? Playing in a way that doesn't reek of ugly traditions -- now that's seriously funny.

UPDATE: I've gotten some very interesting feedback to this essay. Due to extreme spatial constraints I was not able to address a number of elements that I wanted to, such as Dot Com and Grizz. If you're interested in continuing this conversation, then you can contact me using the info on my blog or leave a comment there at http://zeeshanaleem.wordpress.com/, where I intend to write a brief follow up essay addressing some of the challenging questions circulating. Many thanks to everyone here who has kept a civil tone regarding a sensitive subject.

UPDATE II: It's become clear that the label of "racist" has got people riled up in a way that was unintended. It's probably more useful to ask the question, "Is 30 Rock racially responsible?"





*Regarding the claim that Tracy Jordan resembles Tracy Morgan's other comedy. First, the writers alone are responsible for the collective dynamic of the cast on 30 Rock. Even if they do draw from Morgan's prior comedic style, they have chosen to make him qualitatively different from every other member of the cast; they have chosen to make him single faceted; and they have chosen to make his single facet a collection of racist tropes.

Editor's note: The headline of this piece has been changed from an earlier version that tended to overly exaggerate the argument being made.

 

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