Masaryk university faculty of education

The Portrayal of African Americans on 30 Rock

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The Portrayal of African Americans on 30 Rock

30 Rock, based on Hermann Gray’s classification of contemporary images of African Americans, belongs to the multiculturalist discourse because this television series questions and comments on the position of African Americans in the society and their representations on television. The issues of racism, discrimination, or white guilt are examined in the series. African American characters on the show are not one-dimensional as the show manages to present varied African American characters who are shown in the context of their relationships to each other as well as in their relationships to other non-African American characters on the show. The series does not practice the “separate but equal” policy as the characters learn how to co-exist and how to get along with each other.

Tracy Jordan, the main African American character on the show, is not separated from the African American social and culture and is shown in the context of his community. Tracy is always followed by his entourage, which is comprised of his two childhood friends Grizz and Dot Com. Tracy also regularly attends his African American friends’ parties, he leads a very active social life and is even hosting hip-hop music awards, The Source Awards, in one of the episodes of the first season of the show. Tracy is also not excluded from socializing with his work colleagues, he and the staff of TGS meet every week for drinks on an occasion they call the “Thursday Night Thunder” (“Khonani”). In this way, 30 Rock’s African American characters distinguish greatly from the assimilationist or the pluralist discourses.

Although the head writer on the fictitious TGS Liz Lemon states that “You can’t do race stuff on TV” because “It’s too sensitive,” (“Rosemary’s Baby”) racism, together with white guilt, are commented on in the series on various occasions and neither are they treated as invisible nor are they viewed only as an individual problem. The head writer of TGS Liz Lemon is called racist on numerous occasions on the show. She is called racist by her former boyfriend Denis in The Break-Up episode in season one, for example, when Dennis tells Liz a story of how his cousin Teddy was “running from some black guys who pulled a gun on him” and Liz assumes that the “black guys” Dennis is talking about were muggers, while they actually were police officers. Liz’s assumption that the muggers were African American demonstrates the series’ awareness of misrepresentation of African Americans on television. Entman and Rojecki explain that only a limited range roles is assigned to African Americans, these roles include “crime and sports” (8). Also, African Americans are prevalent in crime news on television. This prevalence makes African Americans look more dangerous than the Caucasians (94). Therefore, Liz’s suspicion about the role the “black guys” played in Dennis’ story is a sign of media’s influence on people and of how easy it is to make stereotypical assumptions.

Liz Lemon’s inclination to believe what she watches or reads is revealed in an episode in which she comes to an assumption that Tracy Jordan is illiterate. Liz blames the educational system in the United States for Tracy’s illiteracy because of an article she thinks she read. She states: “We spend all this money in Iraq, but meanwhile, our inner-city graduation rates are lower than they are in the Sudan. That doesn’t sound right. Maybe it was Sweden. Maybe it was teen pregnancy. I gotta read more.” Liz’s statement manifests how quickly can people misinterpret the information the media send them and it also projects the feelings of guilt among Caucasians for the treatment of African Americans when Liz blames “the system” for their misfortunes (“Jack-Tor”).

Tracy Jordan, offended by Liz’s assumption that he cannot read, manages to take the situation into his advantage and pretends that he in fact is illiterate and exploits Liz’s white guilt. According to Julie Ellison, “White guilt and liberal guilt emerged as synonymous terms during the civil rights movement” (345). It comes from the assumption that “White Americans know that their historical advantage comes from the subjugation of an entire people” (qtd. in Ellison 351). This guilt can be felt by Caucasian people for the treatment of African Americans in the past. White guilt is associated with the “beliefs in the existence of White privilege, greater estimates of the prevalence of discrimination against Blacks, and low prejudice against Blacks” (Swim, and Miller 500). Liz, as a Liberal, clearly feels some responsibility for Tracy’s lack of education and Tracy lets her do so. Liz Lemon tends to think about herself as an unprejudiced citizen but it is proven to be the opposite on numerous occasions on the show.

Liz’s view on white guilt is that it should “be used only for good, like over-tipping and supporting Barack Obama” (“Jack-Tor”). But her white guilt is being exploited and turns against her again when an African American man, Steven Black, with whom Liz is on a date, calls her racist. Liz does not think that her and Steve would make a good match because both of them have very different interests and tastes and when she tries to tell him so, he pulls off “the race card” and tells Liz that he understands the real reason she does not want to go out with him again is that he is African American. Although this is not true, Liz feels offended by Steven’s statement and agrees to see Steve again out of her white, or liberal guilt. Liz and Steve’s following date ends in a disaster and Liz does not want to feel bad for not wanting to see him anymore so she explains to him that she does not like him “as a human being” and that the color of his skin has nothing to do with it (“The Source Awards”).

30 Rock’s discussion of racism is quite complex. The series is not blind to the fact that racism is still alive in the USA, as it is stated in the series “Race is a huge issue in this country” (“The Source Awards”). When Barack Obama’s Presidential candidacy is talked about, the female star of TGS, Jenna Maroney asks Liz Lemon about Obama’s ethnicity: “Obama, what is he? Hispanic?” and Liz informs Jenna that he is an African American to which Jenna answers: “And he’s running for President? Good luck” (“Hard Ball”). This scene demonstrates the series’ characters’ awareness of racial attitudes in the United States. Entman and Rojecki comment on the position of African Americans in the US society and they state that although materially the position is definitely better, “Politically, Blacks are depicted as sources of disruption, as victims, or as complaining supplicants” (3-8). And 30 Rock is not promoting color blindness or racial invisibility and deals with the issue of racial attitudes in its episodes.

In Lee Marvin vs. Derek Jeter episode of the fourth season, the effect of Obama’s Presidency on racial relations in the USA is questioned when Tracy Jordan blames Obama’s Presidency for bringing the “old-school racism” back. This statement is considered illogical by an African American writer on the show who asks Tracy “How can racism be back when we elected a black president?” Consequently, a conclusion is made that the old-school racism is back because “white people no longer feel sorry for [African Americans]” (“Lee Marvin vs. Derek Jeter”). No longer feeling sorry for them, the Caucasians can openly start criticizing African Americans without feeling guilty about it11.

Tracy Jordan is right in his assumption that Obama’s presidency did not end racism in the United States. Barack Obama’s Presidency was considered to be a great success as 43 percent of Caucasian voters voted for him, no other Democratic candidate received more votes since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 (Wise 9), and many people believed that Obama’s election would end the “systemic racial discrimination and profound inequity of opportunity” (8). However, according to Tim Wise, an American anti-racist writer and activist, the opposite is true because Obama’s election “signal[s] the emergence of an altogether new kind of racism” which he calls “Racism 2.0” (9). In Wise’s view, Obama’s Presidency cannot be looked on as ending racism because the President is viewed as an exception, Wise explains that Barack Obama is viewed “as having ‘transcended’ [his] blackness in some way” (9). Wise’s “Racism 2.0” is described as a “form that allows for and even celebrates the achievements of individual persons of color, but only because those individuals generally are seen as different from a less appealing, even pathological black or brown rule” (9). This statement supports the idea that many African Americans are still considered inferior to the members of the dominant society; therefore, a similarity between Tracy Jordan’s and Tim Wise’s statements can be found. Wise also claims that “Obama has issued a challenge for black folks to be more responsible for the problems in their communities” (12) which is a statement similar to Tracy’s utterance he made about Caucasians no longer feeling sorry for African Americans.

Affirmative action, the practice to include more minority groups in the workplace, is commented on in the series as well. The only African American writer on the staff of the fictitious TGS, James Spurlock, has suspicion that his presence on the staff is tokenism12 because his pay checks are of a different color than other writers’. His suspicion turns to be right when the head writer of the show tells him that his “salary does not come out of [the show’s] budget” and that James “provides[s] a point of view that is essential to keeping the diversity guy from bothering [the show]” (“Lee Marvin vs. Derek Jeter”). James is outraged about this revelation because he believed that his presence on the show’s writing staff was based on his abilities and talents, not on his ethnicity. According to Wise, African Americans “have long worried about being tokenized” (11). James’ outrage and his decision to quit the show are therefore understandable because he as a Harvard graduate should not be working in a position which only serves to ensure that the diversity quotes are fulfilled. Liz Lemon, the head writer on the fictitious TGS, undermines the issue and views affirmative action in a positive light until she herself discovers that the network chose to produce her Girlie Show only to repair its reputation after the airing of an action drama series called Bitch Hunter which was followed by a wave of criticism from feminist groups. Liz comes to understand the real meaning of affirmative action and feels that she should not be on the show because she did not actually earn her place and is now able to understand why James felt offended (“Lee Marvin vs. Derek Jeter”).

African Americans’ political preferences are commented on in the series as well when Jack Donaghy tries to persuade Tracy Jordan to vote for the Republican Party and to become a celebrity face of the GOP. Tracy agrees to do so at the beginning but realizes that he would “be turning [his] back on [his] people to support it” and that African Americans “are gonna always vote Democtat[s]” (“Subway Hero”). The reality in the United States is that African Americans have been and still remain identifiers of the Democratic Party (qtd. in Mangum). One of the reasons why African Americans do not identify with the Republican Party may be that the New Right helped in deepening the stereotyped images of African Americans. According to Gray “the new right’s strategy [was] constructing the representation of ‘blackness’ as threat and menace and therefore undeserving of state-protected entitlements” (30). Therefore, African Americans’ identification with this party’s policies is not common.

30 Rock kept holding the mirror to the hypocrisy of the society when the series kept bringing up racial issues. The history of slavery is not erased in the series, it is brought up for a discussion when Tracy Jordan discovers that he is Thomas Jefferson’s descendant. During slavery, “Rape was a common method of torture slavers used to subdue recalcitrant black women” (Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism 18) and on 30 Rock, it is not denied that sexual intercourse between Caucasian slave owners and African American slaves was a common practice. Thomas Jefferson is described in the series as the Caucasian man who “was into black chicks” (“Fireworks”).

30 Rock enters into a debate of what it really means to be Caucasian or African American when Tracy’s DNA test reveals that he is “genetically mostly white” (“Fireworks”). However, although being genetically mostly Caucasian, he is only viewed as African American by the society. Wise explains that the racial identity of “biracial persons in the United States […] is often ignored” and that “a person so designated will typically be seen as a member of whichever group is lowest in the racial hierarchy” which results in that “to be black and white […] is to be black” (14). The hypocritical limitations of race are up for a discussion in 30 Rock.

The issue of what race actually means is being questioned on the show and it is quite interesting to observe how race is thought of by different characters on 30 Rock. The GE executive, Jack Donaghy, does not see race, he sees social rank. In Believe in the Stars episode he states that white men are in the most difficult position in the society because they have to “make the unpopular, difficult decisions.” Jack’s statement is opposed by Kenneth, a Caucasian NBC page who says that he is also “a white man” to which Jack responds that he is not because “socioeconomically speaking [he is] more like an inner-city Latino.” In Jack’s interpretation, “white men” are not only those men whose color of the skin is white but those who are in managerial positions and who hold economic power. The concept of whiteness is questioned in this scene as much as the concept of blackness.

30 Rock is not afraid to cross boundaries when the series brings the history of blackface into several of its episodes. First blackface is presented in the second episode of the third season of the show Believe in the Stars. Tracy Jordan engages in an argument with the co-star of the fictitious TGS with Tracy Jordan Jenna Maroney (played by Jane Krakowski) over the issue of who has it more difficult in the society, whether African American men or women. To prove their point, Tracy and Jenna make their “social experiment”—Jenna comes to work dressed as an African American man with her face blackened and Tracy dresses as a Caucasian woman and whitens his face. Jenna’s blackface is offensive to African American employees at the studio but at the end of the episode, Tracy and Jenna reconcile. This is not the last time we watch Jenna in a blackface, Jenna darkens her face repeatedly when she dresses for a costume party as an African American football player Lynn Swan because her cross-dressing boyfriend dresses as Natalie Portman in Black Swan. Together, Jenna and her boyfriend make the “two Black swans” (“Christmas Attack Zone”).

The final blackface in 30 Rock appears in the nineteenth episode of the sixth season Live from Studio 6. In this episode, 30 Rock returns to the tradition of live television shows for the second time13. On this show, the past of television shows is discussed and a short sketch is performed in which Tracy plays alongside Jon Hamm who is in blackface. One character from the show, an NBC page Kenneth Parcell, introduces the sketch by saying: “NBC had the first two black characters on TV, sort of. For Alfie and Abner, NBC hired one African American and one Caucasian because they thought two black people on the same show would make the audience nervous. A rule NBC still uses today” (“Live from Studio 6H”). In the sketch, the character in blackface, Abner, represents a very stereotypical character as he plays a buffoonish African American man who only needs playing banjo and eating to lead a fulfilling life and who believes he can “catch a rainbow in his hat.” Tracy’s character, Alfie, is more serious, he thinks about the social positioning of African Americans, he fought for the US country in WWII, since he is a former Tuskegee airman, and is extremely annoyed by Abner’s foolish behavior. This sketch looks back into the racist past of television and presents its viewers with stereotyped images of African Americans; a parallel can be drawn between the Alfie and Abner sketch and between Amos ‘n’ Andy.

30 Rock also manifests its awareness of the fact that the representation of African Americans could always be better when the whole NBC is called racist by an African American congresswoman Regina Bookman in the third episode of the fifth season, Let’s Stay Together. The series’ awareness of the racial issues that exist in the American society and its examination of them is one of its biggest contributions.

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