Back in the days before making fun of people with substance-abuse problems was deemed politically incorrect, there was a comedian by the name of Foster Brooks whose shtick was playing the part of a boozed-up, confused conventioneer. He was a fixture on Dean Martin’s celebrity roasts, where he usually ended up stealing the show. And no matter how uproarious his antics, he never stepped out of character, never once giggled at himself the way Red Skelton would.
I later learned that before Brooks made it big and everyone knew who he was, some audience members thought he actually was intoxicated and were mortified that people were laughing at the plight of such an unfortunate—which, to my mind anyway, made the whole spectacle all the funnier. So we have a man playing the part of a drunk, people who enjoy his performance knowing that it’s all a put-on, and people who think he’s actually drunk and are disgusted that others are making fun of him.
A similar phenomenon occurred in nineteenth-century Scotland in the person of William McGonagall, whom Wikipedia describes as having won notoriety “as an extremely bad poet who exhibited no recognition of, or concern for, his peers’ opinions of his work.” Although some believe he may have had a mental problem, others believe it was simply his shtick, and that like Brooks, he had the mad discipline never to step out of character. He actually got paid gigs to recite his bad poetry before mocking audiences; one venue even provided discarded foodstuffs for the audience to pelt him with. So again we have someone putting on an act, some recognizing that it’s an act, others not.
I’m citing Brooks and McGonagall as a backdrop against which to discuss a controversial trailer for a Showtime documentary series titled Everything’s Gonna Be All White. The trailer begins with a black woman with an attitude saying this:
I think what annoys me most about white people is when they pretend like they’re the victim. . . . What’s also annoying is when they, you know, when they kill us.
At the end of 2021, I did a breakdown of the FBI crime stats for 2020, the stats showing that black murder offenders killed twice as many white victims as white offenders killed black victims, even though the nation’s black population is only a fraction of the white population. I also demonstrated that white people were being murdered at 6.69 times the expected rate by black offenders. White people don’t need to pretend to be victims; they indeed are victims.
A few beats later in the trailer, an older black woman says with a scowl:
One of the definitions of American whiteness is . . . ignorance.
Given my familiarity with black-on-white murder stats, I found the juxtaposition of the statements by these two black women to be incredibly funny. Was this some kind of spoof whose purpose was to expose the lie that POCs can’t be racist? After all, I discovered that the woman at the very beginning of the trailer was actually a comedienne, one Amanda Seales.
But Amanda’s shtick appeared to go unappreciated as droves of black YouTubers outdid one another to condemn the trailer, even going so far as to state they were embarrassed by it. Were they taken in by the shtick in the same way that people believed Foster Brooks to be really drunk or William McGonagall to be totally unaware of how bad his poetry actually was? Or does the fault lie with me, charitably positing a shtick and ascribing to spoofery that which in fact is raw, naked racism? Either way, Director Sacha Jenkins ends up putting a spotlight on the elephant in the room.