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Racism cast in satirical light

Satire is hardly on the minds of some who visit the Web site rent-a-negro.com.

Created by satirist Damali Ayo, rent-a-negro.com sets out to expose attitudes about race and racism in America. And it confuses more than a few who visit.

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Ayo's Web site is like a tiny handful of Web sites that have sprung up across the Internet to poke fun at some of the most sensitive issues that continue to confront society. Ayo, of Portland, Ore., has chosen race relations between blacks and whites as her grand subject. She says that white Americans frequently ask blacks about their physical and cultural selves in the most direct ways - ways that might be considered rude if the questions were reversed.

Among the sites dealing with race through satire is one produced by brother-and-sister duo Jonah and Chelsea Peretti of New York, the creators of blackpeopleloveus.com.

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Their Web site stars a "well-meaning" white couple named Sally and Johnny, who are completely unaware of their racist point of view about black people.

Blackpeopleloveus.com also features fictional black and white friends of Sally and Johnny who praise them or ask them questions about their ethnicity.

"The initial hope was to provoke some thought, introspection or question in a humorous context," Chelsea Peretti said. "Race relations in America are complicated and charged. And we were mocking some of the problems that we had noticed."

After years of fielding such questions such as "Can I touch your hair?" and "Can all black people dance?" Ayo felt that her Web site was a natural next step.

"The site was generated out of the thought that I am tired of filling this service for free," Ayo said. "The site is satire on some level, but on others it is true to reality."

Ayo's site claims to offer a level of interaction that apparently goes beyond blackpeopleloveus.com. Visitors can formally apply to be connected with a "creative, articulate, friendly, attractive, and pleasing African-American person" who will answer all the questions they ever wanted to ask about black people and black culture.

"Strangers invade my personal space to touch my hair, compare my skin to theirs or ask invasive questions. These actions reflect a pervasive mentality that categorizes black people as objects to be consumed," said Ayo, who says that her work is not designed to make people angry. She says that she simply wants more equity when it comes to sharing information between different cultural groups.

"I draw my work from real-life experiences, and I use the word 'Negro' as the first clue to the satire - the way we treat each other in our society is as archaic and outdated as that word," Ayo said. "The Web site is a conceptual performance work consistent with my art, which explores object junk (the things we buy) and the social junk (things we buy into). My work ... explores a range of issues, one of which is race and racism. The site is an exploration of the dynamics between communities in the United States, interactions, histories and understandings."

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Ayo tells visitors that if someone wants to expand his or her social circle, become more culturally diverse or avoid the hassle of having a black person as a friend, then visiting rent-a-negro.com will help them with their efforts.

For a fee of $100 to $350, the site claims, Ayo will make a personal appearance to render her services. Prices increase if she has to attend company parties or answer demeaning and racist questions, or when her personal space is violated.

Despite the Web site's offer of services, Ayo only reads the requests - and wonders which are real and which are jokes - with an interest in what they say about society. She does not accept money for services or fulfill requests that come to the Web site.

Reaction to rent-a-negro.com has been mixed, with more than a few people missing the satire. Many - whites and blacks - feel that racism is nothing to joke about and are offended or confused.

Others get it and play along for fun. Some even offer suggestions.

Like Ayo, the Perettis have been criticized by those who don't understand their satire or don't like it.

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White supremacists have expressed displeasure with the Perettis' poking fun at them, and African-Americans have been offended by the site and called it racist.


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