‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ and Everyday Verbal Blackface
Here’s a message for my White brothers and sisters. Gather ’round the figurative community circle.
Recently, watching the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reunion, I thought back to the eight-year-old me who got a chance to see hip-hop on primetime TV in the ’90s. Fresh Prince might have shared the same network as The Cosby Show, but it wasn’t like its predecessor at all. (One can even make the argument that Fresh Prince was better, but I digress.) As I reflected on the show’s early episodes, I realized, sadly, how the show’s depiction of Will’s experience was a case of art imitating life.
Will stood out at the Bel-Air Academy not because of his brown skin, but because of his hip-hop-infused personality. Even his fashion cues came from the culture; he wore his hat backward and his blazer inside out. Bel-Air Academy was already a peak onscreen White institutional space — Will was threatened with expulsion when he wrote his name on a desk, even though it was already tagged by White men who had attended the school. So much of the White faculty thought Will an unruly class clown.
With every use of “bye, Felicia,” “woke,” “you feel me,” “lit,” or any other Black cultural colloquialism you inject unnecessarily into a conversation with a Black person, you tell on yourself.
One teacher, Mr. Fellows (played by Jonathan Emerson), tried to identify with Will; the problem was he did so by regurgitating Black sayings in unnecessary and quite honestly offensive ways. In an attempt to look cool, express solidarity, and present himself as an ally, he tried to sound and act in a way that his White lens told him meant “Black.”
I’m sure that the writers room didn’t intend for Mr. Fellows to cause any harm with his outdated slang. The character probably thought he was doing Will a favor. I remember thinking it was cool at the time, while others believed it was harmful.
Sadly, some of you do the same thing as Mr. Fellows — appropriate Black slang and fetishize Black culture. With every use of “bye, Felicia,” “woke,” “you feel me,” “lit,” or any other Black cultural colloquialism you inject unnecessarily into a conversation with a Black person, you tell on yourself.
When it comes to folks like Will’s teacher, know that I’ve worked with some of you in real life. I’ve watched you in classrooms speaking to Black children like this and labeling it “cultural competency.” Since returning to work after quarantine, a colleague greets me each day after my temperature check with a “WUZ UP?” when a simple “good morning” would do.
White people who genuinely engage with Black people don’t speak to us that way. To my White brothers and sisters who are with me, I appreciate you.
I question those of you who go out of your way to sound “Black.” Most times, you aren’t looking to establish a relationship — and that’s fine. But there are those cool with performing Blackface to feign solidarity rather than engage in the real work. Whatever your intention, verbal Blackface is never okay. And I am not your “phone a Black friend” friend.
As a Black professional, I am offended that you fail to place the same emphasis and expediency on confronting the injustice of White institutional spaces as you do with flooding me with verbal Blackface. Valuing me means challenging that institution to shed itself completely of its Whiteness — in policies, hiring practices, organizational norms, and priorities. It’s not slang that makes me feel comfortable and safe; it’s working in an environment where I am valued and respected.
If you’re serious about doing the work of an ally, learn to understand cultural appropriation, whether mainstreaming language used by marginalized communities for mockery, corporate marketing, or both. Take a look around your workplace; see who’s in power to influence institutional policy. Why isn’t your workplace as colorful? Why do specific departments have more color than others?
Bring these matters to your colleagues’ attention and to those who can do something about it. Maybe you are someone in charge. If so, do something about it.
Being an ally isn’t about performing for an audience. It’s about walking it like you talk it. It’s about living a life dedicated to existing in solidarity with Black people and other historically oppressed groups, about speaking truth to power and unearthing justice wherever it is buried.
When you see me or any Black person in the workplace on our way to start our day, a simple hello will suffice — unless you’re trying to meet the right one, nahmean?