It’s been a whirlwind 48 hours for Franchesca Ramsey. The 28-year-old New York-based graphic designer and comedian posted her hit video parody "Shit White Girls Say…to Black Girls" on Jan. 4, and in less than a day it got over 1.5 million views, thousands of Facebook shares and even generated a spat with celebrity blogger Perez Hilton. By Thursday, it beat out Justin Bieber for the coveted slot of the most watched video on YouTube.
Ramsey has become the star and creator of one of 2012’s first viral sensations. Of the dozens of videos that took up the "Shit People Say" meme, Ramsey’s was the first one to a offer a popular and critical examination of race. But why are these videos so popular? And as cultural critiques, can videos like Ramsey’s open meaningful conversations about race and racial justice?
The goal, Ramsey wrote earlier this week, had been simple: to make people laugh while, hopefully, opening some eyes. The video features Ramsey in an outlandish blonde wig, tossing around stereotypically offensive statements like "not to sound racist, but…" and "that’s so ghetto!" It is one of a string of parodies to hit the Internet since late 2011, starting with "Shit Girls Say." In them, the protagonists–usually men–dress up as women and poke fun at mundane comments they assert to be most often said by women. Some, which rely solely on exaggerated insults, have been complete duds, like "Shit Black Girls Say" and "Shit Latina Girls Say." But others, like Ramsey’s, have touched an online nerve and become enormously popular.
"People love to see themselves in media," Ramsey told Colorlines.com. "The fact that you can watch the first one and say, ‘Oh my gosh! I say that!’ made it funny and made it something that you wanted to share."
There’s no step-by-step manual on how to make a video go viral, but "Sh*t White Girls Say to Black Girls" shares a simple set of characteristics with other successful independently produced Internet comedies (think Awkward Black Girl): it looks good, and it uses humor to say something smart and discomforting about race.
"Usually the only way people talk about race in their lives is when they’re feeling defensive about it," says W. Kamau Bell, an Oakland, Calif.-based comedian and a board member of the Applied Research Center, which publishes Colorlines.com. Bell noted that comedy is a great way to get around that defensiveness.
Ramsey’s parody also turned the existing meme on its head.
"There’s a flip [in the narrative], which is part of why I think it’s so effective and powerful," says Doyle Canning, a strategist at SmartMeme, a progressive group that helps craft political messaging. "The framing of the story is from the perspective of the black girl. That’s rarely the case in popular culture.
"I think there’s an opportunity for racial justice activists to intervene in those stories, and contribute a kind of meaningful critique that’s riding the momentum of an existing meme in the popular culture."
People of color rarely see representations of themselves in mainstream media. A survey conducted by the Directors Guild of America found that of more than 2,600 television episodes in the 2010-2011 TV season, 77 percent were directed by white men. People of color are underrepresented in nearly every aspect of the filmmaking industry as well. Last May, researchers at Indiana University released a study, "The Role of Actors’ Race in White Audiences’ Selective Exposure to Movies," that found white audiences don’t usually like films that aren’t about white people.
Others who study the media think that while the Internet has become an important tool for artists of color to create racially diverse content, it’s only a small drop in the bucket.
"The Internet’s become very popular, but people are still spending a lot of time watching television," said Lisa Nakamura, professor at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana and author of the book "Digitizing Race."
"You can’t really see representations of your own race in a very specific way unless you look at something like [Ramsey’s video]," Nakamura continued, noting that the representations of people of color that do exist are often deeply flawed. "For African American people, there’s Tyler Perry in film and every so often Spike Lee will make a film. Rarely is there an Asian American film or a Latino film."
Even when characters of color do appear on mainstream television or in film, Nakamura says that their racial identities are often exaggerated. "They’re always a little too packaged; you can tell it’s a cynical attempt to make money within a kind of broad and non-specific message."
While Ramsey’s video has gotten its share of criticism for poking fun at white girls, Bell notes that it’s doing precisely what it was intended to do. "People have to remember that comedy isn’t the solution. Comedy is something that highlights the problem. The rest of us who are out in the world are supposed to try to solve the problem."
Meanwhile, Ramsey has been inundated with hundreds of emails and messages since her video’s release, and thinks that the little changes do matter. A day after her video went viral, she posted a letter on her blog from a white woman who was moved by the video and asked herself, "Have I ever said anything like that?"
"That’s exactly what I wanted," Ramsey said of the woman’s response. "There’s tons of people who don’t get it and are never gonna get it. But even if just one person thinks twice when they say something–and not just to a black person, but to anyone–then I think I did my job."