That Viral Video You Keep Sharing Is Racist and Not Helping
With almost startling consistency, viral videos have proven to be indicators of how far we haven’t come in terms of racial progress. That’s only partly because many of the most viewed and shared videos of recent years have documented racialized tragedies and realities. We’re all familiar by now with bystander-captured footage of unarmed African Americans being shot by heavily armed white cops. And our news feeds frequently include “caught on tape!” scenes of racists hurling epithets they will later inevitably claim were “taken out of context.”
But there’s yet another variety of video that doesn’t document racism so much as use it as a punchline, a way to outrage, or a means to shock, and more generally, some combination of the three. I’m talking about “hood” and “prank” videos—which are easily searched on YouTube if you need examples—two genres that are often combined, to the Internet’s collective delight.
The latest example is titled “Brothers Bring the Hood to the ‘Burbs at Christmas—Prank!” It opens with the videomaker, a middle-aged white guy and apparent “YouTube prankster” named Tom Mabe, speaking directly into the camera to let us know he’s “bringing the ‘hood to the ‘burbs.” Cut to a group of young African-American men walking past a suburban subdivision named “The Estates of Saratoga Woods” just as—what else?—an ominous, low-budget, hip-hop beat drops. The camera pulls out to a wider shot as the men make their way on foot through the neighborhood’s rain-streaked streets. Over the next four minutes, the five guys approach two neat brick houses, knock on their doors, and are greeted by startled-looking white homeowners. In one case, a white woman opens the door just a crack before quickly slamming it shut.
And then, the group starts to harmonize a rendition of “Little Drummer Boy.”
This is the money shot, in viral video terms. The white homeowners suddenly beam and marvel. The black guys snap and croon. Ebony and ivory, this incredibly simplistic and offensive video seems to suggest, are living together in perfect harmony—if only for this moment.
There are several harmful, yet widely accepted, ideas necessary for this video to make sense, much less become the viral sensation it has. The YouTube description reads, “What happens when THUGS crash the whitest neighborhood in the city?” That spells out, for anyone who hadn’t put on their racist thinking cap, how to interpret what’s being shown here. The black men are “thugs,” not because of anything they did or will do in the video, but because they're black. They “crash”—a word that means to show up at a place where one is neither wanted or invited—an entire neighborhood just by daring to set foot in it. And by positioning the “whitest neighborhood”— and by extension, the good white people who occupy it—as the opposite of the black “thugs,” we’re meant to understand who the upstanding citizens are in this scenario.
Predictably, nothing in this video is accidental. I’d bet money these five guys didn’t decide to coordinate their outfits the day of shooting. More likely, they were instructed to don black hoodies, gold chains and Timberlands—because while those items of clothing tell us nothing about them, they play to white fears and stereotypes about blackness. There are closeups on the white homeowners as looks of relief spread across their faces when they hear the men break into song, the sign that they are here to entertain. And perhaps most disgustingly, there’s the moment about 35 seconds in, when one of the men reaches inside his jacket to pull out...a harmonica. Every single thing about the way that moment is depicted—shakily shot and played back in ultra slow-motion—is supposed to make us think he might have a gun. Because black people, you know?
“Looks can be deceiving” reads the text across the top of the video when it’s shared on Facebook, as it has been thousands of times. And every time I spot it, I have to be careful my eyes don’t roll so far back into my head that they spin out of their sockets and onto the floor. This is precisely the sort of video that goes viral because incredibly misguided people think they’re making some sort of anti-racist statement by sharing it. In fact, this video relies on, and propagates, some of the most deeply embedded racist notions in the collective American psyche.
Blackness is synonymous with the "hood,” a word we could just as easily switch out with “ghetto.” It's not a place or even an economic state, but an element of blackness itself. Black folks are scary, and black men in hoodies doubly so. To be black and enter a white space—which is every space in this country, except, of course, for "the 'hood"—is to insert yourself into a place you do not belong. When you do, white folks, the video suggests, will rightly be fearful of you. Yes, looks can be deceiving, I suppose, for someone who thinks every young black man in a hoodie is a potential threat. If you find that idea bullshit, then not so much.
Please stop sharing that dumb meme. The ideas at the core of the video are why Trayvon Martin could be profiled and viciously attacked in his father’s suburban neighborhood, and his murderer allowed to walk free. It rests on the same line of thinking that demands black college students repeatedly declare their right to learn in that most cherished of white spaces, America's colleges. It finds humor in the same basic denial of black humanity and personhood—and white fears of blackness—that are used to justify every white-on-black police shooting that is carried out with impunity. The stereotypes it re-presents are not innocuous and they are certainly not funny—not at a time when being black and asking for help, playing music, or entering your own apartment can put your life at risk. It's the same old racism as always. And as always, plenty of people are all too willing to co-sign it and pass it along.