Sunday, October 4, 2009

Smart Guy Is Not Racist


About a decade or so ago, I was a major fan of the WB sitcom Smart Guy. The premise involves a black family, the youngest son of which (T.J. Henderson) is a ten-year-old child prodigy in high school. While not the most finely-crafted show out there, Smart Guy was pretty entertaining and did make me think a little with its slightly controversial plotlines. So, I was surprised to read, on various locations on the net, criticism of the show for its perceived racism against white people. The show primarily depicts black characters, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the writers depicted them poorly, but white people? Really? I think this is an overblown reaction to say the least, and may be confusing racial with racist, an important distinction.
First of all, Smart Guy is set in Washington D.C., so it’s entirely reasonable that the cast is made up of a lot of black people and white people. Smart Guy is focused on the Hendersons, who are black. It makes sense that most of their friends would be black too, not because of racism against white people but because of natural human biases. Even this is offset by the inclusion of white characters such as Yvette’s friend Nina, and Marcus and Mo’s friend Mackey.
“Birds gotta swim, fish gotta fly, Mo L. Tbbs gotta get D’s.”
—Mo

One of the repeated claims is that Smart Guy portrays white people as stupid. Well, there are a lot of white characters who are stupid, yes. There are also black characters that are stupid, though, such as the very prominent Mo. Mo is a major example. He’s the classic dumb but lovable friend who gets all the laughs for saying ridiculous things. Mo is in every episode, and he’s in the spotlight.
Another black character that comes to mind is the minor but recurring Deon. While not exactly stupid, Deon is not portrayed positively at all. He’s mean, obnoxious, and creepy. He’s a bit smarter than Marcus and he uses his intellect to scam Marcus and Mo. He’s not a good guy.
The main white characters I can think of include Mackey, Nina, the basketball coach, and both high school principals (first there’s a female principal, and in later seasons there’s a male principal). They are all, for lack of a better term, goofy. It’s important to keep in mind, though, that these are peripheral characters on a sitcom. Most sitcom characters are goofy, especially those that aren’t the focus of episodes.
“Pretty fly for a white guy.”
–Yvette, ogling Mackey as he goes streaking

Mackey is the lamest of Marcus’ friends. He wants to be cool like his friends, but he just doesn’t quite get it. His voice is flat, he can’t understand social trends, and his efforts to emulate popular kids often fail hilariously. He’s white too, and sometimes jokes are based around his attempts to fit into black culture. The humor here isn’t about putting down white guys, but rather white guys who attempt to adopt black culture simply because it’s the trendy thing, as well as just typical nerd humor.
Nina is one of Yvette’s female friends. She’s a little shallow but also emotional, making her believable as Yvette’s friend. She’s a little weird, but that just makes her interesting to watch.
Coach Gerber is, well, nuts. He’s a middle-aged tax-evading angry basketball coach/math teacher with marital problems who ends up living in his office. His pep talk in episode “Below the Rim” degrades into a rant about losing his hair and other stuff unrelated to the game. He’s funny because he’s a crazy teacher, something that has nothing to do with his skin color.
The principals are funny really because they’re caricatures of high school principals. The first one is lazy and falls for one of T.J.’s claims simply because she doesn’t want to do any work. The second one tries to relate to kids and doesn’t manage it, often babbling about stuff no one is interested in. Like the coach, they’re funny because the show makes fun of high school authority figures. That’s it.
So, yeah, all these goofy characters are white, but they’re peripheral characters. It’s in the nature of a sitcom to have goofy characters, though, and there’s usually no point in giving dramatic roles to characters other than the main protagonists. Mo, while sometimes dramatic, is most often a clown. It seems like the only reason the critics would focus on the more minor white characters is because of the kind of bias that would cause them to identify more heavily with the white characters than the black characters (it seems a reasonable assumption that these people claiming the show is racist are white).
Race is a popular subject in our culture. As a result, sometimes Smart Guy’s dialog explicitly references race, sometimes in a humorous way. I would think this could be one of the main ways that racism on the part of the writers could be perceived. It’s been years since I’ve really watched the show (I catch the odd rerun on BET), but I’ll discuss what examples I can remember.
In one episode, Marcus and his dad Floyd are talking about rich white guys paying tons of money to do crazy thrill-seeking activities like being lowered into the water in shark cages. One of them says that black people wouldn’t do that but would happily lower down the white guys. Okay, this is racial in nature, but is at its heart about not being crazy enough to swim with great white sharks. It’s no secret that black people were disadvantaged by white people, and that currently there is a disparity where rich people are more likely to be white than black. There is resentment in this statement that derives from racial inequality, but it’s really about how it’s crazy to spend a lot of money to do something stupid like swim with sharks. I can understand how one could interpret it as racist, but I think that’s the wrong way to take it.
In the episode “Working Guy”, T.J. gets a job with a large electronics company working on a cool new product called the DVD, sure to be big someday. While he’s getting situated in his new office, T.J. has to deal with Marcus poking around. T.J. explains to his new coworker, an old white guy, that Marcus is his brother.
“Oh, I get it – it’s a black thing,” the guy exclaims. He raises his fist. “Righteous!”
“No, he’s my actual brother,” T.J. has to explain. “Same house, same parents… similar genetic coding.” He gives Marcus a good-natured smile.
Once again, there is definitely race involved here. There is the element of a white character not really understanding a black character because of the former’s assumption based on a limited understanding of black culture. There’s also the element of an unhip older guy trying and failing to relate to a kid. Then there’s T.J.’s snark about his brother not being as intelligent as he is. The exchange has a definite racial element, but it’s not racist.
In the episode “It Takes Two”, T.J. writes a threatening stern email to the president, and Yvette convinces him that the feds will be after him, prompting Enemy of the State parodies. At one point, T.J. is convinced the living room is bugged and he loudly proclaims his (and his family’s) love for the government, only to have Floyd come in and start ranting about the government being a bunch of idiots.
“Aw, dad, great impression of an angry black man,” T.J. covers, while Floyd looks confused.
This references the government being predominantly white, as well as the angry black man/woman stereotype. The purpose of any government is to control its people, and it would naturally be inclined to think poorly of subversive individuals. T.J. is afraid the government thinks he’s planning to bomb something, so he’s trying to paint himself and his family as patriotic and not subversive in the least. His line implies he believes the government is racist to some degree, which I would agree with – racial profiling ring any bells? So, he’s referencing racism that exists and is known to exist, but he is not being racist.
In conclusion, I find the claim that Smart Guy is racist against white people to be erroneous. As a society, we are very tense about racial issues, so when race is being discussed openly we tend to jump the gun a little on whether or not the material is racist, which is very different from simply racial in nature. The sitcom centers on black people and leaves white people to secondary roles that on a sitcom tend to be clownish in nature, but it is not true that black characters are only ever depicted in a positive light. If the critics have trouble with this dynamic, I might point out that most sitcoms on TV are the other way around. Smart Guy is only more visible because it subverts the status quo, and because white characters that are usually primary instead appear as secondary it seems like white people are treated particularly poorly. Either this dynamic is racist or it isn’t. It may not be perfect, but it is certainly not racist in the way claimed by the people I’m addressing.

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