Sorry, scrubbing racist TV episodes from the internet doesn't mean they didn't happen

'South Park' via IMDb

South Park is the latest TV show to retroactively wipe offensive episodes from the internet. All 23 seasons of the hit animated comedy are available on HBO Max — except for five episodes that include depictions of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.

Cartoons, drawings, statues or other images portraying the prophets of Islam are considered blasphemous, because they’re thought to encourage the worship of idols. Caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad that ran in French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo made the publication the target of Islamic extremists in 2015. South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone received threats in 2010 for their depictions of the religious icon.

Since George Floyd’s death at the end of May, a social reckoning has swept American culture, prompting lots of older TV series to rethink jokes that haven’t aged well — and probably shouldn’t have been broadcast in the first place. Earlier this week, Tina Fey asked streaming platforms to remove several episodes of 30 Rock containing blackface. Scrubs scrubbed three blackface episodes from Hulu this week, too. Netflix axed an episode of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia with characters Dee and Mac in blackface, as well.

It’s an interesting phenomenon, the way streaming entertainment enables revisionist history. Thanks to the internet, pretty much anything made in the last century is available for a la carte viewing. That also means there’s far more potential for people to encounter problematic content from the past (or in the case of South Park, 30 Rock and their cohorts, not-so-distant past).

Hollywood, like so many industries, was long the dominion of a bunch of homogenous white men. And for that reason, most of our entertainment tends to reflect their limited worldview. Just this week, over 300 Black artists and executives in Hollywood penned a letter demanding the industry divest from policing and invest in diversity, emphasizing how far entertainment has to go to truly represent and empower people of color.

The increased sensitivity of our current moment, coupled with the desire of white creators to protect their legacies and not get “cancelled” later, has led to this sudden cleansing of social platforms. Done all at once like this, it feels like a hollow gesture. What’s more, it’s a quiet erasure of content that should really prompt closer examination of these filmmakers’ latent racism. Blackface has no place on television, plain and simple. But what do we lose when we sweep these mistakes under the rug instead of confronting and learning from them?