From 12 Years a Slave to Lee Daniels’ The Butler, 2013 was an extraordinary year for stories about America’s fraught racial history. Yet while cinema made high art out of the black experience, the rest of pop culture reminded us that we still have a problem with race, and more, a problem talking about it. Paula Deen made people uncomfortable — and lost her Food Network shows and many sponsors — when we learned she used the N-word years ago. The panicky retreat from Deen’s toxic brand was meant to promulgate zero tolerance for retrograde attitudes. Actually, it modeled a cowardly, dump-and-flush remedy for dealing with imperfect people.
There were worse responses. The reality series Big Brother scored solid ratings by showing white contestants being bigot-y to their gay, Asian, and black housemates — even as it tsk- tsked the behavior with ridiculous “their views don’t reflect our own” disclaimers. We hoped Big Brother would redeem this sensationalistic hatesploitation by turning its live finale into a confab on prejudice. Instead we got a superficial question or two. Shameful.
Saturday Night Live set a more encouraging precedent. The series reacted to criticism about its lack of black female cast members with a skit starring Scandal‘s Kerry Washington acknowledging the situation and promising to improve. Give this flawed cultural institution credit for listening, reflecting, engaging critics, and putting itself on notice. (SNL will reportedly add a black female cast member in January.) It’s an example worth following — for the culture, and for ourselves.