The Troubling Viral Trend Of The Hilarious Ghetto Neighbor

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Charles Ramsey, the Cleveland man who discovered missing teens Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight, spoke to Cleveland’s NBC affiliate yesterday, pushing back on the “hero” label that’s been affixed to him since his video interview went viral.

“I don’t even want it,” Ramsey said of the attention. “They keep saying I’m a hero. Let me tell you something — I’m an American, and I’m a human being. I’m just like you. I work for a living. There was a woman in distress, so why turn your back on that?”

Ramsey, the man who helped rescue three Cleveland women presumed dead after going missing a decade ago, has become an instant Internet meme. It’s hardly surprising—the interviews he gave yesterday provide plenty of fodder for a viral video, including memorable soundbites (“I was eatin’ my McDonald’s”) and lots of enthusiastic gestures. But as Miles Klee and Connor Simpson have noted, Ramsey’s heroism is quickly being overshadowed by the public’s desire to laugh at and autotune his story, and that’s a shame.Ramsey has become the latest in a fairly recent trend of “hilarious” black neighbors, unwitting Internet celebrities whose appeal seems rooted in a “colorful” style that is always immediately recognizable as poor or working-class.

It’s difficult to watch these videos and not sense that their popularity has something to do with a persistent, if unconscious, desire to see black people perform. Even before the genuinely heroic Ramsey came along, some viewers had expressed concern that the laughter directed at people like Sweet Brown plays into themost basic stereotyping of blacks as simple-minded ramblers living in the “ghetto,” socially out of step with the rest of educated America. Black or white, seeing Clark and Dodson merely as funny instances of random poor people talking nonsense is disrespectful at best. And shushing away the question of race seems like wishful thinking.