Eddie Murphy, Saturday Night Live and Race Relations

Eddie Murphy, Saturday Night Live and Race Relations January 15, 2020

Eddie Murphy is arguably the greatest product of Saturday Night Live. I think of all of the performers who have been on that show that he has had the most impactful career. A few weeks ago he made an appearance back on SNL. And of course he brought back “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood” which is obviously a spoof of the Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood show. The skit was not only funny, but I found it insightful for race relations.

You may want to take a few minutes to view the skit, but I will provide what was relevant to me if Murphy’s comedy is not your thing. In the skit Murphy’s Mr Robinson character is now in a gentrified neighborhood because of squatter’s rights. A white couple knocks at his door because a big screen television was supposed to be delivered to them, and it is missing. Mr. Robinson accuses them of being racists for suggesting that he stole it, and they quickly go away assuring him that they are anything but racists. The camera then swings around and you see their television on Mr. Robinson’s wall.

Comedy is often used to illustrate the unspoken norms of our society. Sometimes those norms are unspoken because we do not even think about them. Other times they are unspoken because there is stigma attached to speaking of them. I think the latter is true in this case. The skit reveals that some people of color will use “the race card” to shut down legitimate conversation and inquiry. That is the only way this joke works. It works because the audience knows that this kind of abuse of legitimate concerns of racism happens and so they can laugh at the obvious way the couple allowed a criminal to steal their television.

Put it this way. If the skit were about a white squatter and a black couple went looking for their TV would anyone find it funny? Or what if it were Jane Curtin who was doing a comeback appearance and playing a female squatter who accused two men of being sexist for asking about a television? That would not fit either. It fits only because most of us have seen in our lives people of color who use an accusation of racism to shut down whites, and this skit pokes fun at that reality.

We know that at times people of color do not allow for real conversations with whites. In the skit the conversation was a reasonable exploration in what happened to a couple’s television. They had a legitimate interest in finding out what happened to their purchase. In our larger society the conversation deals with issues such as identity politics, structural racism, the role of racial neutrality versus racial measures to combat racism, cultural appropriation, racial privilege and so much more. Whites have legitimate concerns that should be addressed in these conversations. Yet how many times have we tried to have those conversations only to be stopped with accusations of privilege or white fragility?

I have been an advocate of using productive interracial conversations as a pathway out of the racial alienation in our society. Without such conversations, I fear that we will continue our failure to move forward in a society where those of all races are respected. I have struggled to help both conservative whites and activist people of color see the value of these conversations. Both groups tend to dismiss alternate opinions and cannot envision what they can learn from those with whom they disagree. But to be honest I have had more problems convincing the activists of color to engage in the conversations than the conservative whites. I do not know why that is the case, and I have no systematic evidence to support this assertion, but my experience does substantiate that difference. It is easier for me to think of conservative whites I have convinced to have that conversation than progressive people of color.

But here is the thing. We all know that people of color at times misuse charges of racism to shut down conversations. Nobody wants to say that because they are afraid of being cancelled by the woke. But sweeping this fact under the rug does not help. We must bring this fact out into the open so that we can see the need to listen to others who differ from us on racial issues. Or it will manifest itself in other ways.

How can it manifest itself in other ways? What about President Trump? After years of identity politics being used against conservative whites, are we really surprised that they have used it to justify supporting their own version of racial politics? Be nice to talk to them about that and convince them that they should not do that, but in addition to the hypocrisy of talking to them but not other groups, the problem is that many progressive activists do not know how to talk to such whites. They have spent so much time legitimating not having to listen to them, that they have no clue what is truly motivating these whites. So much easier to paint them all as racist rather than investigate if there are real needs to be met and can we meet those needs in ways that further racial justice for everybody. That is hard work, and I fear that many of the woke crowd do not want to do that work.

None of this is to excuse some of the Trump supporters who continue to deny the harm that man is doing to race relations in our society. Every foul race baiting word he utters makes bringing people together that much harder. The willingness of some of those supporters to deny the obvious effects of his callous approach to racial minorities is a source of frustration and I suspect tied to their adoption of identity politics. People from all races and from different parts of the political spectrum are going to have to enter this conversation if we are going to move away from the racial alienation that continues to plague us.

So my challenge is simple but difficult. Learn to listen to the concerns of those with whom you disagree. Learn to phrase their arguments in ways they will recognize. Then consider whether there are solutions that can address their concerns as well as yours. Only then we will press towards solutions that bring us together rather than tear us apart.

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