A website that will confuse the politically incorrect and incorrigibly correct
Look whose coming to dinner. Is that wealthy white friend of yours bringing his or her black friend over again? Does it seem to you that they only have one black friend? Does it make you wonder why the black friend doesn't get fed-up with all the mileage the white friend is getting out of inviting the black friend to parties? There is a possibility your rich white friend only rented their engaging, witty and patient black friend for the evening. Chances are they went to www.rent-a-negro.com Check out this site, which has been reviewed by Salon, memepool.com, Willamette week, postgazette.com, bet.com, seeingblack.com, turbulence.org…you get the picture. Its creator, Portland artist Damali Ayo is a talented visual and performing artist and the founder of Defunkt Theatre. Her artwork and dramatic pieces have toured to New York but it seems as though they are even more appropriate for Portland. Much of Ayo's work explores issues of race and black history, both in serious and ironic tones. But it is rent-a-negro that has proven that people can still be shocked. One woman reviewing the site on her personal blog states, "I think that after seeing the website, it is aimed towards mainly black people." The great thing is that it is hard to tell.
It is both delightful and excruciating to observe your own reaction. The "pricing" page of the site is especially chilling: "Touch Her Hair: $25 each time, Touch Her Skin: $35 each touch, Compare Your Skin Tone to Hers: $50." It is easy to dismiss the site as a political statement, or even a joke on people who take political correctness too seriously, but parts of the site ring with a painful truth. Our bigoted past is not so distant, after all. Despite the fact that the rented black friend is making a shit-load of cash, what else does this make you feel? "Dance Lessons for the Rhythm-Challenged: $250 hour. Challenging Racist Family Members: add $500 per person. Racist Guests at Event: add $500 per event (per racist)." After all, what whitie wouldn't want to learn dance moves besides the sprinkler and the running man?
Also, It is honestly tempting to let someone else confront your racist aunt in Richmond who everyone else excuses "because that's just the generation she grew up in." After all, haven't you been waiting for your sister to do it for years? Events are even more uncomfortable, because no consummate host would insult her guests, but then again neither would they let another guest insult them. It shows just how sticky issues of racism in social situations still are. In this age of post-political correctness it is much easier to just assume the best, that the racist guest, relative or significant other is only kidding.
Which brings us to "'Will You Tell Them I'm Not a Racist?'" $1500 per vouch." The truth is, racists and non-racists could use this service. It has become too easy to pretend that you're "an accepting person" as George W. Bush said about Sen. Rick Santorum. How did dickey Rick become a Senator in the first place, and why was America so ready to let his bigotry be swept under the carpet? Would he have gotten the same reaction if he had compared gay marriage to interracial marriage?
But is clear that Santorum wasn't kidding. An emotional minefield like rent-a-negro, is just as likely to offend Santorums as it is Reed students. It is doubtful anyone will know what to make of it. If unexplainable in any other way, it is evidence that there is something rotten in the state of Denmark. In the new American century the erosion of our civil rights has already begun to occur. It is important now more than ever to be wary of dismissing the past and to welcome new ideas that confuse and rattle our sense of what is correct.
To see more of Damali's work and for a listing of upcoming exhibitions or events, check out www.damaliayo.com