Chapelle Was Right: When Keeping It Real in White Spaces Goes Wrong

By Raven Cras

We all know the story. At first glance the famous comedy sketch “When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong,” by Dave Chappelle appears to be a spoof. The sketch implies that there is a maximum amount of blackness Black people can portray without their white co-workers taking offense. Vernon’s white co-worker commends him on his job by saying, “good job buddy, you the man, give me some skin.” Vernon, the main character, responds accordingly. The scene pauses with the narrator giving two options, “though he could have ignored the simple comment, Vernon decided to keep it real.” Vernon responds, “Get your mother-f*** hand out of my face.” Vernon was fired.

This happened to me. I was not fired, but I was warned. It took my experience to take a critical look at the sketch I laughed so hard at when I was younger to realize there was an underlying truth. How could this excellent employee be fired for being fed up with his white co-workers insensitive micro-aggressive antics? The same way my white co-worker, who like most people fixate and appropriate Black culture, can imply that I, a young Black woman, am too aggressive and thus offensive. The imagery of such plays on negative tropes that cultural appropriators have the privilege to avoid, especially when fully invested in the perks of Black culture; think: Rachel Dolezal.

On my social media account, I reposted a meme of the movie Friday, which read, “For all the white people who say ‘bye Felicia’ point to Felicia.” The post was a culturally relevant version of “Where’s Waldo.” However, the meme itself speaks to White America’s habit of not knowing the origins of cultural references within the Black American community (if you want to be deep about it). Former co-workers of mine, whom have never double tapped or commented on a picture, decided to share their misguided beliefs about race. But of course, being knowledgeable about the subject matter on both a personal level and an academic one, I welcomed the conversation.

Another co-worker who uses the phrase and visibly appropriates Black culture was tagged in the post. A screenshot was taken of the conversation and sent to my manager (a Black male) and my bosses. I was threatened with being terminated if my behavior was perceived to be unprofessional, again. I was told that I was perceived to be offensive by being direct. This is something Black communities are plagued with in White spaces, policing our cultural idiosyncrasies for the comfort of those around us, even for those who appropriate the culture they know so little about.

I am Vernon, but in a different context. On my personal page, white co-workers engaged in a conversation where they were informed about the realities of the Black experience that made them uncomfortable to acknowledge. When friends, peers, and myself questioned and challenged their insight I was reported. In an attempt to punish and silence my voice, on my page, in a conversation they provoked, I was reported. My Black male manager co-signed by assuring my boss that I am aggressive in race themed conversations. We know the type, think: Clarence Thomas.

Essentially, I was punished for an off work-site interaction that offended a white coworker. Keeping it real went wrong when I called out the micro-aggressive and cultural appropriating actions of my coworkers. I, like Vernon, should have “ignored the simple comment.” For the first time in a long time, I was painfully aware of double consciousness. My boss told me that it is not about my intent but how I am perceived that is the issue. That is the essence of double consciousness, “always looking at one’s self through the eye of others,” as W.E.B Dubois said.

On the other hand, my white co-worker does not have to be sensitive about her continuous cultural appropriation that is offensive to me. Yet, somehow, I must maintain my cultural integrity in a climate that values the emotions of white co-workers more than my comfort and their personal responsibility. This incident was a painful reminder of how white women’s emotions are more valuable than the Black woman’s voice and experience.

Never mind my personal space that was invaded with culturally ignorant statements. Never mind a manager who himself holds negative stereotypes about Black women being the deciding voice if their perception of the incident was accurate. Never mind not having access to someone in management that could objectively speak to if the situation was being exaggerated because of inherited social biases. Never mind my rights to freedom of speech on my personal social platform. Never mind my feelings, my intent, and me.

I kept it real and said never mind to that job. Now, for all those reading, point to Felicia.

Photo: Shutterstock

Raven Cras is a recent graduate from Spelman College and now permanent resident of Brooklyn, NY. She is a poet, author and supporter of all things empowering of oppressed groups. Her greatest strength in writing is the ability to connect broad concepts and theories to current social and cultural events. Overall, she be chillin’.

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