Shirley Q. Liquor and Racial Defensiveness
While “web-surfing” on the Internet today, I stumbled across an article about a radio show Vice President Mike Pence had appeared on that previously played enthusiastic host to the blackface stylings and contemporary minstrelsy of a performer known as Shirley Q. Liquor, a large white man who slathers on blackface to play a character who embodies every racist stereotype in existence.
I live in a world where no one needs to be told why it is offensive for a white man to resurrect blackface minstrelsy in 2017. But when I Googled “Shirley Q. Liquor” on Youtube I was predictably mortified by Liquor’s “comedy” but not particularly surprised by the comments on Liquor’s videos on Youtube.
True, every once in a while someone would strike a contrarian note and cautiously suggest there was something a little, well, problematic, about a white man putting on black face to make fun of black people and depict African-American culture as a comic cesspool of ignorance and poverty. But for the most part the commenters seemed to be in agreement on at least two crucial matters. Firstly, they all seem to agree Shirley Q. Liquor was absolutely hilarious, and true to life, and less a crude racist stereotype than a loving and affectionate tribute to black womanhood. Secondly, just about everyone agreed that there was absolutely nothing remotely racist about a white man putting on blackface to play a character named Shirley Q. Liquor and that anyone with the audacity to see racism in a dude doing sub-Amos n’ Andy material in 2017 was obviously racist themselves and was projecting their own racism onto an innocent, blameless truth teller who was just trying to bring people together through healing laughter.
I really wasn’t that surprised because on many corners of the internet, particularly Youtube, the display of clearly racist material is often accompanied by loud, angry cries about how transparently non-racist the material is and how only those terrible racists who acknowledge the poisonous reality of racism could possibly find it racist.
Why are so many random Youtube commenters so deeply invested in shouting out their important, essential truth that a white man who plays a black woman named Shirley Q. Liquor couldn’t possibly be racist? It’s entirely possible that all these folks were so tickled by the “politically incorrect” comedy of Liquor that they had to take to take to the Youtube comments sections to defend it. But I suspect the real answer is that they laughed long and hard at Shirley Q. Liquor and consequently saw attacks on Liquor’s comedy as an attack on their own sense of humor and racial sensitivity.
What they're really saying, on some level, is that they’re not racist for laughing at comedy much of the world considers racist. They’re preemptively defending themselves and their own complicity in supporting racist garbage. This instinct is as understandable as it deplorable.
White privilege is a fairly complicated concept that asks white people to take responsibility for some of the racism they inherited, and for institutional racism through the ages. But, if you’re Donald Trump or his supporters, then racism isn’t complicated at all. It’s either the dramatic, clear-cut racism of the Ku Klux Klan burning a cross on a terrified black family’s front yard or it’s not racist.
People defend the non-racism of Shirley Q. Liquor for the same reason they defend the non-racism of our clearly racist President because if Liquor isn’t racist for doing blackface minstrelsy in 2017 and Trump isn’t racist for, well, a whole bunch of shit, then they, by definition, could not be racist for laughing at blackface comedy or voting for a man whose campaign was built upon scapegoating non-whites as the cause of all of America’s problems. It's like when Trump says one of his minions isn't racist. He's only ever saying that he's not racist for having so many other racists in his circle.
We want so badly not to be thought of as racist that we’re willing to ignore, or excuse, or deny clear-cut hatred and bigotry because it reflects poorly on us as human beings. To that end, I don’t know what’s sadder: that Shirley Q. Liquor is a character that’s somehow acceptable to anybody these days, or that there are so many people willing to staunchly defend the character, even if they’re really just covertly denying their own bigotry.
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