September 28, 2003
A wigger is defined as a Caucasian person who dresses, speaks, or otherwise behaves in a manner that is stereotypically associated with certain aspects of African-American, Caribbean or hip-hop culture.-Wiktionary
Elizabeth Regen (pictured far left) isn't a black woman, but she plays one on TV. Well, almost: she actually plays the role of a white person who plays the role of a black person - on "Whoopi," NBC's new sitcom starring Whoopi Goldberg. Despite blond hair and rosy skin, her character, Rita Nash, wears snug denim minis and hefty gold earrings, talks "sister to sister" with black co-stars, and makes it known that the correct pronunciation is "gangstas, not gangsters."
The casting call sought "a white girl who talks, moves and acts like a sister," recalls Ms. Regen, curling her fingers to set that last word in quotation marks. "That's s-i-s-t-a-h. So I guess I assume that means a black woman." Marching into the audition armed with all the attitude she could muster, she landed the part, and became Whoopi's sidekick, a woman euphemistically described by producers as "extroverted and culturally confused."
Call it what you will - nouveau blackface, hip-hop-face, or simply an "act black" routine - the white-as-black character that Ms. Regen has perfected is fast becoming an American comedic staple. In four recent films - "Malibu's Most Wanted," starring Jamie Kennedy; "Bringing Down the House," with Steve Martin; Chris Rock's "Head of State"; and the jailhouse rap sequence in "Austin Powers in Goldmember" - ultra-white people earn laughs by using phrases like "fo' shizzle," boogieing down to gangsta rap and wearing extra-large basketball jerseys. For a sketch on his new MTV show "Doggy Fizzle Televizzle," Snoop Dogg deprogrammed a "wigger" - that now-acceptable term for a white boy armed with hip-hop slang and low-riding pants - and returned him to his white self (a Lacoste-wearing racquetball player).
One of several satirical Web sites devoted to "wiggers" offers a run-down of their uniform, which includes "T-shirt, bearing logo of clothing company that doesn't want the wigger wearing its clothes" and tattoos that "will be hard to explain to the grandkids ('grandpa - what's 'thug life'?)." Last month's MTV Video Music Awards show bubbled over with Rita Nash moments: Adam Sandler and Snoop Dogg out-shizzled each other. Meanwhile Chris Rock teased Justin Timberlake for getting "real white all of a sudden" when told he was broke; when the news turned out to be a prank, Mr. Rock continued, "then Justin gets all black again and says: 'Aw, yeah. You got me, dawg. Yeah, dawg. Salaam aleikum, dawg.' "
So what's so funny here? Why does Rita Nash - and the white-boy-dropping-slang routine - have America, to cite Eugene Levy in "Bringing Down the House," straight trippin', boo? It depends on who's asking the question, and when.
In the 1920's, adventurous white Manhattanites got a thrill by visiting Harlem nightclubs. In his famous 1957 essay, "The White Negro," Norman Mailer codified the phenomenon in hyperbolic language.. The 1976 comedy "Silver Streak" featured Gene Wilder disguised with black shoe polish, a Rastafarian-style knit hat and an arsenal of stilted slang; it played for laughs, but it was funny because it was so unlikely. His Jewish Afro notwithstanding, Mr. Wilder seemed about as far from African-American culture, or even from African-American caricature, as could possibly be. Since that time, however, the immense cross-racial popularity of hip-hop has turned the hilarious improbability of white people who experiment with blackness into a perfectly familiar, everyday fact of American life; today, Eminem is one of the biggest rap stars alive, making it hard to tell where one culture ends and another's appropriation of it begins.
So Rita and the rest of the "wiggers" populating recent comedy are funny not because they're unlikely, but precisely because they are so very likely. They're walking, rapping embodiments of a new racial frontier that shaped American culture and especially American music - the frontier that optimists call racial hybridity and pessimists call cultural theft.
Part of the fun of "Da Ali G Show," on HBO, is the chance to watch white bureaucrats and politicians respond politely to outrageous provocations by the jive-slinging b-boy host. You get the strong impression that they just don't want to be seen criticizing a black person; the fact that the character is actually played by a white comic only makes their discomfort that much funnier.
These comedies may not use identical formulas - some mock the white wanna-bes, others poke fun at hip-hop posturing itself, while others, like Ali G, play a joke on us for buying into the whole routine - but all share the attitude that the racial amalgam is a fact of contemporary life. If you can't beat it, parody it.
By Baz Dreisinger, New York Times. Title and introductory paragraph by Cool Black. Original article title "The Whitest Black Girl on TV".