Black Twitter is Dead

Is 'Black Twitter' dead?

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BY DEXTER THOMAS

First off, let me get the one thing out of the way: the person behind most of these Daquan tweets is probably a white girl.

But I’ll explain that in a bit. First, some background.

The death of black comedy

I’m not entirely sure when black comedy died, but by 1977, it was on life support. 1977 was the year that The Richard Pryor Show debuted on NBC. It only ran for four episodes. In one of the first skits, Richard Pryor played a part that most people thought would never happen in reality: that of a black president.

As the press conference goes on, President Pryor starts to get more confident and "uppity." He talks about minority unemployment. He confirms that he wants to increase black representation at NASA, and to increase the numbers of black quarterbacks, coaches, and owners in the NFL.

But things start to get crazy as he starts to show favoritism for black reporters and causes. And when a "Brother Bell" from Ebony magazine stands up and they exchange the Nation of Islam "As-Salaam-Alaikum/Wa-Alaikum-Salaam" greeting, the studio audience goes absolutely wild.

Then, when a prissy white woman from Christian Women’s News announces that she has photographic evidence that he has been dating white women, and asks if he is going to continue doing so, Pryor grins: "As long as I can keep it up."

The thing that makes this skit so weird, and so funny, is that the parts you find funny have a lot to do with how you identify yourself. The audience was probably laughing at two different things. 

Black America was laughing at white America

Black people know that love and equality are nothing to be afraid of, but they also know that all of the things that President Pryor was talking about: black access to education, black participation in government and industry, Islam, interracial relationships — these things make a lot of white people nervous.

In short, as cruel as it sounds, a lot of minorities find white racist fear and naiveté absolutely hilarious. (Think of it as an alternative to being angry all the time.)

But a lot of white people watched this and thought that the joke was supposed to be that the first black president would be a total monster. It was funny to have their biases confirmed. In fact, there’s more than a few people out there that still don’t get the joke.

So it was no wonder that when Chapelle’s Show came out, with skits like "Black Reparations," which again, poked fun at white America’s fears (read: guilt) and assumptions about blacks, that a lot of white people didn’t get the joke. A lot of people saw the ‘reparations’ skit and simply thought: "Oh, wow, that’s totally true! If reparations happened, black people would spend all of their money on fried chicken."

It confirmed their expectations. And they laughed. And Dave left.

Here’s what Paul Mooney, who wrote the President Pryor script, had to say about the phenomenon of white reactions to black comedy:

>When I imitate middle-class white speech, I see a flicker of unease cross the faces of the white people in the audience. Then, when I go into ghetto riff, the smiles return. They’re fine as long as I am making fun of the same kind of people they make fun of — chinks, spics, and n*ggers. But as soon as I start talking about them, I can clear a room!

This brings us to Daquan.

Daquan is hilarious

Let’s be honest: the Daquan meme is funny. But it’s funny to different people for different reasons.

In case you missed it, the Daquan meme involves a series of stock photographs in which a young white girl has fallen under the spell of a black man known only as "Daquan." Most of the images involve her parents trying to reason with her about the dangers of her new black lifestyle, only to have her scream back about how much she loves Daquan.

It’s hilarious, especially when the young girl is doing things we know she should not be doing, like reciting Chief Keef lyrics, talking about the "trap," and having sex with black men.

Precisely because the source material is nothing less than the last 400 years of American racial tension, Daquan has a lot of potential. Daquan is armed with weapons like black sex, black drugs, and black music and is able to wreak havoc on white boys and girls alike.

In short, Daquan is the physical embodiment of what groups like the White Citizen’s Council were warning about a few decades ago:

 

Photo via Ole Miss Library

This poster seems a little over-the-top today, but in the 1950s, people were much more direct. After all, today, when white politicians complain about "Urban America," they’re really just using code language to freak out about black people.

Who’s laughing, and why?

The weirdest thing about the Daquan meme is that websites that are hesitant to call it racist. Of course, it’s racist. The racism is the funny part. Some of the success of Daquan as a meme can probably be attributed to black people laughing at a white America that is deathly afraid of them. Like I said, this might seem cruel, but it’s a coping mechanism.

The interesting thing, though, is that there seems to be a big gap in the pictures that people respond to. The biggest gap in popularity seems to be between jokes that make fun of black males, and those that make fun of white males.

As an example, here’s a meme showing Daquan hiding under a white girl’s bed. It has about 7,500 retweets.

And here’s another one, where a white woman turns away from her white lover (who is usually called "David" in this meme). "I should have called Daquan," she sighs, as David, aware of his inability to satisfy her now that she has experienced the raw power and passion that is Daquan, stares guiltily into space. This one has 750 retweets.

Apparently, black men sneaking into white women’s rooms is roughly ten times funnier than a white man having to deal with the consequences. That is, black male criminality is funny, but white male emasculation is not.

#BlackTwitter isn’t even black

This might seem a little confusing. After all, wouldn’t Black Twitter enjoy a good laugh at the expense of their Caucasian brothers?

In a word, no. Because most of the people laughing at Daquan are probably not black.

Which isn’t surprising, as the person running the most popular Daquan twitter account is apparently a teenaged white girl. If you go back far enough into the @ItsDaquann account history (currently at 70k+ followers), it’s full of tweets that are mainly complaining about high school, complaining about eating too much pizza, and salivating over boys.

 

Well, maybe she’s not white. She might be a very light-skinned Ethiopian, or Indian, or something. But that doesn’t really matter (and I'll touch more on this point later). Whatever her particular identity may be, she’s certainly no Daquan.

But before we rush to correct the Know Your Meme entry that states that Daquan is from "Black Twitter," we should keep in mind that this whole "Black Twitter" phenomenon that people seem to love to talk about isn’t really all that "black." Sure, some of the primary influencers might be black, but the audience for black entertainment has always been primarily non-black. It’s a simple numbers game.

In the same way that it doesn’t make any sense to call BET "Black Entertainment Television," unless you mean "Television for people that want to be Entertained by Blacks," "Black Twitter" can’t be understood as some sort of closed-off, coherent force — particularly when you’re talking about politics.

And as a space for uniquely "black" cultural expression in which black people would call the shots, Black Twitter was dead long ago. Or really, it was stillborn. It never had a chance. After all, there are very few things that rile white people up more than being excluded from minority spaces.

For example, think about how most conversations about race play out. When black people bring up the fact that they are afraid of police, some white people will occasionally retort by saying that if they go into a poor black neighborhood at night, they will also feel unsafe.

So, they say, it’s the same thing. We can’t call police brutality "racism," because white people also get treated badly. For reference, check out this comment from an article I wrote for Medium:

 

Photo via Medium

To anyone that has actually lived in a ghetto, this is a bizarre complaint. Most poor people want to get out of the ghetto — why would anyone want to go sightseeing there?

Speaking as someone that spent (thankfully, very little) time in a poor neighborhood and who has a lot of friends and family that spent quite a bit of time in one, most people would gladly give up their "hood pass" in exchange for access to fair housing, jobs, education, and the ability to not be afraid they’re going to get shot while looking for their cigarettes.

But the fact that this is a common retort should say something: namely, that black people can’t reasonably expect anything to stay within "their" community for long.

In the case of Daquan, it was out in the public within about 6 hours. And then within 24 hours, the main source of Daquan memes was a white girl.

But then again, perhaps it was silly to expect Black Twitter to be any different from society at large — especially when Twitter as a company is happy to make money off of black people but is notoriously skittish about actually hiring them (or women, or other minorities).

Daquan and technology

A few months ago, a white researcher wrote an anthropological study of "Black Twitter," with the following description:

Without reliable corporeal signifiers of racial difference readily apparent, Black users often perform their identities through displays of cultural competence and knowledge.

Which, in English, means:

On the Internet, nobody can see your face or body. So black people on Twitter use black slang or talk about rap music, so that people will know that they are black.

The trouble is that this trick works for anybody. Anyone with a free weekend and an Internet connection can spend a few hours on Urban DictionaryRap Genius, and WorldStar, and make a pretty convincing imitation of a black person. And that’s exactly what is happening today.

The Daquan Test

Back in the 1950s, people were pretty concerned about technology. We’d just finished a massive war that exterminated about 2.5 percent of the world’s population, largely thanks to technological advances such as computer-guided aiming and the atomic bomb.

But the thing that really creeped people out was computer intelligence. Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics in 1942 had made us realize that robots were starting to get pretty advanced, and after that whole atom bomb thing, people were starting to worry that if computers became self-aware, things might not work out so well for humans.

People were freaked out: was it possible for a robot to become self-aware? Could a computer think?

In 1950, a scientist named Alan Turing came up with a sort of non-answer. Defining "thinking" is too hard, he said, so instead we should concentrate on whether or not it was possible to create a computer that could trick us into thinking it was human.

I think Turing might have been onto something.

Maybe defining "blackness" is something we should stop doing. We’ve been trying for years, and it’s never worked out. Maybe we should stop arguing about whether or not someone is black enough to appropriate black culture. Maybe we should stop worrying about who the n-word belongs to.

Instead, maybe we should just stick to the Daquan Test

That is, whereas the Turing Test requires that a computer has enough of the trappings of "humanity" to fool us 70 percent of the time, the Daquan Test simply requires that a person display enough "cultural competence" to function as an entertaining "black" person. They might actually fool us, like Ms. Daquan has done for the past week or so. Or, they might just be culturally fluent enough in commercial "blackness" to provide an entertaining spectacle, like Iggy Azalea does.

Just to be clear: I’m not saying that the appropriation or definition of "blackness" are completely irrelevant issues, but I am saying that, as a society, maybe we aren’t ready to have this conversation yet.

Maybe we need to take it a bit slower. Maybe we need to think about Daquan himself. Maybe we need to think about what it is that is so interesting about black people. Maybe we need to think about why certain fringe elements of a tiny fraction of a few black people’s lives (rap, dancing, or singing) have come to represent an entire population of people.

And then, maybe we should think about why we’re so protective of those things.

The future of black entertainment

In 1988, a play called M. Butterfly hit Broadway. It was based on the true story of a relationship between a French diplomat, and the male Peking Opera singer that seduced him. One of the play's weirder lines is spoken by the opera singer: “Why, in the Peking Opera, are women’s roles played by men?…Because only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act.” 

Maybe that’s why Daquan has been so successful. Because really, as funny as we black people are, and as well as we understand our Caucasian brothers and sisters, there will come a point at which they will decide that they’d rather call the shots themselves. People creating their own, customized "black" entertainment will once again be the norm.

I’m not really sure what this means for black people. I also don’t have any real suggestions, aside from maybe that we should consider abandoning rap music like we did jazz. Let them have it, along with everything else—Black Twitter included. We lost this battle. Retreat, make something new, and try again.

The machine moves

For Turing, the holy grail of computer science was a machine that could "produce more ideas than those with which it had been fed." So, in other words, this would be a computer that could receive input—and then output a series of unique ideas and thoughts. A creative computer. Technological Singularity.

We might not have gotten there yet with machines, but it looks like black culture has probably hit a point of Cultural Singularity. We’ve spent the past 400 years as a society generating data points about what black people are supposed to look, think, and act like. Now, finally, the machine that is capitalism has begun to move on its own. It is creating its own content.

Don’t get me wrong: the idea of black people is still entertaining, but black people are no longer required to provide that entertainment.

The future might not be just, but if we keep it up, it’s probably going to be funny. If you’re white.

Dexter Thomas Jr is a scholar of hip-hop and contemporary culture at Cornell University. California-born and Tokyo-based, Thomas is finishing his book on Japanese hip-hop this year. He tweets at @dexdigi. This article was originally featured on Medium and reposted with permission.

Photo via eldh/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)