What names are normal? Shifting the center of the world

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.

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Racialicious is a blog about the intersection of race and pop culture. Check out our daily updates on the latest celebrity gaffes, our no-holds-barred critique of questionable media representations, and of course, the inevitable Keanu Reeves John Cho newsflashes.

Latoya Peterson (DC) is the Owner and Editor (not the Founder!) of Racialicious, Arturo García (San Diego) is the Managing Editor, Andrea Plaid (NYC) is the Associate Editor. You can email us at team@racialicious.com.

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  • nicthommi

    I think I’d add, the other thing that is problematic with the character in the first skit, who does return in a future episode, is that in addition to creating a dichotomy where “white” is normal and “black” is weird, it also plays into the idea that white kids are well-behaved in school and black kids are not. Part of Mr. Garvey’s over the top “sterness” and hyperbolic reactions to the kids are rooted in the idea that he’s spent his career dealing with lying, disruptive, misbehaving black kids.
    I think that at this point we know that black and Latino students are punished more harshly in school (as they are in the criminal justice system), but I dislike the attempt to paint black children as being pathologically hard to deal with. As someone who went to a private school and had only white classmates, I can say that this is not true. What I can say without having been in a public school or a classroom surrounded by black classmates is that the times when people were rude or disruptive or committed much worse acts on school property or during school trips, no harsh punishments were doled out. But studies have shown how quickly black and Lation kids are suspended and expelled which of course has academic consequences (schools frequently give kids Fs for work missed during their time out, plus they just miss out on learning), and I think it also just helps push some of them down the slippery slope of being indifferent to school and suspicious of authority.
    I’m not a teacher but in a gap where I was transitioning from one graduate program to another, I spent some time subbing (which anyone can do in most school districts since you are only expected to “babysit” the kids although since my mom is a teacher and I’ve tutored in other settings, I did help kids who were receptive to it), and I witnessed this play out. In one case, a white honor student did something that the cops should have been called over, but they gave him a pass. In another case, another white student also did something similar in the class I was “watching” and I contacted the assistant principal and the school (the worst performing in our town with a principal who had notoriously gotten her job through nepotism) actually blacklisted me and claimed that the incident was b/c of my neglect (I NEVER so much as left the classroom, but did poke my head out of the door to see why no one was coming to assist after I made repeated calls for help).
    White youth’s behavior can escalate to the level of flat out criminal behavior and they will still be treated as if they were merely late to class. The same thing plays out on college campuses where black and brown students get harassed by campus security but white students doing things that flagrantly violate school policies (I can recall seeing people in our freshman yard, where alcohol was forbidden, walk by these same campus cops drunk and naked and they didn’t so much as blink at them). But black male students unlocking their bikes from the bike racsk would be questioned.

  • http://psychologyandpolicy.wordpress.com/ GeeKayGee

    I’m someone with a “funny” name. If I had a nickel for everytime someone has asked “what does my name mean,” “how did I get,” or even (incredibly insulting) “do you have a nickname?”, I would be richer than Oprah. Like you I found both Key and Peele skits problematic, especially the latter one. It reinforces the idea that “uncommon” names should be seen as different and funny, which is cross-purpose to the skit with the non-white school teacher in the suburban school. I don’t even think they realize it. Overall, I find Key & Peele skits dealing with race and gender very problematic. So, I’m sure that impacts how I view their work.