thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

“Try This Instead:” Interview with Cameron Johnson

In race, social media, web series on March 26, 2014 at 8:45 am

Phoebe B.

About a month ago I was searching for web shows to teach in my class on comedy, race, gender, and sexuality. Then I happened upon “Try This Instead,” a series of short, satirical videos on how well-meaning white people can avoid racial microaggressions. Not only is the web series totally hilarious, it proved a great way to frame discussions about race.

“Try This Instead” has already been featured on HuffPo; Shadow and ActClutch Magazine; and even Upworthy (among other places)! Thus, I was super excited when creator and star, Cameron Johnson, agreed to answer a few questions for GLG.  Read on for Cameron’s thoughts on the project, what he’s up to next, and his favorite non-work activities like hanging out with his pup and watching lots of awesome TV.

How did you come up with the project “Try This Instead?” Can you talk a bit about what this project means to you?

There are so many stories of microaggression from my life, but what inspired this show was an evening in November. I was sitting at the Standard Hotel Downtown when a group of white guys with an ethnically ambiguous friend came in and started throwing around the n-word with reckless abandon and making us all really, really uncomfortable.

It is a daily struggle for me to keep my mouth shut, so after about five minutes of this, I turned and said  “are any of you black? If not, did your black friend co-sign on your ability to say the n-word? Because I don’t.” They were really uncomfortable. Apparently, the ambiguous one was biracial and had, in fact, led them to believe that it was okay for them to say the N-word. It occurred to me though that one person saying you can do something that is offensive to a large group of people really isn’t enough, so I went home and started writing.

The first episode I wrote was “don’t say the N-word,” and from there, I started soliciting my friends about their “suggestions for white people,” and pretty soon, I had ten episodes and a show.  The project means different things to me for personal and professional reasons.  Professionally, this was an opportunity to see what I’m made of.  I’ve been working at being a screenwriter for nearly eight years, and while I’ve had some successes, this is the first chance I’ve had to take something from concept to execution. I’m overwhelmingly thrilled with the results.

On a personal level, it means I can stop repeating myself. For my entire life, me and people like me, have heard things like this.  “You’re not really black,’ ‘it’s okay if I say the N-word,’ and calmly, quietly explaining to people why what they’ve said is an insult. Now, I can just say ‘watch this.’

Who do you hope sees your videos? What do you hope they gain (other than basking in the glory of your awesome videos and advice)?

Hmmm… The target audience is two-fold. First, there’s minorities like me. People who have been on the receiving end of these behaviors. Initially, I’m talking about black people, but as the series goes on, I have suggestions from gay people, suggestions FOR black people — and I want to reach those audiences. However, the other audience for this is well-meaning white people.

A lot of people don’t realize that these things are awkward or offensive, and if they can get past the sharper jokes, then they can actually learn things. I’ve had a number of people say “oh, I did that… oops.”  I don’t think someone who touches my hair or tells me I’m not really black is a racist — I just think they don’t know any better. And for people who are willing to look at their behavior and adjust it, this show can really make an impact.

What is the most surprising and/or most interesting thing you’ve learned or realized while working on “Try This Instead?”

The most surprising thing that I’ve learned is that some white people are really sensitive to any critique of their behavior. I’ve read some of the comments, and people are so deeply offended by the fact that I’ve singled out a group and asked some of them to behave accordingly. I’ve been called a racist, a bigot, an idiot, and my personal favorite — a douche-gargler.  It’s hilarious, and it’s sad.

I’ve also been surprised that this has actually inspired people to behave differently. A friend of mine posted a video of a well-spoken, nerdy black guy talking on TV with the hashtag #whitestguyever, and then after watching the “Don’t Tell me I’m Not Really Black” episode, tagged me in a comment saying that he was sorry and would take it down.

Which is your favorite “Try This Instead” video so far? And what do you love most about it?

Picking a favorite is just cruel! I don’t know that I have a favorite, but I will say that there was something deeply satisfying about the first episode, “Don’t Say the N-word.” Watching that juxtaposition between the fake klansman with the “What’s up N*gger’ sign, is just really funny to me, and it makes me laugh even though I made it up.

Do you have any other projects in the works? More YouTube videos, I hope?!

I have two projects coming up. First, is the Kickstarter for Try This Instead, which I hope that everyone reading this will donate to. We shot four episodes in our first round, and now we need to raise about $4000 to shoot the remaining six. These episodes delve deeper into black/white microaggression, but also gay issues, issues for black people, and perhaps, an episode from my white friends on how this isn’t racist. It’s going to be a lot of fun.

What do you do when you are not making videos?

When I’m not making videos, I’m writing, working my day job, or playing with my fluffy dog, Iris.

Do you have a favorite web series or TV series? If so, tell us all about it!

I’ll give you several!  I love Orange is the New Black, the web-series Day Drunk Gays by my friends Ean Wesslyn and Ben Simons; only in HelLA by Rory Uphold; Rupaul’s Drag Race and a more reality television than I’m comfortable admitting in a public forum.

 

Check out previous Girls Like Giants interviews here.

Related links:

Why We Should All Be Making a Fuss about Miley’s VMA Moves

“History Don’t Repeat Itself; It Rhymes” – Jay-Z and the Gatsby Soundtrack

1776, 1964, or 2012? Race Relations in ANTM’s British Invasion Cycle

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