I recently suffered a jolting flash of liberalistic sensitivity while reading Freakonomics on my beloved nook e-reader. In the section where “superblack” names and their impact on earnings power are discussed, I became pretty uncomfortable.
But why was I sensitized to such a relatively innocuous, matter-of-fact passage in the first place? Could it be related to my favorite childhood babysitter, 1980s sitcoms? A quick trip down memory lane with the help of Hulu alerted me to a confusing Petri dish of racism parading as enlightened social commentary: Diff’rent Strokes.
Even the title, with its carefully placed ebonicized apostrophe, is racist, the first “e” omitted in a haze of supposed white erudition about African-American culture. It was this show that taught me that the world was full of creepy white men who molested innocent black kids in bike shops. Each week, an incredulous neighbor or concerned white guy questioned the paternal origins of Willis and Arnold, often lambasting the kids themselves for having the nerve to claim an old Caucasian dude on Park Avenue could be their father.
“I am their father,” always bellowed a perturbed Conrad Bain, to great comedic effect.
In the day and age of Sister Angelina Jolie, we generally don’t find anything funny or out of the ordinary with mixed-race families (well, we in a handful of neighborhoods in a handful of major cities, anyway). In a time not long past, even the fictitious conceptualization thereof was polarizing and sometimes hilarious.
Via the Interwebs, I was able to revisit in quick order the evolution of televised stereotypes:
- Wouldn’t it be great… The very notion that the Jeffersons, an African-American family, could be rich was supposed to be shockingly funny. It was of course shockingly racist, which is now somewhat humorous in a very uncomfortable way. As we all know, The Jeffersons was the spin-off spawn of All in the Family, the classic caricature of American racism that accidentally created the godfather of TV racists, Archie Bunker.
- Racism? What racism? The Cosby Show bent an African-American family into the formulaic 1980s sitcom mold, down to the ungodly loud sweaters. It broke barriers, addressed serious issues, and raised hackles, both black and white. I still equate the great man primarily with pudding, in delectable frozen pop form.
- The token. Immortalized in cartoon form by the South Park character of the same name, think Alfonso on Silver Spoons or the black girl on Punky Brewster.
- I dare you to notice. Now that we go out of our way not to single out mixed relationships, the asshole is the pompous TV writer who wedges an improbable relationship into an awkward context and forces us to sit quietly with our guilt-ridden internal dialogue. See the horrendous current rehash of Beverly Hills 90210. Actually, don’t see it.
Everyone knows an aging ex-jock who denies homophobia by repeatedly citing his one gay friend who lives in San Francisco. Similarly, the scripted racial apologia that is in fact overt racism still abounds in our allegedly progressive society and its reflective alter ego, TV. When differences are so readily recognized and acknowledged, they are allowed to fester as divisive, fear-mongering fodder for aspiring militia members. While my journey back into the flickering dreams of my childhood was amusing, I still pine for an enlightened day when our default interaction mode first identifies our intellectual similarities as opposed to external differences.
So, don’t be racist! Love one another, and whatnot, and send Gary Coleman money if you can. He needs it.
Related trivial tidbit: Wikipedia tells us that Ben Starr was a writer for Diff’rent Strokes. Long-lost drunken uncle of our own beloved struggling TV writer, Bryan Starr?