The New York Times

November 17, 2002

Black-White Harmony: Are You Kidding Me?

By LOLA OGUNNAIKE

You can't help but be intrigued. Sally and Johnny, a smiling, chin-chucking white couple, are claiming to have mastered the art of making friends with African-Americans. Skeptical? Well, they have proof. Visit www.blackpeopleloveus.com, click on "Hanging Out" and you'll find picture after picture of the couple cavorting with happy, smiling people of color. It's one big yellow submarine.

Accompanying other happy photos on the site are testimonials from their black friends. "Sally loves to touch my hair," writes a woman who is pictured in dreadlocks. "She always asks how I got my hair to do this. That makes me feel special. Like I have magical powers."

One man writes: "Johnny calls me 'da man.' That puts me at ease, because I am black and that's how black folks talk to one another."

Yes, it's a joke. Sally and Johnny are fictional characters portrayed by friends of the site's creators, and the site is a satire of the racial stereotypes often faced by blacks in predominantly white environments. Though it has only been up for a month, the site has received 600,000 visitors, many of whom have posted their responses, not all of whom got the joke.

"This ridiculous display of self-righteousness is exactly the kind of white privilege that keeps me mistrustful of your type," wrote one angry surfer. "You should be disgusted with yourself."

Scroll down and the temperature cools: "We've been laughing for days. From all of us who make up the intensely diverse architecture graduate student body at Yale, we thank you."

Chelsea Peretti, 24, a struggling stand-up comedian who is one of the site's creators, said: "It really shocked us how quickly this site took off. We were expecting a huge response, but not this huge."

Ms. Peretti, who wrote all of the site's content, and her partner (and brother), Jonah Peretti, 28, who designed the site, describe blackpeopleloveus.com as a form of social activism, a way of examining the infinitely complex subject of race relations.

"Because the site is funny, we knew it would reach people who might not ordinarily think about these issues," said Mr. Peretti, an adjunct professor of digital design at the Parsons School of Design and the director of research and development at Eyebeam, a nonprofit arts organization in New York. "We wanted to promote dialogue, to get people talking about these issues."

It's not the first time the siblings have used multimedia to court controversy. After visiting Nike's Web site last year and learning that they could order customized sneakers, Mr. Peretti requested a pair emblazoned with the word "sweatshop." Nike refused the request in an e-mail message, which Mr. Peretti forwarded to 12 of his friends. It went on to reach millions, Mr. Peretti said, and culminated in a face-off with a Nike executive on the "Today" show. "Katie was on my side," Mr. Peretti joked.

The brother-sister team next created the Rejection Line, a phone number to hand out to annoying pick-up artists in bars. When callers dial it (212-479-7990), a recording offers the option to press 1 "to talk to a comfort specialist," press 2 to listen to a "sad poem written by a kindred spirit," or press 3 to "cling to the unrealistic hope that a relationship is still possible."

But blackpeopleloveus.com is by far the Perettis' most ambitious project. "When you talk about race, it touches off a lot of people's individual issues," Ms. Peretti said.

Though much of the site's humor isn't that original — comedians like Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock have all lampooned white people's flubbed attempts at relating to blacks — the fact that the dialogue is transpiring on the Internet allows for user participation and a more honest exchange of views than is often afforded in daily life.

"I think the anonymity of the Internet allows people to discuss issues without self-censoring and that's politically useful in discussions of race," said Omar Wasow, the executive director of BlackPlanet.com, the most heavily trafficked African-American Web destination, according to Nielsen NetRatings.

Mr. Wasow stopped short of calling the Perettis' project social activism. "This is more to me like a prank," he said. "A clever, socially engaged prank, but a prank nonetheless."

Some visitors have taken to submitting their own mock testimonials, which the Web site posts alongside their head shots. "Sally is so thoughtful," writes one African-American woman. "She always tries to set me up with every black man she knows."

"I love Johnny," a male visitor wrote, "cause when he's looking for some weed, he knows I'm the go-to guy."

Ms. Peretti said she has been "freaked out" by some hate mail she's received from neo-Nazis and black extremists, although she's recently incorporated some of their responses into her stand-up acts. "The site should come with a warning," Ms. Peretti joked before adopting a throaty baritone: "This is a satirical Web site. Think critically while browsing."

Some, like Adina Ellis, 26, a black public relations account executive based in Manhattan, are thinking very critically. Ms. Ellis finds the site "hilarious," she said, adding that she's experienced many of the scenarios depicted there, namely the overwhelming interest past co-workers have had in her changing hair styles.

"Whenever I walked into work with a new look," she recalled, "I would prepare myself for the press conference, the endless questions about how my hair got that way and if they could touch it." Ms. Ellis, who has also been a victim of the "you go girl" phenomenon, added: "I know that they're not trying to be rude or offensive. They're honestly making an attempt to relate, but just going about it in the wrong way."

Kibwe Chase Marshall, a fashion designer in Washington who attended the Sidwell Friends high school (Chelsea Clinton was a classmate), has spent most of his 23 years as the lone black face in majority white settings.

He said he related to the satirical "testimonial" on the Web site from a man praising white friends for calling him articulate, and he has forwarded the site's address to both black and white friends. "A U.S. citizen having a firm command of the English language should not be regarded as shocking," Mr. Chase Marshall said. "A poodle dancing on two feet is remarkable. A black person who isn't grammatically challenged is far more common than recognized."

Naturally, people are curious about the Perettis' race, a fact that they have not revealed when asked by visitors to their site. They said they didn't want their race (they are white) to influence how people viewed the site.

"Part of the purpose of the site is to have people think about what is this and why it exists and not who is behind it," Mr. Peretti said.

The Perettis, raised in Oakland, Calif., have a Jewish father and an Italian mother. Their parents divorced when they were toddlers, and their father married again, to a black woman, and their experiences with their stepmother have shaped their views of race in America.

"We've walked into restaurants together and had people assume we're not with her," Ms. Peretti said.

Mr. Peretti added: "I don't want to overplay it, but it did have an effect. I think our background makes us very attuned to cultural differences."

Attuned, perhaps. But many visitors to their site will probably wonder what gives the Perettis the authority to speak on behalf of African-Americans. Not having actually experienced the frustrations they ridicule, are they qualified to spearhead this discussion?

Yes, the siblings argue. "There is a mistake that people have made about the division of labor," Mr. Peretti said. "It's like racism is something only people of color can think about. Feminism is something only women can think about. But it's important for white people to get involved in the critique too."

A friend of the Perettis featured on the site, José Germosén, a black Dominican, insists the siblings aren't suffering from a case of white liberal guilt. "I don't think they set out to defend the Negroes; they just had a genuine interest in sparking dialogue," said Mr. Germosén, 26. "A lot of white people of the hip-hop generation are a lot more sophisticated about how this game got started and they're just as interested in freeing up the blockage as we are."


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