My Shizzle: Gone Fazizzle?

If you’ve watched television at any point during the past ninety days, you’ve probably seen the latest ads from Old Navy, a brand that dispenses irony like VH1 serves up nostalgia: cheap, shameless, and unfiltered. In a commercial I cannot for the life of me get out of my head, a waxy Fran Drescher brays, “My shizzle’s gone fazizzle.” She enunciates these words in a way that suggests she’d like very much to be told what the hell “shizzle” and “fazizzle” mean. Needless to say, she’s not the only one.

Lil’ Kim is featured in another Old Navy ad that offers a race-reversed variation. In it, L’il Kim wears the sort of outfit a prep-school girl might pack for a trip to Killington with Muffy and Biff.

Outside the world of inexpensive clothing manufactured by impoverished Asian children, Jerry Stiller stars in an advertisement for the latest Satanic incarnation of America Online. Stiller appears unannounced in the home of a middle-class couple who, like the rest of humanity, feel only contempt and hatred for the AOL discs sent to them on an hourly basis. They’re so turned off by AOL, in fact, that they’ve constructed an elaborate fish sculpture out of the discs. This is upsetting to AOL pitchman Stiller. He suggests that they complete their sculpture with a Snoop Dogg CD. This prompts the arrival of a visibly enraged Mr. Dogg, who admonishes the couple to “wait just one minizzle.”

These campaigns at once highlight and satirize the state of race relations in the U.S. They’re funny, one supposes, precisely because they offer such improbable juxtapositions: Fran Drescher and black slang, Lil’ Kim and tweedy ski wear, and Snoop Dogg mixing it up with George Costanza’s dad. These ads are part of a wave of humor based on the lazy melding of black culture with white idiocy. In Bringing Down the House, one of the year’s most popular films, a far-too-enthusiastic Steve Martin adopts a ghetto-fabulous wardrobe and spouts horribly dated Ebonics in an attempt to help real-life raptor and costar Queen Latifah. In Malibu’s Most Wanted, Jamie Kennedy plays a Wafrican-American (White African-American) who doesn’t let his privileged background or white skin get in the way of behaving like a particularly sorry would-be member of Master P’s No Limit army. On HBO’s hilarious Da Ali G Show, a white Brit named Sacha Baron Cohen adopts the comic persona of a clueless Indian who desperately wants to be taken seriously as a B-boy.
There are countless other characters whose humor is predicated on the contrast between their white skin and their black behavior. The feebleminded “wigger” is by now a stock comic character, the walking embodiment of the culture-clash school of comedy.

From an entertainment point of view, it’s easy to see why the wigger is a popular character. It’s an easy gag, one so embedded into our nation’s background that it’s almost a part of our mythology. Why did the chicken cross the road? We still ask that question not because it’s a hilarious joke, but because it’s part of American folklore. Similarly, a movie need only introduce a white character kicking it street-style to win an unearned laugh of recognition.

“Wigger” became vogue shorthand to label white kids who behave in ways considered black. The word gives a good indication of the low esteem in which these characters are held. People who wouldn’t be caught dead using the word “nigger” seem to have no such hang-up about using the word “wigger,” even though it’s nothing more than a contraction of “white nigger.” (Some have argued that blacks themselves coined the word not only as a contraction, but to label someone who had “wigged out” about his or her racial identity. This punning is itself an example of how wonderful authentic black street talk can be.)

White comics who act black usually emulate a particularly debased, broad caricature of black behavior. This sort of comedian is a descendent of the minstrel performer of yore, the clown who earned his daily bread reassuring racist whites that all the negative stereotypes about blacks were true.
The main difference between the minstrel-show performer and the Wafrican-American comic of today is that the latter’s buffoonish behavior is supposed to reflect negatively on whites rather than blacks. He functions as a supposedly self-deprecating white person, the message being “Don’t white folks look ridiculous when we try to emulate cool, black culture?”

But just how incongruous is the Wafrican-American? Black popular culture is increasingly becoming American pop culture, to the point where the two are pretty much one and the same. In practice, plenty of white kids grow up listening exclusively to rap and R&B. Doesn’t it make sense that they’d pick up the affectations of their black heroes? After all, kids are nothing if not impressionable. As the U.S. becomes an increasingly multiracial place, the Wafrican-American caricature continues to suggest the regressive idea that black is black and white is white and never the twain shall meet. (Kids, of course, are smarter than that.)

This is particularly ironic considering that the most controversial, influential, and admired pop star in the world is Eminem, a white rapper whose unironic embrace of black culture is widely and correctly attributed to his natural affinity and deep reverence for it, rather than self-hatred or the delusion that he’s a black man stuck in a white man’s body.

The Wafrican-American stock character isn’t likely to die out any time soon. But there are small signs that artists are increasingly recognizing the complicated and ambiguous state of race relations. One of the many subtle touches in Barbershop, for example, was a white character whose mimicry of black culture is depicted as a natural admiration and respect for black culture, rather than a pathetic attempt to be something he’s not. Eminem’s character in his autobiographical movie 8 Mile was depicted this way too.

Unfortunately, characters like that are still exceptional. But artists in the future would be wise to acknowledge that the boundaries between black and white culture are increasingly fluid and ambiguous—a fact of life refuted by the very existence of the comic Wafrican-American.