Race and 30 Rock

Another great essay by Alyssa Rosenberg, one of my favorite bloggers.

Almost from the moment we met her, one of Liz Lemon’s signature preoccupations was demonstrating that she was not, in fact, a racist. “Race is a huge issue, according to Newsweek magazine,” Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski), Liz’s best friend told her in an early episode of the show they created together. “Well, it is 2007 and some of us don’t have these hangups,” Liz declared, proud of herself. But of course, Liz is rife with racial hangups, many of which she mistook for sensitivity. In the season one episode “Jack-tor,” for example, Liz became convinced that Tracy was illiterate after he flubbed a series of cue cards. When she offered to give him time off to attend reading classes, Tracy amused himself by taking advantage of her condescension. “I can’t read!” he declared histrionically as he high-tailed it out of the office. “I sign my name with an X! I once tried to make mashed potatoes with laundry detergent! I think I voted for Nader!” When she discovered that he was tweaking her, rather than examining her own preconceptions, Liz got huffy about Tracy’s reaction to her assumptions. “He took advantage of my white guilt, which is only to be used for good, like overtipping, and supporting Barack Obama,” she explained, casting herself a a victim, and long before Obama even formally began his campaign for president, setting up support for him as a proxy for racial self-congratulation by white voters.

Liz made similar mistakes early in her relationship with Tracy’s wife, Angie (Sherri Shepherd), falling back on racial tropes in the absence of knowing how to make conversation with Angie like an actual person. “Bling-bling! Ghetto fabulous!” Liz complimented her on a diamond ring Tracy brought her as part of a reconciliation. “This belonged to Brooke Astor,” Angie told her, irritated. And their relationship got worse when Angie demanded approval over Tracy’s characters on the show, rejecting a pimp character named Slickback Lamar, and refusing to be mollified by an Obama sketch. “No,” she told Liz. “We support Kucinich.” And while Angie initially wanted to sanitize TGS of racial stereotypes, she would ultimately turn a profit, and create a hit for NBC in Queen of Jordan, a broad reality show in the tradition of the Real Housewives that featured Angie and her entourage, while making a joke out of executive Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), whose anxiety about preserving his dignity set him up for constant humiliation. Liz may have told old-school comedy writer Rosemary Howard (Carrie Fisher) that “You can’t do race stuff on TV. It’s too sensitive,” and been taken aback when Rosemary told her of a blackface sketch pitch that “We would have done that on the Mandrell Sisters.” And as it turns out, it’s not Liz who figures out how to do racial comedy on television, but Angie, who finds a business model in exploiting racial and sexual stereotypes and preconceptions—many of them likely held by people who think of themselves as liberals.

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