Levels of Blackness

12:07 PM

I absolutely love the show Key & Peele. Like, seriously.

For those of you who don't know what that is (which you should), it's a sketch comedy show that stars Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, two biracial men, who are just hilarious. Lots of people have seen clips of their sketches on YouTube, but if you actually watch their show on Comedy Central (Wednesdays at 10:30/9:30 C), they do live banter that's filmed in front of an audience in between the sketches. The banter is just as good as the sketches, so if you aren't watching it on television, you're missing out!

As an avid fan of their show, I've watched several of their interviews, I went way back and watched a ton of MADtv clips they were in (two words: Coach Hines), I follow them on social media, and I've even had the pleasure of chatting with them once or twice on Twitter (this one being my favorite lol), which was so awesome. If you don't get the character I'm referencing in my tweet, check out this clip. I dressed as the twin sister of the main character "Wendell" whom I dubbed "Wendellyn" for Halloween. It was amusing.

Aside from them being hilarious, it's worth noting that they are in such a unique position as comedians. I think comedians tend to joke about race in general, but I'm not sure that I've seen many transcend racial boundaries in the same way that Mr. Key and Mr. Peele do in their show. They seem to be very comfortable exploring themes of race. They've been able to portray different ethnicities (as is evidenced by the Wendell clip above), while also probing the depths of "blackness." For example, perhaps one of my favorite clips that analyzes the expectations of how you should carry yourself as a black man is this one:


It's amazing to me how they evaluate different levels of blackness in just 48 seconds. This is what makes their comedy so awesome. It goes beyond just being humorous; it actually contemplates societal issues and normative behaviors (in a sometimes exaggerated way lol). Which brings me to the point of this blog post: levels of blackness.

On their show, they've mentioned they often have to "adjust their level of blackness" depending on who they're with. One of my favorite times they've talked about this is in this interview, which I enjoy because the interviewer brings out the humor of this idea when he asks them "what level of black" they were in that moment. Keegan & Jordan of course go on to make it even more hilarious. But, upon reading the comments from that interview, it appeared to me that some viewers were attributing the "adjustment" to them being biracial. And after chatting with some of my colleagues about the show, it got me to thinking..."adjusting your level of blackness" is a real sociological phenomenon.

I think Keegan & Jordan are absolutely right. When you are a minority, in order to penetrate the dominant culture, I feel that it's a constant game of adjusting how "ethnic" you are in any given moment. And in our society, you have to participate in mainstream culture. Whether we like it or not, even if you're protesting against it or attempting some form of pluralism or assimilation, you're still engaging in a central dialogue. And through that engagement, you are a participant.

I've had experience with this myself, as I mentioned, through simple, non-racialized conversations with my colleagues. For example, I remember talking with one of them (who happens to be named A-Aron...if you got the joke, you are my friend lol) a couple of weeks ago and saying, "I'm really glad we're closer now so I can show you my black side." Now, as you all know, I study French history. I'm one of very few African Americans who do so. Because of that, I'm keenly aware of my blackness when I'm with other Europeanists or historians in general. I addressed this in another post. But when I said this, A-Aron replied, "Really? So...what 'Pam' have you been hiding?" That question really struck me. It's not that I've been hiding per se. Instead, I would posit that in my experience, I have been seen as the example for my race in many instances where I've been the only black person in the room at a history conference, in a class, in a restaurant, or whatever. When it becomes painfully obvious that you are "different," you feel the weight of representation. You are put on display as an exhibit that encompasses the entire African American race. And in those situations, I have felt the need to be overly articulate, overly graceful, overly respectful. (Side note: I actually had a guy say to me one time, "You're great...if all black people were like you, I'd love 'em a lot more." Needless to say, me and that guy don't talk anymore.)

Also, I must say that I don't believe it stops at "blackness." I think it applies to all minorities. That title in and of itself implies a sort of "apart-ness," which makes you cognizant of the fact that you are an "other." And if you are an "other," then there must be some sort of authority that lies at the opposite end of the spectrum. Hence, the majority, the dominant culture. And that culture often may objectify or exoticize your "other-ness."

Now, I'm not arguing that we should leave it at that or accept "othering." That's ridiculous. But I am saying that Key & Peele are making a very valid point about what it means to be a minority in America. Adjusting your level of ethnicity is an actuality for people who are on the periphery of dominance.

I'll stop there because I don't want to make this post too much longer, but please share your thoughts. If you want to see some more really popular Key & Peele sketches, I'd recommend the substitute teacher, Obama's anger translator, or one of my personal favorites, this ultimate fighting match promo.

I'd like to leave you with one of my all-time favorite Key & Peele sketches. This has nothing to do with race, but it's just one of those clips that makes me cry from laughing so hard lol. Enjoy!



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I'm sure there are plenty of sociological studies that discuss "othering" but, since I'm a historian, I don't know those sources lol. The works that I would recommend if you're interested in this historiography would be Edward Said's "Orientalism" or Tim Mitchell's "Colonising Egypt." The former will most likely be the better option for you because it takes more of a sociological approach whereas with Mitchell, outside of the first chapter, you may get lost if you have no background in African history. You've been warned lol.

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6 comments

  1. Beautiful blog post Pam! I love how you articulately talk about the "adjustment" that happens, especially when you are one of the only African-Americans in a predominant white setting. Even though you didn't sign up to represent "all black people" in that moment, you know that you do and you are being watched. I'd love to hear your thoughts on a topic I know we've discussed before - and that is the idea of "acting white." You're correct that, in America, we have to participate in mainstream culture - so, what happens when the minorities reinforce the dominant culture by boxing in members of their own race, saying things like "you act like a white girl/guy" or "your not being [insert ethnicity] enough."

    I also think Key & Peele are hilarious!

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    1. Yes, don't E V E N get me started on the "acting white" thing. That's plagued me my entire life. That sort of 'boxing in' is especially unfortunate because it affirms the dominant culture while also separating you from the periphery. So, you're somewhere in between, isolated from both your own cultural group AND from the dominant group. It sucks for real

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  2. I know Keegan in 'real life' and feel comforatable saying he's a better person than a comedian. Saying alot.

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    1. That's awesome!! Yeah, he seems like a wonderful person :)

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