Dear White People: Reality TV Is the New Blackface

Have you seen Justin Simien’s acclaimed racial satire Dear White People in theaters, and has it left you in the mood for even more sorely needed truth bombs? You’re in luck, because Simien has written a companion book by the same name, and it’s chock full of provocative essays and clever charts and graphs. Below, check out a Vulture-exclusive chapter from Dear White People that will have you looking at all your favorite guilty-pleasure reality shows in a very different way.

ONCE UPON A TIME, white America’s primary introduction to black people came in the form of the Minstrel Show. Stock characters, often played by white people, such as the Mammy, Zip Coon, and, of course, Jim Crow popularized through entertainment the idea that black people were lazy, ignorant, overly emotional, unsophisticated, and intellectually bereft. These ideas about black people are still being popularized today in entertainment thanks to white television executives (and, to be fair, some black ones too). Though the catchphrases have gone from “Who dat?” to “Who gon’ check me, boo?,” reality TV has kept the stereotypes tap-dancing along and made them more popular than ever!

Did you know that text-message exchanges between millennials today are comprised almost entirely of animated GIFs of NeNe Leakes rolling her eyes and Omarosa throwing shade? Yes, the stereotype of the “black bitch” has become its own language for some, thanks to a combination of basic cable television programming and general illiteracy among said millennials. To be honest, this entire book has been translated to me from an original manuscript constructed mostly with GIFs of Prince winking and that lemur with the super-big eyes.

What’s particularly disturbing about this, implications of our collapsing educational system notwithstanding, is that stereotypes from the slack-jawed, no-good black male to the sexually promiscuous, foul-mouthed black woman are so ubiquitous, groups of people in the country assume that this is how all black people really behave. Now the confused, shuffling Mammies and flamboyant, vapid Zip Coons of yesteryear are actually real people, competing for Donald Trump’s affection and/or that of each other’s man. I use the term “real people” loosely. The truth is that people in reality shows are cast, crafted, and coached by a staff of executives and writers to attract the biggest audience possible. They are filmed and then re-filmed, with bits of dialogue added to attain maximum absurdity. They are then edited and beamed to millions, validating the worst stereotypes of black folks for people whose contact with actual black people is limited. And boy, are they fun!

Of course, the same thing is happening with Italians from Jersey, Shahs that live on Sunset, women in general, white people hunting for gator in the swamp, and any other group of people willing to cash in on the stereotypes of their niche culture. The thing is, with black folks in particular, the spectrum of representation is already terribly limited. The Olivia Pope character on Scandal simply cannot wash away the impressions of all the shucking and jiving happening between black people on reality TV. And no, Honey Boo Boo does not make up for it. I imagine this problem is even worse for Persians. Or swamp dwellers, for that matter. But I leave it to them to write their own books.

The worst part about this whole thing? I watch it. And so do my black friends! The Real Housewives of Atlanta! I was in the front row for Kandi’s wedding! I watched every spin-off they made for Flavor of Love’s “New York,” Tiffany Pollard. I Love New York? Me too! New York Goes to Work — sign me up for overtime! I am part of the problem. This chapter is my penance! Of course I feel bad about it, but deep down I know it’s all fake. Like professional wrestling. There are a lot of people out there, though, who don’t know it’s not real.  Somehow bad improv and staged fighting shot with minimal production value got called “reality” before becoming an American phenomenon.

Talk and televised court shows are also partly to blame for this. America’s obsession with paternity tests between people who should not be allowed to procreate for any reason regardless of their race reached a fever pitch in the ‘90s and early 2000s before becoming a precursor for the kinds of reality TV we know and love today. And most of the men sweating out the revelation of the results, ready to cuss their ex-girlfriends out for putting them on the spot or run offstage and evade responsibility, were black men. Babies having babies (not to mention going on national television to prove whose babies they were), indeed.

Stereotypes are dangerous, because sometimes they’re true. And it’s easy to focus on some examples of behavior and draw assumptions about an entire group. This is an issue not only because it’s often the way some white people learn about black people, but also because it’s the way some black people learn about themselves. Entire generations of young black girls are now growing up modeling their lives after vicious stereotypes in the hopes that they can take a shortcut to fame by being picked for Bad Girls Club or by mounting a ridiculous lawsuit on Judge Judy.

One of the fun things, I assume, about being white is that there are so many varying examples of behavior attributed to white people in the media. It must be a bit easier to walk through life without dodging as many presumptions. Sure, there are white people who appear in their share of trashy television, but that accounts for just a percentage of the overall, mostly positive, images of white folks in the media. For black folks the variety of images adds up to a pretty short stack. Partly because television executives are checking Facebook super busy and are afraid of losing their jobs under a lot of pressure. While there may be a desire to expand the representation of the African diaspora, deep in the heart of this hypothetical TV exec, it’s a lot easier just to go with another show about a semi-famous rapper who has a bevy of loud and crazy girlfriends. Or a house filled with alcoholics, the alcohol that’s slowly killing them, and a couple of black women who are either “not there to make friends” or who will “cut a bitch.”

Whether the focus is housewives or hoarders, we have blissfully confused entertainment for information. Shaky zooms and bad lighting be damned, odds are if it’s on TV, whether in the form of news or reality, its primary purpose is to get you to watch long enough to be marketed laundry detergent and soda, not necessarily to paint a wholly accurate picture. With that in mind, here is a guide that will help you decode the ways in which old minstrel characters have evolved into popular reality TV go-to archetypes. We both know you can’t stop watching, but at least now you will know why you feel so bad about it!

From Dear White People by Justin Simien. Copyright 2014 by Justin Simien. Reprinted by permission of 37 Ink/Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Available wherever books are sold.

Why Reality TV Is the New Blackface