By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer

Velma, Courtesy of HBO Max
Velma, Courtesy of HBO Max

With the new animated series “Velma,” HBO Max has given an old character a new twist. But it’s not the darker complexion or sexuality references that have eyebrows raised.

It’s a joke in a recent episode that has folks up in arms, a joke about sickle cell disease.

The series features the mystery-solving character Velma from the “Scooby-Doo” cartoons of old. She’s voiced by “The Mindy Project” actress Mindy Kaling. The Indian-American actress also serves as executive producer.

The new show is set before Velma joins the other teen mystery solvers known to Scooby Doo fans. In the offending episode, Velma, now drawn with darker skin to match Kaling’s, meets a snobbish Fred Jones, who can’t remember her name because he has a disease where he can’t recognize people who aren’t as attractive as he is: “My doctor says it’s basically sickle cell for rich people.”

The line set off a firestorm of reaction, as did a remark from Black comedian D.L. Hughley, who also poked fun at sickle cell while a guest on “The Daily Show.” Commenting on Fox News personality Tucker Carlson’s comments about the police-involved deaths of Sacramento native Tyre Nichols and George Floyd, Hughley said that Carlson “was so obsessed with Black people that he should be called sickle cell.”

Mary Brown, president and CEO of the Sickle Cell Disease Foundation, called the comments “tasteless.”

“In the wake of woke media, commentary and politics, it is disgraceful and dishonorable to have not one, but two ‘jokes’ made this week about sickle cell disease. ‘Velma,’ released on global streaming service HBO Max, and D.L. Hughley, a world-recognized actor and comedian, both failed in their comedic attempts yet succeeded in degrading an entire population of people who struggle, suffer, and die daily from this debilitating inherited blood disorder,” Brown said in a statement. “And to think that this is how we’re starting off Black History Month – what could have been an opportunity to support positive promotion and raise awareness for this community. I’m disappointed.”

Jennifer Fields, the foundation’s implementation strategist, also commented:

“Those living with sickle cell disease, the oldest rare blood disorder in the nation, are among the most medically neglected people in the world. We suffer through our own medical apartheid and now are the butt of two distasteful jokes. For what? A few seconds of laughter and a dopamine rush? At some point the puppeteering is no longer entertaining, but hurtful, stifling, and even murderous. We need to step away from the degradation tailspin and start to take care of one another.”

As an adult living with sickle cell disease, Fields took the comments personally.

D.L. Hughley, Courtesy of HBO Max
D.L. Hughley, Courtesy of HBO Max

“Mr. Hughley and the writers for ‘Velma’ – what you say changes narratives. Please use your platforms wisely and supportively. We’re not laughing.”

The animated show is being dragged online for several reasons. The backlash prompted HBO Max to disable the comment section for the trailer on its YouTube channel.

A person commenting on Twitter as MemeJ wrote, “#SickleCell isn’t some punchline to put in an @hbomax show. We are discriminated against in healthcare, which causes further harm to our physical & mental. Ignorant jokes like this make it that much harder for systemic changes to occur for better treatment of sickle cell patients.”

Meghan Jackson wrote, “So basically they are saying people with sickle cell disease are rude and poor? Terrible joke. Not funny. @hbomax do better.”

Commenter CarLeisha Garner called the sickle cell reference “unnecessary and insensitive” adding, “It just shows how out of touch people really are when it comes to diseases that disproportionately impact Black people! Also the rich part makes it seem like SCD is a poor people’s disease. It’s wrong on so many levels!”

Sickle Cell 101, a Silicon Valley-based nonprofit and online platform dedicated to sickle cell education, also took to Twitter, asking followers to weigh in on the episode.

FlyyBoyFord replied, “Our disease isn’t anything to joke about.” Ms. Rocky wrote, “Is this what people think about sickle cell?” and Jaynae Marie XIV wrote, “That whole scene hits all the wrong notes. They put all the racist and misogynistic undertones on top of making light of a serious illness.”

This article is part of a series that highlights sickle cell’s impact on the African American community and how medical professionals are working to remove barriers to care and ensure that patients get the treatment they deserve.