Charles Ramsey – the man who helped save the 3 missing Cleveland women thought to be dead – is now becoming an Internet sensation because of the man’s interviews. As Slate‘s Aisha Harris points out,
“The interviews he gave yesterday provide plenty of fodder for a viral video, including memorable soundbites (‘I was eatin’ my McDonald’s’) and lots of enthusiastic gestures. But as Miles Klee and Connor Simpson have noted, Ramsey’s heroism is quickly being overshadowed by the public’s desire to laugh at and autotune his story, and that’s a shame. Ramsey has become the latest in a fairly recent trend of ‘hilarious’ black neighbors, unwitting Internet celebrities whose appeal seems rooted in a ‘colorful’ style that is always immediately recognizable as poor or working-class.”
Many will recognize what Harris is talking about – the idea that the news media will interview someone who doesn’t ascribe to standard, mainstream English, or who will express him/herself with vivid language that is often laced with dialect or local slang. Unfortunately, Ramsey’s interviews – very powerful not only because of the dramatic story, but also because of how visceral his feelings of outrage over the horrible situation the three women suffered – have been manipulated and mutilated, some have even Auto-Tuned Ramsey – to add yet another “colorful” black figure for us to mock and laugh at.
What is getting lost is not only Ramsey’s heroism, but also the classist and racist environment that allows for something like this to garner favor; we cannot be as post-racial as we think we are, if we enjoy seeing black people being made to look like fools – this is all the more egregious because a) Ramsey is a hero – though mocking any poor black person for being disenfranchised socially and economically is wrong and b) Ramsey is cognizant of the racial dynamic of this country, as evident with his statement, saying he knew “something was wrong when a little, pretty white girl ran into a black man’s arms. Something is wrong here. Dead giveaway.”
So to those Internet jokesters who think Ramsey is a good-natured simpleton, this last quote proves them wrong; instead, like most who live in a racially-stratisfied world, Ramsey knows and understands how race works in 21st century America. And there’s a poignancy to his devastatingly on-point comment, because even in Ramsey’s personal, private and sometimes-mundane world, racism rears its ugly and forces itself onto his consciousness.
Making black people look foolish has been sport for many for decades – even seemingly innocuous fare aimed at children like the old Our Gang shorts or early Shirley Temple vehicles made black people a source of comic mirth – the childish, inarticulate, emotional clown who’s good for a decent soundbite. One looks at great American film of the first half of the 20th century and can see this, too – most notably in Gone with the Wind, particularly with the character of Prissy (Butterfly McQueen), a jumble of nerves, who delivers her lines in an almost-brain dead-like soprano whine. Spike Lee took a blistering look at the nefarious practice of making blacks buffoons in his criminally underrated Bamboozled.
And unfortunately, Ramsey is included on the list of black people who are exploited by others, who want to get a cheap laugh at his expense.
So what can be done? Well, there are two things – one very simple and one very difficult. The difficult task first: challenge white male supremacy at every turn – even if it manifests itself as “just a joke.” Nothing is “just a…” Look at why someone is laughing at a racially-charged joke – what is the power structure and what is the context? School those around you when they think its okay to crack racist jokes, or to just assume black people are stupid; let them know that intelligence comes in many different forms, not just in pin-striped suit with a Yale or Harvard degree pinned to the lapel. You may look like a humorless scold, but so what? What would you rather be? A socially-conscious person who knows what’s right and wrong? Or do you want to be the life of the party and really popular among a group of racists?
The other task is easier – if someone on Facebook or Twitter posts some goofy video of Ramsey, making him look silly, don’t play it, and make a comment on the post, letting your friend know how you feel.