by Racialicious special correspondent Wendi Muse, originally published at The Coup Magazine (blog)
I didn’t get a chance to see the entire episode of Saturday Night Live this weekend, but I came across a segment clip from NBC’s website that made my blood curdle. SNL’s guest this week was the young actress of Juno fame, Ellen Page, whose comedic timing proved powerful yet equally disturbing in a piece with Keenan Thompson, the only black member of the cast (Maya Rudolph, who is half black-American, half white Jewish, identifies as multiracial), entitled “Virginiaca Goes to Baby Gap.” You can see the full video of the sketch here, but I’ll give you a little re-cap:
An overweight black woman who, only for lack of a better term, would be characterized as “ghetto” stumbles out of breath into a Baby Gap store (as it’s on the second floor) with a pastry in hand. She practically sexually harasses the Baby Gap employee (played by Andy Samberg). Her step-daughter, played by Ellen Page, corn-rowed, permed, and wearing a tracksuit, enters the store, demanding to try on spandex pants she’d like to wear as booty shorts. Angered that the Baby Gap employee won’t allow her to try on the pants for fear that she’ll stretch out the merchandise (as it’s meant for BABIES), Page’s character and Virginiaca name drop (as Virginiaca’s new husband is a wealthy white aluminum tycoon, the daughter of whom she has clearly “corrupted”) in hopes of getting their way. After a slew of aural and visual stereotype guest appearances (including the “booty back and forth” dance and repeated overt and unwanted flirting with the sales guy), the segment ends with the sales person quitting and Virginiaca in all fours on a merchandise stand continuing her “booty back and forth” dance in the store.
While SNL has engaged in black/brownface before, including having light-skinned Latino Fred Armisen play presidential hopeful Barack Obama, and Darrell Hammond play Jesse Jackson and Geraldo Rivera,they were impressions, albeit good ones, and I never found offense in having the best cast members for the job portray important members of our society who happened to have darker skin than theirs. Yet when I saw the “Shopping with Virginiaca” sketch, which apparently is a regular segment on the show, I felt something different. Keenan Thompson, though black, was performing a blackface minstrelsy routine that went far beyond basic impressions of famous people. He was poking fun, sure, but in a way that ultimately cements what black women are and how we are viewed by the general public.
The routine was all the more significant in its meaning when I first saw it as I had just ended a conversation with a white colleague regarding how much I tire of the negative images of black women on tv that are so powerful that I can’t help but wonder whether or not people expect this behavior of me when they see me on the bus, on the subway, or in the street, no matter how I am dressed, how I speak, my job titles, or what school I went to. The stereotype precedes me. It walks 10 feet ahead, greeting those who pass by before I can say a word. And shame on you, Keenan Thompson, for making the stereotype strong enough to tackle me down before I can open my mouth to interrupt its first impressions. Read the Post Sumpin’ Turrrrble: SNL’s Keenan Thompson Performs Minstrel Act