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Is There a Funny Side of Racism?

Date: Mar 12, 2013


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If advertisers convince us to buy their products---and we like the products we buy---then does it matter how they get our attention? If they think about us as blunt demographics, as "white" and "black" and "Asian," does it hurt us? Those questions drive "Honky," Greg Kalleres' new comedy about the color-coded world of advertising. Now at Urban Stages, the show follows everything from the intentionally violent marketing of basketball sneakers to the campaign for a pill that cures racism.
Kalleres knows what he's writing about. He has years of experience in advertising, and in the following essay, he recalls how he found humor in a painfully awkward conversation about the "right number " of minorities in a commercial. 
For about five years I worked as a copywriter in an advertising agency. Outside the boardroom, race was rarely discussed. Not because people didn't think about it, but because, like most people, myself included, people didn't want to say the wrong thing.
Inside the boardroom, things were different. What might be considered a "stereotype" was suddenly referred to as a "demographic." Which ethnic group was buying what? Where did they live, and how much could they afford? Did they drink a lot of beer?
Advertisers are in the business of stereotypes. They count on them. They pay other companies to find more of them. In the world of marketing, it's not racism: It's common sense supported by a pie chart. Therefore, a topic otherwise avoided is encouraged in the boardroom under a protective shroud of professionalism. The result is an artificial comfort with an uncomfortable subject, often yielding some unintentionally humorous and enlightening conversations.
One time my colleagues and I were discussing a commercial with our client, who was promoting a sporting event that was primarily enjoyed by white people. Our job was to get more people to watch, no matter what color they were.
In the room were myself, the art director, our producer, our account manager, and four clients, one of whom was black. (The ratio of blacks to whites was basically commensurate with the industry in general.)
"Now, we're going to need to up the number of African-Americans in this first spot," one of the clients said.
"African-Americans aren't big fans," one of us replied. "How many African-Americans could we put in the commercial without making it feel forced?"
He responded calmly: "Can we put three of them in the background?"
"Sure," one of us said.
Another client added, "What about Asians? Because actually, we've found that more Asians watch than African-Americans."
"So, more Asians than African-Americans? " one of us asked.
"1.5 each, if we can swing it?" one of them joked. We all chuckled, for no reason we could account for. Then one of them added, "Maybe we make it a couple. An Asian woman and a black man?"
Here you'll notice the switch from the term, "African-American" to more casual "black." This often happens when a white person has said the former a few times and feels like he or she is trying too hard to be PC.
"No, no" one of them protested. "An Asian woman and a black man together?! Feels like a social statement." Another added: "Plus, they cancel each other out; demographically speaking." Their boss then declared, "We don't want this to be the United Colors of Benetton spot either. It's a white sport. It should feel authentic. Let's make it two blacks and one Asian."
Another added, "And maybe put one of the black actors farther back, so it's not so in your face, like: 'Look, blacks like it too!'"
Then someone said, "What about two two blacks and two Asians, but the Asians are together, like as a couple? You know, in the background? From a distance it might look like one large Asian."
While this was going on, our account supervisor recorded the minutes. It was clear, sitting next to the one black client, whom she knew very well, that she was uncomfortable. "Okay, so. In total, so far, we have 11 whites---Caucasians---and two black African-Americans, er, African-Americans," she stammered. "And we'll have two Asians, but the Asians will be a couple. Does it matter what kind of Asians?"
Everyone laughed at this, for no reason they could account for. "We don't need that many Asians," a client responded. "But we don't want too many blacks either. We should fill the gap somehow."
And then it happened. A young marketing executive had a brilliant notion. His eyes lit up. He was about to get promoted: "What about a mulatto!?" he shouted. "That way it's like two birds with one stone!"
The room went quiet, as everyone turned to the one non-white person in the room for guidance. Possibly forgiveness. Unfortunately, he looked more uncomfortable than we did. As if he felt guilty for our guilt. And then we felt guilty for his guilt, for our guilt. No one looked at anyone. There was a mulatto elephant in the room.
Finally, the boss spoke up, half chucking, "I don't think you can say that, uh, word." The young executive shot back, confidently, "What? Mulatto? You totally can! Right??" He looked at his black colleague, who giggled uncomfortably, and then stopped when he realized he was serious. "Well, I don't think it's… politically correct…" one of his co-workers said.
"It means half black, half white," he protested, less confident now.
"We know what it means" the boss said, "It's just… "
Finally, the black executive put us all out of our misery by moving on: "Let's go with the two Asians as a couple in the background." Quietly and gratefully, we exhaled.
I have tried to understand exactly what made this conversation funny, instead of merely offensive. Why the subject of race---and especially white guilt---is such great material for humor. I realized it's not just that race is taboo, because frankly it's not. What's funny is the attempt to appear comfortable when you are clearly not. It's like trying to casually play football with a live grenade. Sure, white people might discuss race in a room full of white people, and blacks in a room of blacks, and Asians with Asians (provided they're the same kind of Asian), but ultimately we are a racially repressed country. And the manifestation of this repression can be very funny to watch. In a painful sort of way.
The conceit of Honky, at least one of them, is that there is a pill on the market that claims to end racism. While writing the play, I realized that it wasn't the pill that had to be effective, but merely the implication. The word "racism" has more power over people than almost any pill on the market. It's what keeps the grenade in the air. The fear of that word is one of the engines of the play. If you take the pill, then you might have to admit you're a racist, but you're also buying immunity from any future accusation. In other words, you've turned the grenade back into a football. Expanded the protective shroud of professionalism to outside-of the-boardroom. You're free to talk about race whenever you want. And that's when things get really funny.
Photo by Ben Hider