16/01/2016 9:07 AM AEDT

Why Do We Laugh At Viral Stars Like Michelle Dobyne And Antoine Dodson?

It's complicated.


Let's start with the screenshot above.

It's an image from a video of Michelle Dobyne, a Tulsa, Oklahoma woman who escaped an apartment fire earlier this month.The video, featuring Dobyne animatedly telling a local news station about her ordeal, quickly went viral this week, the way that so many of these videos do. You know the type, with "wacky," "ghetto" black neighbors hilariously giving their eye witness accounts of horrific news events. 

Like Antoine Dodson, Charles Ramsey and Sweet Brown before her, the video of Dobyne's interview has racked up millions of views. There's now an auto-tune remix of the clip, and it's sparked its own catchphrase: "Nuh-uh, we ain't gonna be in no fire -- not today!"

According to TMZ, Dobyne apparently now has a manager, a guest spot on the "Maury" show next week, and already is setting her sights on a career in stand-up comedy. Her story, which started with a fire that nearly destroyed the small apartment she shared with her three kids, seems to have a happy ending. 

The screenshot at the top of this story is what appears before you hit "play" on YouTube: An image of a large black woman staring straight at the camera with eyes bulging, mid-speech, seemingly poised to say something outrageous and hilarious. The image, depending on how you look at it, has subtle -- but possibly demeaning -- implications. It embodies the precarious, complicated nature of these kinds of clips. 

A question that's been asked in relation to this subgenre of viral media is: Is it OK laugh? Some people say these videos are just harmless fun. Others argue that they are an example of the media's concerted effort to represent black people in the worst light possible.

The more important question, though, is why, exactly, are we laughing? Are we laughing with Dobyne or at her? And if we're laughing at her, are we laughing at her as a separate, autonomous entity or as a stereotype -- the archetypal loud, ratchet, uneducated black woman? It would be far too simplistic to say that's not OK, or that's it's racist to laugh at these videos. There are black people, after all, who find them funny.

There are no easy answers. This, after all, is the conundrum of the images of black people -- on television, in movies, in the news, in one-minute viral videos. Individuals take on the weight and the history and the burden of having to represent their entire race. There's something vaguely insidious about the way in which these real people, people like Dobyne, become caricatures. 

But the complicating factors must, at the very least, be acknowledged. These videos are funny, but they aren't funny. Dobyne and Sweet Brown's homes were damaged by fire, they almost lost their lives. Antoine Dodson was interviewed in the first place because he saved his sister from an attempted rape, not simply a "bed intruder." The humor, then, is derived from the irreverent way in which these viral stars recount their own trauma. There's something kind of beautiful in that, something that continues a tradition of black humor that turns tragedy on its head (see Richard Pryor, Moms Mabley, etc). 

And yet, that beauty is undercut by the fear that the joke is on Dobyne, that even amidst her newfound, 15-minute success, her viral video stardom is really a form of modern-day minstrelsy. But whose fault is that: hers, or ours?

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