By Guest Contributor Lisa Wade, PhD; originally published at Sociological Images
Sociologists observe that cultures are centered around some people and not others such that members of some groups just seem like people and others are perceived as deviations from that presumed norm.
Names are part of how we divide the world into the normals and the deviants. Illustrating this, the sketch comedy duo Key and Peele are super creative in this 3 minute skit. They reverse the white-teacher-goes-into-the-inner-city trope and put a non-white teacher into a suburban school. As he calls roll, the skit center HIS reality instead of that of the white, middle class kids. He pronounces their names like stereotypically black names, confusing the heck out of the kids, and never considering the possibility that the names he’s familiar with isn’t how all names really are.
It’s not a safe skit — it potentially reinforces the conflation of non-white and urban and the stereotypes of inner city students and the names low-income black parents give their kids — but it does a great job of playing with what life might be like if we shifted the center of the world.
Counterpoint by Tamara Winfrey Harris, Racialicious editor
I have wrestled with the popularity of this Key & Peele skit for a while. And I’m afraid, for me, that it doesn’t pass the race bias smell test. The comedy here, while it may appear “edgy,” is really business as usual. The bit doesn’t “punch up,” instead the blow lands right smack where it always does: on black cultures and, particularly, the poor, working class and urban. I agree with friend of the R, Lisa Wade, when she says the skit uniquely centers the point of view of the black teacher and his idea of “normal.” Sadly, though, that decentering of whiteness is the joke. The audience is meant to laugh at a situation where creative pronunciations of common, European-derived names is acceptable. How absurd! It’s okay if this skit makes us laugh. But we need to recognize how and why it is problematic.
FYI, Key & Peele have a habit of going to the funny black name well.