Insecure Explores the Benefits of Refusing to Play the "Black Translator"

(Episode 1.04)

TV Features Insecure
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<i>Insecure</i> Explores the Benefits of Refusing to Play the "Black Translator"

Every week, critic Hari Ziyad breaks down the mechanics of a particularly excellent Insecure scene, joke or character. This week, it’s all about character versus caricature.

Last week on Insecure, we were introduced to a new character, Rasheeda, whom I praised for being unapologetic about her Blackness. Rasheeda’s refusal to “switch it up” at her law firm took her (apparently only) Black colleague, Molly, by surprise, Molly having assumed code-switching was necessary to navigatie the workplace. When Molly warned Rasheeda that her unabashed behavior might have negative consequences, Rasheeda shut her down in an epic way, dismissing the need to minimize her personality for the sake of racism.

It was an inspiring moment for those of us still holding out hope for the day when Black people are free to be whoever they are, wherever they go. But like many moments that give me hope for that day, it was short-lived. In “Thirsty as F—,” Rasheeda’s still loudly Black, but now Molly’s warning seems prescient. “She’s not quite adjusting to the culture here,” one of the partners of the firm tells Molly about Rasheeda in an early scene, “and we just feel it would be great for you to have a chat with her.” This, of course, is white people language for, “Make sure the diversity initiatives I instituted for this very purpose pay off by being the Black conduit for my racism so I look less racist.”

I used Rasheeda’s clap-back last week to make the point that “the next time you see a Black person being a little freer than you’ve ever seen them, or freer than you were ever able to be, let them live. The one they are living in is the world we need.” The incident with the partner and Molly in last night’s episode added a little bit of necessary nuance—the world “free” Black folks are living in is not yet here, and we have quite a ways to go to get there. Still, the message that we don’t have to be the ones placing obstacles in each other’s way was one Molly took well. As she explained to a date later in the evening, “I’m not the Black translator here to tell the colored folks if massa thinks they’ve done wrong.”

Later, Molly goes back to the partner at her firm and explains why she won’t admonish Rasheeda: “I’m worried that it may not bear the same weight coming from me, as it would from you […] I would just hate for anything to get lost in translation.” Of course, the translation here is, “If you want to be racist, do it yourself.”

The entire dilemma reminds me of Leslie Jones’ controversial debut on Saturday Night Live in 2014. Jones was one of three Black women added to the show in response to critiques that it was far too white. I remember just having finished as an NBC page for SNL when Jones first appeared on-screen and seeing one of the most ridiculously offensive skits unfold. During the “Weekend Update” segment, Jones responded to Lupita Nyong’o being named People Magazine’s most beautiful person with a joke about how in slavery times Jones would have been “the number one slave draft pick” because of her stature, but now she is perpetually single for the same reason.

Of course, backlash immediately ensued. Arit John of The Atlantic explained the controversy: “[F]orced breeding jokes aren’t funny, diminishing Lupita’s beauty isn’t funny, and acting like a caricature of a black person isn’t funny.”

One might argue that Rasheeda, with her over-the-top sass, is herself a caricature, too. But comparing the two highlights the importance of character versus caricature, audience, and intent. Because Insecure gives us so many variations of Blackness, it’s clear that, though Rasheeda might be a caricature of certain aspects of Blackness, she is not a caricature of the thing itself, nor meant to represent it in its entirety.

Taking Jones’ very recruitment to SNL as evidence that the show is structured by whiteness, along with the fact that its audience is largely white, it’s not too much of a stretch to assume the intent of the sketch in question was to make white people laugh. Rasheeda, on the other hand, interacts with both Molly and her coworkers in the same way, insinuating that her behavior is not for the benefit of white people, but for herself. Jones was a caricature of Black people positioned by white people for their own amusement. Rasheeda is a Black character who positions herself without shame for her own sense of freedom.

Instead of refusing to be the “Black translator” like Molly, which is a necessary refusal to make, Jones became the conduit of racism Molly denied. SNL used Jones just as the partner intended to use Molly. The skit was almost exactly the realization of the statement, “Make sure the diversity initiatives I instituted for this very purpose pay off by being the Black conduit for my racism so that it looks less racist.”

This is not to take away Leslie Jones’ agency, or to argue that it’s always wise to refuse to compromise with a violent world. Indeed, Jones’ embrace of Blackness in her own way elicited racist violence that for a time drove her off Twitter. But it is important to push back against the ways we become the “translator” or conduit for racism, especially when we compromise. Because the same violence Jones experienced is the violence Rasheeda does when her Blackness doesn’t allow her to “fit in.” Anti-Blackness will reign over Black folks for the foreseeable future, but if I have to bear its drops, at least I might ask myself in what ways might I become someone else’s umbrella.

Hari Ziyad is a Brooklyn-based storyteller and the Editor-in-Chief of RaceBaitR. Their work has been featured on Gawker, Out, Ebony, Mic, The Guardian, Colorlines, Black Girl Dangerous, Young Colored and Angry, The Feminist Wire and The Each Other Project. They are also an assistant editor for Vinyl Poetry & Prose and a contributing writer for Everyday Feminism.