Right now, Christena Cleveland and Keegan-Michael Key are two of my favorite people in the world. Though they operate in different disciplines and run in very different circles, they are both excellent at what they do. And I often find myself highlighting their work on social media.
Christena Cleveland, a social psychologist with a focus on overcoming racial and cultural divisions between groups, blogged recently about a phenomenon she refers to as the white male industrial complex. Adapted from an Emily Rice quote about the “ally industrial complex,” it’s her term for the ways in which Christian social justice work, like everything else in American society, tends to be oriented around the tastes, whims, and emotional climate of white men. (More on this later.)
Keegan-Michael Key is the taller, lighter-skinned half of Key & Peele, the incredibly funny sketch comedy duo on Comedy Central. And his brilliant comedy chops are the key to this, one of their most popular, sidesplitting sketches, entitled “Substitute Teacher.”
As a worship musician and professional Christian (I started using that term ironically, but given the heavy bias in evangelical culture toward paid ministry, I’m finding it more and more apt), I resonated with Dr. Cleveland’s blog post. Doing ministry in the whitest city in America, I’ve had front-row-seating inside the white male industrial complex for decades, and it’s even more frustrating now than it was when I first started worship ministry back when I was in college.
Because white men still tend to occupy most of the seats of power in the various interlocking public institutions of society — corporations, government, nonprofits, and even the church — the white male is considered the default standard for anything to be acceptable, marketable or appealing. Good ol’ number 44, while an exceptional political figure on many levels, is the exception that proves the rule.
This is why, when some defiant-sounding white guy trying to prove reverse racism wants to know why there’s no such thing as “White Entertainment Television,” I just tell him, “sure there is — it’s called Seinfeld!”
(Unless he’s in his mid 20’s, then I’ll go with either Jimmy Kimmel Live or Tosh.0. If he’s in this 30’s, I’ll say either Friends or Seinfeld. 40’s will get you Cheers, and the 50-and-older get either The Tonight Showm or if they’re from the Midwest, A Prairie Home Companion.)
The Seinfeld reference usually works best, especially since he was recently involved in his own racial imbroglio regarding diversity in comedy. But really, almost any era-specific megahit TV show will do, because, with a few exceptions, they all starred white males with few, if any, people of color in meaningful roles. (And no, the black sidekick, sassy girlfriend or wise negro do not count.)
Which brings me back to that iconic, already-classic sketch from Key & Peele’s incredible first season in 2012.
I still remember watching that sketch for the first time, of all places, on a city bus. It was super awkward, because I was trying not to laugh out loud, so I just ended up with my hand over my mouth, tears streaming down my face, doubled over in soul-shaking, OMG-I’m-about-to-pee-my-pants laughter.
Reading Dr. Cleveland’s post today reminded me of why that sketch is so uproariously funny.
What makes “Substitute Teacher” funny is white privilege.
See, the comedy comes from the absurdity of the premise.
It’s not just absurd that the teacher Mr. Garvey doesn’t know how to say names. It’s that he wouldn’t know how to say those names, common names for white people. And not only that, but that he would instead overlay his own linguistic cultural biases, built up from teaching for 20 years in the inner city, by reading those names with black phonetic naming patterns. And not only that, but it’s absurd that he would do all of this unintentionally, oblivious to his bias, and then when the students attempt to correct him by telling him how to pronounce their own names — he lashes out at them. They get in trouble with him, not vice versa.
Why is all of this absurd? Because these kids are white. And so is their teacher’s supervisor, Principal O’Shaughnessy. They are unaccustomed to having their cultural lenses challenged at all, much less challenged with such vitriol. You can see it in their faces, they’re more shocked and bewildered than angry.
If you took the same premise and instead made the students black and the teacher white, it wouldn’t play as comedy. It would look sad, perhaps cruel even. Like an unauthorized security video of a Teach for America corps member getting hangry and losing it.
If this sketch had been written for BuzzFeed or Upworthy instead of Comedy Central, it would’ve been called, “What It Would Look Like If White Kids Faced The Kind of $#!+ Black Kids Deal With All the Time.”
Having grown up with an ethnic name like Jelani, I know how special it feels when people honor you by making an effort to pronounce your name correctly. For me, what made it so special was how freaking rare it was. In my school years, my name was continually botched and butchered every which way. And even though there were days — oh, so many days — when I wished I had a normal name like Pete or Joe or Dave, I recognize now as an adult the cultural and ethnic significance of my name. Not only does it stand for might and power, but it represented for my parents, like so many African-Americans, an opportunity reclaim a sense of agency and identity through the selection of a distinctive African name.
The need for agency and identity may be universal, but it’s traditionally been sorely lacking for African-Americans, an overwhelming majority of whom either lived through or descended from those who lived through systems of brutal oppression and disenfranchisement, designed to obliterate any and all agency, identity, or power.
If racism is America’s original sin, its iniquity is still visited upon its descendants. And its effects can still be observed in everyday, seemingly banal interactions — like how a substitute teacher might interact with his students.
So if you’ve enjoyed that video, if you’ve laughed at Keegan-Michael Key and his vast arsenal of mispronunciation, I’m begging you — please take a moment to reflect on its deeper implications. Imagine what it might feel like to be on the receiving end of that kind of misguided anger and retaliation because your racial, ethnic or cultural identity is not the dominant authority. And then consider that there are millions of students for whom that thought exercise is an every day reality.
Because once you get past the laughs, a startling picture remains.
You done messed up, America.
So what are you gonna do about it?