“Take the ball, you KKK motherfucker.”
So said one of my many basketball opponents after I made a basket at Hamilton Playground. Violence in his tone, frustration emanating from his adolescent body, he just saw me as some white kid who he should be beating. My being both white and better at basketball was, at that moment, seen as aggression and reacted to as such. I’m sure it didn’t help that I was also, in all likelihood, engaging in the kind of playground antics designed to embarrass him and I seemed to be having fun. After all, I was a stupid teenager, too. In the moment this epithet was a chilling slap to my fourteen-year-old self, its memory is a gift to the future me. This and many memories of my times as the only white boy (my nickname was “white boy”) on the basketball court now give me a different racial perspective than many of my white peers.
“Yo juro alianza a la Bandera de los Estados Unidos de América y a la república que representa, una nación bajo Dios, indivisible, con libertad y justicia para todos”
Every day in elementary school, after saying the Pledge of Allegiance, we said it again, in Spanish. This is what being in a bilingual elementary school meant. When I was at my kids’ school a few weeks ago, the Pledge started over the PA and everyone stopped where they were, stood, faced the flag and put their hands on their hearts. I found myself continuing after the Pledge had finished, saying what was in my head as simply the next verse. I hadn’t thought about that for at least twenty years, but there it was, just on the tip of my tongue. As my lips moved a bit after everyone put their hands down and resumed what they were doing, I was reminded of how different my childhood was.
No one thinks that their childhood is unique while they’re living it; it’s invisible like the air they breathe. I went to a bilingual elementary school, taking half my classes in English, and half in Spanish. But when I was in fourth grade, I wasn’t waxing poetic about the amazing cognitive benefits of bilingual education. In seventh grade at the basketball court, I wasn’t marveling at the incredible racial diversity. I was grumbling about some homework I didn’t want to do and worrying about bullying and what being a male meant, like every other boy.
But just like that Pledge of Allegiance, every now and then my childhood reaches forward and jerks me away from the crowd I am in, making me move my lips in a different way, as everyone else goes about their business. Yesterday was such a day.
Many of my scientific twitter followers discovered Gizoogle, which turns any web page into language as if uttered by Snoop Dogg. Here are a few examples. The juxtaposition of science writing translated into gangster talk lead to loud (virtual) guffaws (I’ve used a new example other than the ones mentioned on twitter here). Some of this rubbed me the wrong way and led me to think about how my racial sensibilities lead me to discomfort and when others are led to humor.
Gizoogle claims to simply translate any web page into Snoop Dogg language using an algorithm from words actually used by Snoop Dogg himself and contains the follow caveat:
Apologies if you are in any way offended by the explicit wording used in the translations.
The slanguage used in our algorithm has been quoted from Snoop Dogg himself and is commonly used in movies, conversations and music he has written.
These words are based on slang and can not be interpreted in any other way other than how they are quoted. There are no racist words used in the algorithm.
A little analysis at what the algorithm does tells me that it replaces many words like “world” with “ghetto,” slangifies other words (more -> mo’, am -> be, at -> up in) and adds occasional filler phrases from Snoop’s lexicon, like “I aint talkin’ bout chicken n’ gravy biatch.”
I am often reluctant to write about race from my position of privilege. I always feel the danger of assuming (and asserting) I know what black people are thinking when I think “Damn that’s racist.” Sometimes I think, “That’s not really my place to point out what might be offensive to someone else. I shouldn’t speak for them. Let them point it out.” But as I’ve read a lot more about being an internet ally, in particular to women, I think there is value in saying something, even if it carries the risk of coming across as an aloof privileged academic having an aloof privileged conversation.
So, I’ll come out and say it bluntly: I don’t like this approach to humor. I won’t lie, a little giggle arises at “Pimp Benzedrine being elected all up in a papal enclave,” but mostly I’m made uncomfortable by the mindless search and replace approach to this. Why? Because Snoop Dogg’s language is not all his own, but a variant of African American Vernacular English. Snoop is not the only one who pronounces “the” as “da” or “tha.” He’s not the only one who says “mo” instead of more, or “axed” instead of “asked.” I try not to be judgmental here, but I think my experience in knowing a lot of people who use this dialect means I have a lot harder time finding this sort of thing funny.
I don’t giggle when reading that “Wallace axed Darwin bout da origin of da mothafuckin species.” It is one thing to mock Snoop’s f’shizzle dizzle and quite another to replace “food” with “chicken,” just adding “biatch,” and calling it hilarious. I don’t have a particular memory but I am sure that I sat in junior high biology and heard questions and answers in African American dialect, uttered by sincere and confused teenagers. Perhaps the -izzles just aren’t enough to prevent me from thinking we are mocking not just Snoop, but those kids too, in addition to my angry, frustrated opponent at the basketball court, the adults they have become, and the language they speak around the dinner table.
The coders responsible for the algorithm claim that “there are no racist words used in the algorithm,” but racism isn’t a property of a word. It’s a property of the speaker and of the situation. And fellow white people using African American Vernacular as if it is funny or ironic in and of itself has always made me uncomfortable. I know that an eighteen year old prep school kid from the suburbs calling everyone “dawg” has good intentions, but it has never sat right with me.
When people see African American dialect juxtaposed with eloquent scientific prose as hilarious, part of what I hear is “Ha! those would never exist in the same place. People who talk like that would never understand science this deeply.” Maybe I am saying all of this too strongly, and it is all just an impersonation of Snoop Dogg, just like the Thomas Friedman column generator (click on that second one, it’s uncanny). I just can’t help but hear undercurrents and echoes of negative stereotypes like “all rappers are ignorant and shallow” and “urban black culture is backwards, anti-intellectual, and responsible for black poverty.” There may be some truth to some of those stereotypes (yes, I have seen smart black kids hide their intelligence or be called “white” when they use big words), but it seems quite different to me to see Chris Rock or Ta-Nehisi Coates talk about it than to read John Derbyshire, or even Matt Yglesias on the subject.
I think this is similar to making fun of names (and not just because I have a weird one myself). When one’s junior high yearbook has an Natisha, Shawnte, Talib, Checharna, Lawanda and Marquitta (and that was just my homeroom) those names aren’t humorous, they are just those people.
But I am not entirely humorless. As someone remarked to me on twitter, people talk funny. Are we forever prevented from mocking people who talk funny? As I thought more about it throughout the day, I wondered: Where is the line? And I keep returning to a pair of skits about language and names from Key and Peele, a new comedy duo with their own show on Comedy Central.
Why do I love this skit? It plays with the line between humor and offense and it knows it. The first name “D’Marcus Williums.” I knew people named D’Marcus, okay, weird spelling of Williams, but not really funny. Okay, next. T.J. Juckson, alright, riffing on Jackson, a little abnormal, not really funny. T’Variusness King. Okay, T’Variusness is kind of a funny name. Why, it takes the T’ but then adds something a bit sillier than usual. This is not a play on Akisha, Keisha, Lakisha, Shakesha, but T’Variusness. I find that worth a smile, not too guilty, I don’t know any T’Variusnesses or anything approaching it. Nor do I know any D’Squarius – again, little smile. But I still see that Key and Peele (by the way, Jordan Peele was almost named Noah. Yes, his mom almost named him Noah Peele) are playing with the line here, with a little step over. But when we get to “Jackmerius Tacktheratrix.” I lol’ed. That’s some inner city dinosaur shit right there. As the skit goes on, Key and Peele pace the names, stepping gingerly around names that sound almost realistic: “Jasper Probincrux III” could have gone to Andover, but “D’Jasper?” Probably not. Javaris Jamar Javarison-Lamar, well over the line into silly. I’ll stop, but watch the thing. The over-analyzing doesn’t stop the giggling. At least for me.
The second skit is about an black inner-city substitute teacher who comes into an all-white classroom and takes attendance.
“J-kwellen” doesn’t respond to her name, and it continues. I like how this skit plants a seed that all pronunciation of names might be a bit arbitrary and invented. As someone who was told by my German homeroom teacher in high school (in friendliness, hi Ms. Cranston!) that I pronounced and/or spelled my own last name wrong (it’s Ry-ner, not Rhee-ner), I know that there is nothing that makes an Irish pronunciation of a German name any more natural or normal than a mix of spelling and pronunciation of Swahili and Hebrew.
Anyways, there is both a world of difference, and sometimes a thin line, between sophisticated code-switching and clumsy blackface minstrelsy. When there is a possible violation of that line into offense, I try to take a conservative approach and avoid engaging with it when there is any question. If you have to say “I’m not a racist but…” it probably means you are about to say something racist. If you are going to make fun of a member of a group for talking a certain way, maybe consider if other members of that group also talk that way and think twice about whether you are mocking the entire group for something they take seriously.
Maybe all of this means progress and I shouldn’t take my own discomfort as some sort of absolute barometer of racial offensiveness. But I needed to get this off my chest.