Popular White American talk show host Ellen DeGeneres' recent meme depicting herself piggyback riding on the back of African Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt provoked a big controversy on social media.
Given the record speed of the world's fastest man, and the historic stamp Bolt has made in track and field, the image is fairly self-explanatory, and comedic. However, considering the fact that America is built on white supremacist ideologies, it is very difficult for those who are fully aware of the history of the exploitation of Black labour in the Americas to simply take this meme with a smile.
In response to a controversial Chinese detergent advertisement, I discussed the origins of racist concepts that can be tied to some of the most racist advertisements that have been used to portray Black people. As such, I noted that "Racist images of Black people presented in advertisements are consistent with the social perceptions that have been ingrained within our imagination via popular culture and the mass media."
Similarly, DeGeneres' imposing herself on the back of a Black man as if he is her personal beast of burden is not different from those adverts that are often passed off as harmless (or in this instance comedy). However, it carries deep racist and inflammatory undertones.
Exploited, enslaved Black labour is the economic foundation of the Americas. In plantation society, Black labour was likened to mules and it did not only involve toiling under the hot scourging sun in the fields or in the confines of the master's home. Black labour also involved the literal riding on the backs of enslaved Africans. For amusement, white children would also piggyback ride on Black youngsters.
It is not surprising that Ellen's fans came out to defend her use of this meme and virtually ignored any conversation around its racist undercurrent. Some of DeGeneres' apologists pointed to her efforts to include diverse guests into her weekly talk show and her being vocal against discrimination.
For example, Comedian Steve Harvey stated:
"I don't think there's a stick of racism in her body. Now, I see where people are trying to go with this, but in her case, don't do that. 'Cause that ain't even how she thinks. She cares on so many levels on so many things, and if she'd have thought for one moment that that's what anybody would've did, she'd have never done it. But it's not even in her mental psyche. She's just one of the coolest chicks I've ever met, man".
Unfortunately, Steve Harvey does not understand how the mental psyche works in processing racist, sexist, and anti-gay stereotypes that are embedded within society or how they in turn influence our ways of viewing/(mis)representing marginalised and oppressed groups.
Clearly, DeGeneres is not immune to covertly racist ideals of Black people. In October 2015 DeGeneres was criticised for jokes deemed to be racist. Her show created a skit portraying a family of Nicki Minaj characters with exaggerated oversized bottoms.
And as they moved throughout the set, the characters' behind are knocking everything over. The skit was outed for its disrespectful and minstrel portrayal of Black women's bodies. Seemingly, Ellen's mockery and exoticizing of the size of the Black female buttock was similar to the manner in which South African Sara Baartman was caged and exhibited for the entertainment of white men. Baartman was transformed into a "freak" because of her large behind that is unavoidably associated with her race and gender.
Ellen's response to the current meme echoes the typical apologist who refuses to see the ways in which the dynamics of race plays out in the United States. Her statement read, "I am highly aware of the racism that exists in our country. It is the furthest thing from who I am".
Surely, Ellen is aware of racism in the US and perhaps had no intention of offending African people. However, it cannot be denied that her statement is completely dismissive of the implications that are associated with the image, or more sadly, it obliterates the history of labour exploitation of Black bodies in the Americas.
Hence, like most people who out of discomfort, Ellen has chosen to side-line the lingering history of plantation slavery in the US to quell the controversy. While Ellen herself might not be racist, her response demonstrates a lack of understanding and sensitivity for the pain and anger her meme holds.
Equally, Steve Harvey coming to Ellen's defence or Usain Bolt retweeting the meme does not make the image less offensive nor does it take away from the ugly reality of racism in America.
Harvey has himself maintained that he "does not give a damn about slavery" which perhaps speaks to his support of the meme. Internalized racism is a fact of life among many racialized people. The mere fact of being an African person does not make one conversant or an expert on the manifestations of white supremacy.
So now that we have all gotten the joke of Ellen DeGeneres' meme and we have had a good laugh, I hope that we can also recognize the two sides to this joke and why such an image is reminiscent of the ways Black bodies have been violated for centuries. To read the image simply as humour or to treat the matter as an overreaction only helps to maintain white supremacist notions and a capitalist system that continue to exploit racialized bodies.
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