Friday, February 29, 2008

Being Obama

If Barack Obama does win the Democratic nomination, we are undoubtedly going to be treated to a tiresome parade of complaints about imagined racial slights. Here's one: Saturday Night Live had Fred Armisen (who?) play Barack Obama in a recent skit. Ann Althouse links to this Washington Post piece about the ensuing outrage.

Why the outrage? According to the WaPo article, Armison is of white and Asian heritage. Oh gosh, can't have that, can we? Well, the sort of people likely to take umbrage at this sort of thng have taken umbrage:

Maureen Ryan of the Chicago Tribune put the question bluntly: "Call me crazy, but shouldn't 'Saturday Night Live's' fictional Sen. Barack Obama be played by an African-American?" Ryan went on to conclude: "I find 'SNL's' choice inexplicable. Obama's candidacy gives us solid proof of the progress that African-Americans have made in this country. I guess 'SNL' still has further to go on that front."

You're crazy Maureen. But you aren't the only one. My favorite comment comes from Todd Boyd, a "Professor of Critical Studies" at USC:

Todd Boyd, a professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California, says viewers might have a different reaction if the roles were reversed. What if, he says, "SNL" had cast a black woman to portray Hillary Clinton? "Do you think there's ever going to be a day when we start casting Queen Latifah to portray Princess Diana?" he asks. "We just don't have the same representations going in other direction.

You know, if I were a professor in a politically-driven pseudo-discipline, I would avoid being quoted in the newspaper, if only to avoid having people ask what a "Professor of Critical Studies" actually you know, studies. I suppose, though, that if you're going to pretend that being a community organizer is a real job, you might as well pretend that a Professor of Critical Studies is a real Professor. (Unlike Barack Obama, who is not, contrary to some claims, a Professor of Constitutional Law.)

But I digress. This gripe is so stupid on so many levels that it's hard to know where to start.

Well, start with the obvious: as the WaPo and Professor Althouse both observe, SNL has a long history of having blacks play whites, and vice versa. Eddie Murphy played white characters, and Billy Crystal played Sammy Davis, Jr. Heck, SNL did some skits where men impesonated women: Dan Akroyd as Julia Child, and Will Ferrell as Janet Reno.

As Professor Althouse says, the question for Saturday Night Live isn't whether a particular actor is the same race or gender as the person he or she is impersonating -- the question is whether the impersonation is funny. And you know, by the standards of modern-day SNL, I think that Armison's impersonation really is kind of funny. Not Dan-Akroyd-as-Julia-Child funny, but SNL hasn't been that funny in a long time.

But in Obama's case it is particularly dumb. As Paddy O, one of Professor Althouse's commenters put it: "How is Obama any more black than white? Is there some kind of one drop rule in effect?" Sure, Obama may choose to identify himself as "black," and he may have joined an Afrocentric church, but none of this alters the fact that his mom was white. In terms of pure ethnic background, it's no more inappropriate to have a white guy impersonate him than to have a "pure" black Obama imitator. If you are insisting on racial verisimilitude, why not go all the way and demand he be impersonated by a man of mixed race whose dad was Kenyan and mom was a white chick from the midwest? Fred Armisen is of mixed race, if not quite the same mix as Obama. In that sense, he is more appropriate than either an all-black or all-white actor.

Look, if somebody of importance actually says something racist about Obama, I'll jump on them with both feet. But this crap is just nonsense.


Tor Hershman said...

Brown, black, tan, white, male or female - a rat is a rat is a rat is a rat.

Stay on groovin safari,

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