Comedy serves as a fascinating yet controversial area of analysis in sociology. The way comedic performances frame sensitive subjects such as racism, sexism, and classism tell us much about society and about ourselves as viewers. In many instances, comedians seek to make their audience laugh through whatever means possible—including the use and reproduction of harmful stereotypes
--in order to gain popularity and earn a living. However, in some cases comedians can serve as formidable weapons of cultural transformation because of their sanctioned authority to progressively debate even the most difficult topics. Accordingly, comedy has the potential
to encourage audiences to critically think about why the joke made them uncomfortable and why they laughed at the joke. In analyzing humor from sociological perspective, it is important to consider what these jokes reveal about ourselves and our society. Using Sarah Silverman’s video, "I Love You More" (a.k.a. “Jewish People Driving German Cars”), this post considers what activist role comedians can serve in raising awareness about racism, and what, if any, boundaries should be drawn by comedians targeting race in their performances:
In this video, Sarah Silverman explores and critiques many different racial and ethnic stereotypes. She sings lines like “I love you more than Jews love money” and “I love you more than Asians are good at math.” To elaborate on one example, Silverman articulates that “Jewish people driving German cars” is similar to “Black guys calling each other niggers.” When the narrative cuts short to two deadpan African-American men, they stare at her in all seriousness and do not laugh at the comparison; the tension created from the scene is unsettling. For a moment, Silverman looks taken aback and frowns sheepishly, until one of the African-American men starts laughing and she, relieved, playfully pushes one of them and starts laughing again. Both men immediately stop laughing and stare unbelievably at her in silence. She nervously tries to laugh at the joke again, but this time they do not join in and continue to stare at her, showing that it isn’t funny to them for her to make a joke out of racism against their racial group, even though she also inhabits the identity of another historically oppressed group (she is Jewish). Silverman cuts off the video mid-laugh by turning her head to the camera while smiling and singing "Chachacha!"Silverman's use of the "n-word" creates a tense moment.
While many people love Silverman's humor, it is not for everyone. But stay with me here; let’s unpack this to the degree that people do find it funny (and based on the YouTube comments
, at least some people do). How should we interpret Silverman’s comedy and the role of her race and ethnicity in her performance? More broadly, how does the race or ethnicity of the comedian telling the joke affect our reception of the joke? Is it okay for black people to do racially prejudiced jokes about African-Americans, or wouldn’t that also be discriminatory of them to do so? Are there times when it is acceptable for dominant racial or ethnic groups to make jokes about racial minorities? To help us understand how humor functions and how audiences receive humor, we can draw upon a number of theories of humor.
First, according to relief theory
, we find humor in taboo topics and “naughty” thoughts (Mulder and Nijolt 2002
). This theory of humor is based in Freudian theory which sees such taboo subjects as creating a nervousness or “psychic energy,” which is released through laughter. This is especially the case when an individual has suppressed particular feelings, which are addressed in a comedic performance, and relieved through laughter. In our examples here, audiences are likely to recognize that the stereotypes presented in Silverman’s video are taboo or politically incorrect, and to the degree that they feel uncomfortable (which may be compounded if they partially accept the stereotypes but suppress their beliefs), this nervousness may be released through laughter. But this only suggests why we laugh, but not necessarily why we interpret the joke as humorous.
Second, incongruity theory
posits that people laugh to release physical, mental, or emotional tension when there are incongruities (i.e. things that are perceived to be out of place or inconsistent in relation to the established social norms). From this perspective, humor may be seen as releasing anxiety and tension over incompatibility between the object that is being targeted and how the audience anticipates a different meaning. But given a range of possible audience perceptions, different audiences may identify different incongruities and thus experience humor for distinct reasons. In this case, the analysis hinges on identifying various incongruities, which I will pursue further below.
Third, Charles Gruner’s superiority theory
helps further explain why and how people find certain jokes about race funny and others offensive. Superiority theory rests on the assumptions that “we laugh about the misfortunes of others [and] it reflects our own superiority” (Mulder and Nijolt 2002
: 3). It argues that “every humorous situation has a winner and a loser; incongruity is always present in a humorous situation; [and] humor requires an element of surprise” (Mulder and Nijolt 2002: 3). From this perspective, humor is a means to “compete” with others and “the ‘winner’ is the one that successfully makes fun of the ‘loser’” (Mulder and Nijolt 2002: 3). (Picture the bully making jokes about someone else to put them down.)
When we integrate incongruity theory with superiority theory, we might see some troubling consequences of jokes that play on stereotypes. In short, “the phenomenon of humor requires the participation of at least two parties: an object (probably incongruous) and an appreciator (probably feeling superior)” (Lyttle 2003
). This joke becomes funny (for some audiences) because the objects made fun of by Silverman during the performance are black, Puerto-Ricans, gays and lesbians, and Jewish people. From this perspective the incongruity might lie in the unexpected juxtapositions of different stereotypes, their simultaneous juxtaposition to crude statements (e.g. “I love you more than dogs love balls”), her usage of a derogatory racial slur while members of that racial group are present and appear physically threatening, and the audience’s overall struggle to interpret her political incorrectness. In particular, the narrative gets progressively more incongruent as the tension escalates from her sense of entitlement to criticize other oppressed minority groups. While some audiences might feel offended, this humor may empower others to feel superior because they seemingly lack the negative traits of the stereotypes groups.
In extending superiority theory sociologically, we can further draw upon maintenance theory. Maintenance theory argues that comedians'
jokes maintain the established social roles and divisions within a society. They can strengthen roles within the family, within a working environment and everywhere there exists an in-group and out-group. When [ethnic] jokes are concerned, jokers choose groups very similar to theirs as the target of the joke only to focus on the mutual differences and in that way strengthen the established divisions between the two groups. (Mulder and Nijolt 2002: 7)
Silverman’s humor supports this theory when she begins playing into an ethnic stereotype about Jewish people. She sings “I love you more than Jews love money” and then branches off into increasingly more offensive stereotypes about marginalized races and ethnicities, and gays and lesbians. The audience could perceive her as acknowledging some of the preconceived notions about her own ethnic groups only to establish that they are very different and separate from the preconceived cultural meanings attached other oppressed groups. This is accomplished by suggesting that her ethnic group has a sense of class-based superiority over these other groups.
If we interpret Silverman’s video through the lenses of superiority theory or maintenance theory, we should be highly critical of it. As the YouTube comments
for the video illustrate, many viewers do indeed take her stereotypes at face-value and find humor in them. If this were the only interpretation, we should critique Silverman, as a white middle-class comedian, to tell jokes that draw so blatantly on stereotypes about other oppressed racial and ethnic groups. From these perspectives, her humor reproduces stereotypes and the power relationship that is built upon them. Many comedians and jokes rely on these very dynamics. However, these are not the only interpretations of Silverman’s humor in this context.
Louis CK also pushes issues of race in his humor.
Rather, there is also a deeper, more critical incongruity in Silverman’s humor in this video. This incongruity is situated in how the objects (various racial and ethnic stereotypes) are positioned relative to one another in a way that actually challenges both the stereotypes and their usage by a white, middle-class comedian. The audience perceives a supposed ignorance in her usage of these stereotypes only to recognize that she is juxtaposing them in a critical manner. She produces dramatic irony that makes the audience sensitive to racial dilemmas raised in the performance. In short, one racial stereotype is like any other; they are gross oversimplifications that can be hurtful, but they do not affect all audiences in the same way (as exhibited by the reaction of African-Americans in the video). Or like Louis CK
once said, “white people don’t get offended by being called crackers.” Here, Silverman is bringing attention both to the inappropriate usage of the stereotype as well as her usage of it as a white person.
For those viewers that acknowledge these subtleties, we can interpret her song as raising awareness about why it is not okay for those who benefit from white or class privilege to use racial slurs or make racist comments. By introducing the African-American men in the skit, she holds the mirror up to herself and uses the tense, but humorous, moment to critique her own use of stereotypes. When the skit ends with a harsh realization that the comedian did not have the right to criticize the misfortune of these groups in the first place, the joke serves as a useful tool to unpack the sense of entitlement that white privilege bestows upon certain comedians, including Silverman. From this perspective, the tension is resolved only when the audience realizes through Silverman’s interaction with the two African-American men that it is her and her white privilege that should be made fun of. If we accept this interpretation, we might see her witty humor as exposing her own white privilege.
I leave it up to the reader to determine which of these theories of humor is appropriate for interpreting the video of Sarah Silverman, a white upper-middle class, female, Jewish comedian. Again, when we look at the YouTube comments
for the video, I believe we find evidence that viewers draw upon all these interpretations (and more). But the broader questions about the role of race in humor, and the quality of that humor, still do not end there. Even if we accept her humor as an attempt to expose white privilege, is it acceptable that she uses such blatant and derogatory racial slurs to so? As noted on Jezebel
, perhaps comedians must actually come from the marginalized position to claim to speak on behalf of them, or perhaps “if you need to rely on jarring, abominable and offensive words, you're probably not that funny” anyway. Elizabeth Dickson Elizabeth Dickson is a student at Ohio Wesleyan University, where she is double-majoring in Psychology and Sociology.
White privilege refers to the unearned advantages that whites receive because of their skin color. It includes a vast array of concrete advantages varying from institutional settings (systemic discrimination in housing markets) to everyday encounters (e.g. being able to shop in a store without getting followed). They provide a variety of social and economic benefits, and can be cashed in, to confer greater power, authority, and status upon whites. But as Peggy McIntosh argues
in "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack," these privileges are usually invisible to people who benefit from.
Largely because these advantages are invisible, it is no surprise that
many people deny the existence of white privilege. For example, we have seen this denial throughout our Facebook page
, and comments
on previous posts. Some of the critics makes claims such as "White privilege is a myth" and "What we really have in America today is black privilege." If you venture over to the entry on white privilege at Urban Dictionary
, you see definitions like this: White privilege is "the racist
idea that simply being white benefits people in some unexplainable way, and that discriminating against white people is not only okay, but enlightened and necessary" and "A term used as a blanket condemnation of any success a white person may have." Throughout these discussions and comments, you see that not only do some people deny any existence of white privilege, but they do so with such anger and emotion that is very striking. For many people, they feel wronged to be told that they may have unearned advantages from their skin color, and they are more comfortable believing that their accomplishments in life are based solely on their own hard work and merit. So is white privilege real? Yes. And contrary to the definition above at
Urban Dictionary, it is clearly explainable. By drawing upon many of our previous posts here, I will curate a multimedia look at white privilege, how it works, and how we might be able to talk about it with people who deny its existence. INSTITUTIONALIZED ADVANTAGES White privilege is institutionalized when
the practices and policies of an institution systematically benefit whites at the expense of other racial groups. There are many examples of this. In the US, institutionalized advantages have been conferred upon whites throughout history in the accumulation of wealth. Beginning with slavery, encoded in New Deal policies, and in institutional practices today
, whites continue to gain advantages in wealth accumulation. This first video (below) illustrates the extent of this gap today, and how the recent economic crisis has actually widened this gap. As of 2010, white households ($113,000) now have 18 times the net worth of Hispanics ($6,325) and 20 times the net worth of African-Americans ($5,677). See our full analysis here
White privilege is also institutionalized in the labor market. In this clip
, economist Sendhil Mullainathan discusses his (and co-author Marianne Bertrand's) 2004 field experiment that examined racial discrimination in the labor market (article here
). They sent out 5,000 resumes to real job ads. Everything in the job ads were the same except that half of the names had traditionally African-American names (e.g. “Lakisha Washington” or “Jamal Jones”) and half had typical white names (e.g. “Emily Walsh” or “Greg Baker”). As they illustrate, people with African-American-sounding names have to send out 50% more resumes to get the same number of callbacks as people with white-sounding names. This shows a clear advantage given to whites in applying to jobs, and helps explain part
of the racial gap in income.
White privilege is institutionalized in schools. Whites attend schools that spend more money per student, on average, than racial minorities. On average, they have better teachers. We can see this privilege illustrated in this video examining the role of race and education (see our full analysis here)
Follow this link to see further examples of how white privilege is institutionalized the housing market
. The key point here is that in each of these examples, whites are given certain advantages over other racial groups. This was not an advantages earned by whites through merit or hard work, but rather, was given to them based on the color of their skin. Of course, there is much variation within people of the same racial group (e.g. class privilege, male privilege, etc). For example, working class whites still experience many disadvantages in society, even if they experience white privilege. However, the simultaneous existence of multiple (and intersecting) privileges does not mean that white privilege does not exist. EVERYDAY ENCOUNTERS
White privilege is also experienced in everyday life. Peggy McIntosh provides a list of examples here
. Some of our videos found on our site also illustrate how skin color confers advantages in everyday life. For example, this Anderson Cooper video shows the stereotypes held by young children. We can easily imagine how this would provide advantages in how whites with similar attitudes would give preferential treatment over those with darker skin (see our full analysis here
In this next clip, author and educator Joy DeGruy recounts a story about a time she went shopping with her sister-in-law, who happens to be light-skinned and often "passes" as a white woman. This includes one of the many examples where racial preferences for whites shapes everyday experiences (see our full analysis here
It is worth noting, however, that while enduring a blatant instance of discrimination from a suspicious store clerk, DeGruy recalls that her sister-in-law stepped forward and confronted the clerk. In other words, she went further than simply recognizing her own white privilege, and in this case, she used it to call out an act of discrimination and highlight the injustice for onlookers. This example highlights the role that individuals can play in combating white privilege ... COMBATING WHITE PRIVILEGE
Despite the evidence, many people resist the notion of white privilege and deny its existence. So how can we engage them to combat white privilege and its inherent injustice? One way is through humor. In this clip from his show "Chewed Up," comedian Louis C.K. examines white privilege (including his own white privilege). One of the benefits of whiteness he explores is his ability to travel to any time period in history and know that, regardless of the historical era, he would be advantaged. He also examines the potential disadvantages of future retribution. Given the fact that whiteness has been so consistently privileged over such a long period of time, the clip can highlight for students the multi-generational privileges that accumulate over time from being white. Part of its power comes from Louis C.K.'s humor, which can help to break through some resistance to the concept, and make some individuals more likely to engage in a conversation. (BUT: note that while the clip may not explain present-day advantages of being white, viewers can critically approach Louis C.K.'s suggestion that "anything before 1980" would be a difficult time for non-white people. Contrary to this comment, white privilege clearly persists today; see our full analysis here
Another way to help combat white privilege is to be an advocate! Speak up! Part of the privilege that whites have (which they never specifically asked for) is that people will listen to you when you talk about white privilege! Here is scholar and activist Tim Wise speaking on white privilege:
Of course, people of all racial groups constantly struggle against white privilege. And a final way to combat white privilege is to join a group fighting racial discrimination and oppression. Help build cross-race alliances and lend support to marginalized groups speaking out about the racism they experience. Only by talking about and engaging in conversations about racial oppression and white privilege can we overcome it. Paul Dean
A privilege is a special entitlement or right granted to certain people or groups, but not to others. The notion of privilege in regards to race was made famous in Peggy McIntosh's now classic "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack
," where she identified list of everyday privileges she experienced from being white. This focus on privilege represents a way of understanding race by focusing not only on the disadvantages of racial minorities but also on the advantages systematically conferred upon whites. While a white person may not have done anything to get the privilege, and may not have asked for it, they still benefit from the (often invisible) privilege in everyday life.
In addition to the privileges conferred on whites in the labor market
, in shopping and financial transactions
, in the housing market, and many other social situations, whites also receive privileges in politics. In borrowing from McIntosh, I have
developed a list of privileges given to Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential race. Feel free to comment and add more.
1. Mitt Romney is able to talk to and over a moderator of his own race about his plan for the economy during the 2012 Presidential Debate. His reaction will not be interpreted as being from "the angry
white guy." He is also able to appeal to both a live and broadcast audience largely of his own race.
2. Mitt Romney’s citizenship and birth certificate have not yet been scrutinized in the media. He does not have to spend time and resources on his campaign to convince voters he is American.
Donald Trump insisted Obama was not born in the US.
Anti-Obama sentiment swelled at false allegations of being born in Kenya.
3. Mitt Romney is not regularly portrayed in political cartoons as a monkey or native to another country. 4.
Mitt Romney’s family does not have to constantly worry about how "white" or "normal" they appear to the public.
5. When Mitt Romney seeks to appeal to low-income voters, he does not have to fear being associated with negative stereotypes of welfare. A recent study
found that, compared to the broader population, people with "racial resentments" were much more responsive to negative ads linking Obama to welfare.
6. Mitt Romney does not have to worry about whether or not the public disproves of his dog because of racial resentment. Researchers
examined what would happen when they "showed respondents a picture of a Portuguese Water Dog and told half it was Ted Kennedy’s dog and the other half it was Obama’s dog." They found that "when respondents with higher levels of racial resentment heard it was Obama’s dog, they were more likely to disapprove of it.”
7. Mitt Romney does not have to speak eloquently or intelligently at all times to be taken seriously.8.
Mitt Romney does not have to constantly worry that every political move he makes will be attributed to his race.9.
Mitt Romney is not setting the precedent for the image of his entire race in a position of political power while simultaneously taking the heat for and trying to fix the mistakes of his successive white oppressors.
10. Mitt Romney can afford to speak about or avoid the topic of race if it is brought up in a debate without drawing attention to himself.
Disapproval of Obama's dog increased among respondents with "racial resentment."
Elizabeth Dickson is a student at Ohio Wesleyan University, where she is double-majoring in Psychology and Sociology.
Originally posted on Sociological Images
Back in 2007, Dr. Oz stood on the set of The Oprah Winfrey Show and infamously promoted to an audience of 8 million viewers the idea that African Americans experience higher rates of hypertension because of the harsh conditions their ancestors endured on slave ships crossing the Atlantic. This so-called "slave hypothesis" has been roundly criticized for good reason, but I was struck that it was being promoted by such a highly educated medical professional.
The episode got me thinking about the sociologists Omi and Winant's
notion of a racial formation
as resulting from historically situated racial projects
wherein "racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed" (p. 55-56). These projects take multiple forms but in at least one version, there is an attempt to collapse race—a socially constructed concept—into biology. Such projects are similar insofar as they suggest that the socially constructed distinctiveness between people of different racial categories roughly approximates a meaningful biological distinctiveness. Scientists have been centrally involved in this effort to establish a biological basis for race. In the middle of the 19th century Dr. Samuel Morton attempted to show that average cranial capacities of people from different racial groups were significantly different. Today, many people scoff at the misguided racism of the past, but I think Dr. Oz's promotion of the slave hypothesis demonstrates that the search for a biological, and therefore "natural," basis for race continues.
So how do proponents of the slave hypothesis explain hypertension? In 1988 Dr. Clarence Grim first proposed the theory, which is the idea that the enslaved people who survived the Middle Passage were more likely to be carriers of a gene that allowed them to retain salt. Grim argued that this ability to retain salt, while necessary for a person to survive the harsh conditions of a slave ship, would ultimately lead to hypertension as the person aged. Thus Grim proposed that African Americans living in the United States today are the descendents of people who have this selected feature. As I mentioned above, this theory has been soundly refuted
but reportedly still remains in many hypertension textbooks. Looking at the clip above, which is from January of this year, it seems that medical professionals like Dr. Oz may be still promoting it.
I think it is important to recognize that this particular racial project persists in many forms, and one final example is from 2005, when the FDA approved BiDil as a customized treatment of heart failure for African Americans. The approval was based on highly criticized research
, but the approval also implicitly makes the case that a racial group might be so biologically distinct from others as to warrant its own customized medication. Much like the search for different cranial capacities, the propagation of the slave hypothesis, and the marketing of drugs designed for different racial groups, BiDil's emergence can be seen as an attempt to deploy racial categories as if they were immutable in nature (see Troy Duster's article in Science
Criticizing this racial project is more than an academic exercise. As a social construct, race is already a central principal of social organization, which benefits whites at the expense of other racial groups. It is already a powerful basis upon which privileges are meted out and denied. In my view, the effort to loosen race from its moorings as a social construct and anchor it again as a biological fact of nature is an attempt to fundamentally alter the discussion on racial inequality. If this project prevails and race comes again to reflect a biological truth, then fewer people will acknowledge racial inequality as the result of a human-made history. It will instead be seen as the result of humans being made differently.Lester Andrist
Originally posted on TheGrio
Last year saw the airing of the 62nd annual prime time Emmy awards. The critically-acclaimed comedy 30 Rock was nominated for "Best Comedy Series" for the fourth time in as many years (it was unseated from its throne by the new series Modern Family). The increasingly popular show features the talents of Emmy winners Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, and nominee Tracy Morgan, who portrays a character known as Tracy Jordan, a rich black comedian known as much for his childish antics as his broad comedic abilities.
In this setting, Jordan is used as a satirical look at black actors/comedians and their behavior in the white-dominated entertainment industry. He often complains of racism, indulges in debaucherous behavior with strippers, and is accused of fathering children out of wedlock, among other things. The character has been simultaneously criticized and praised--at times being written off as another stereotypical representation of black men and a brilliant use of satire to observe and send up the way Hollywood views and treats black celebrities.
With 30 Rock entering its fifth season, I think about the Tracy Jordan character and its longevity in comparison to other popular satirical representations of black life, namely Chappelle's Show, which went off the air after two seasons, and the recently wrapped animated series The Boondocks, which managed to last three. I have to wonder if the Jordan character can maintain its freshness, humor, and bite or will it meet an early demise like that of its satirical brethren. And that leads me to the larger question: is black satire built to last?
Consider Chappelle's Show. After two hugely successful seasons which propelled Dave Chappelle to "funniest man in America" status and set records with the DVD sales. But with a new $50 million contract in hand for the production of a third season, Chappelle bolted without warning, taking a highly publicized and rumor laden trip to South Africa. In his first interview after returning stateside, Chappelle spoke to Oprah about his decision to quit the show. Part of his reasoning was that during the filming of a sketch in which faeries encouraged various people of different ethnic groups to participate in stereotypical behavior, Chappelle noticed a white crew member laughing in a way that made the comedian uncomfortable. He said it was at that moment he felt he was doing something "socially irresponsible" with his art.
Dave Chappelle as Tron Carter. Find an analysis of this clip here.
But Chappelle wasn't doing anything different than what his prior work would suggest. The difference, as William Jelani Cobb, a professor of history at Spelman College and author of the recent book The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress, noted in his 2006 essay "The Devil and Dave Chappelle
" was the audience. Where the first two seasons spoke to an audience that was "in on the joke", the audience that tuned in after the infamous Rick James parody
was a bit less savvy and aware of Chappelle's intent in using satire. Where the original audience could appreciate the nuance and sociopolitical underpinnings of the "Black Bush
" sketch in which Chappelle imagines the backlash that would be received had former President George W. Bush been black, the new audience seemed to only respond to his less intellectual work. And rather than play into that and become the very thing that he was attempting to skewer, Chappelle left.
In contrast, The Boondocks
, seemed to overstay its welcome in fall into the exact trap that Chappelle consciously avoided. Noted scholar R. L'Heureux Lewis, a professor of sociology and black studies at the City College of New York, says "Black satire is one of the most complex forms of social commentary and the first two seasons of The Boondocks
added to a long legacy of black satire," but adds that the third season "sacrificed the multi-layered appeal of satire for fast laughs."
For me, The Boondocks
started losing its appeal during the second season, when I could notice a shift in focus from the stories centered around the Huey character, pre-teen revolutionary in the making who often served as the show's moral center, to the periphery characters such as the self-hating Uncle Ruckus who often voiced harsh critiques of the black community in ways that would make Bill Cosby blush. The show was losing its satirical edge, in my eyes, in favor of cheap laughs that, as Lewis says, "leave the masses laughing but seldom questioning."
Many fans felt dismayed
with the way in which the third and final season played out. Writer Roland Laird seemed to disagree with this sentiment, however, writing for Popmatters.com
: "This ability to sharply comment on race and society while at the same time poking fun at black and white people is part and parcel of the subversive comic tradition." Laird is entitled to his opinion, of course, but I think something huge was missing from that season. "Satire has a purpose. It's not only to bring light to the absurd, it's also to turn it on its ear in order to show the correct order," says writer and pop-culture critic Bassey Ikpi, "What McGruder did this season was highlight the absurd and then become part of it."
McGruder seemed to have left the realm of satire in favor of ridicule, denigration, and contempt for the consumers of his show. "I think satire is often what people do to folk with more power or status than them," Cobb says, and McGruder stopped tuning the great deal his attention to those in power and projected it on those he essentially saw as less sophisticated than himself. The result appealed to certain people looking for a laugh at any expense, but for viewers like myself who appreciated the cartoon for its ability to provide keen insight into the sticky fields of race, culture, and politics, it no longer suited our sensibilities.
The shared thread between Chappelle and McGruder is that, essentially, the satire became too much. Whether the fault of the audience or the ability of the artists, their shows burned brightly for a brief period and bowed out, possibly before they had a chance to fulfill their potential. With only two an three seasons to their credit, respectively, their short-lived statuses make me wonder how Tracy Jordan has managed to escape that fate and remain interesting and entertaining for at least four years.
"Tracy Morgan does a brilliant job as this composite of black comedians," Ikpi says, "so much so that you are often surprised and pleased when you spot it." The key has been building a character that is as complex as the black community itself. Jordan plays on stereotypes, defies them, creates new ones, dismantles that identity, and starts all over. Where he was once played a millionaire playboy, he's now a devoted family man who wishes to win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony (referred to as the "EGOT"). He becomes equally as known for his raunchy comedic offerings as his role as a father. The writers have avoided playing him as one-note, and so far it has worked.
Black satire will likely always be an arduous undertaking and require a certain sensitivity and deft craftsmanship. "Satire works in part by taking a real trait and exaggerating it," Cobb says, "But what do you with black folk whose culture and ways have already been elasticized and exaggerated before you even start with the joke?"
My guess is, we'll just have to play it by ear and enjoy a few laughs along the way.Mychal Denzel Smith
Stand-up comedians exercise a curious privilege, which allows them to peddle controversial conclusions and uncomfortable insights without suffering the usual scorn and admonishment that comes with challenging systems of power. The comedian's stage seems to be a space that has been engineered for bringing indelicate knowledge about the world to the surface. For instance, the suggestion that Americans are deeply divided by race and class usually causes people to fidget, yet Chris Rock was greeted with laughter and applause when he unabashedly criticized
the racialized wealth gap in the United States during one of his performances in Washington DC. Similarly, Louis C.K. received a rousing applause when he discussed
his privilege as a white male, and Hari Kondabolu made an entire room burst into laughter by exposing
the nonsensical logic underlying stereotypes aimed at Mexican immigrants.Unfortunately, as with superheroes who use their powers for evil, not
all comedians use the stage as a venue for delivering social criticisms aimed at exposing injustice. For instance, comedy is just as likely to reinforce stereotypes as it is to criticize them, or to put it differently, the comedian's stage is just as likely to be a place where knowledge is "indelicate" because it is racist as it to be a place where knowledge is indelicate because it is critical of racism.
Consider Jeff Dunham's ventriloquial act featuring his popular dummy, "Achmed the Dead Terrorist." In the clip below, which is taken from a 2007 performance in Washington DC, Dunham draws upon a number of stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims, many of which have been around since well before the attacks on September 11th, 2001. Dunham is not deploying social criticism, but is instead uncritically drawing on racist representations for laughs. He is also reasserting and promoting what is by now a worn panoply of orientalist associations. Arabs and Muslims, like the Achmed character, are typically portrayed
as religious fanatics. They are often depicted as irrationally angry, and many are self-proclaimed terrorists. But if they are dangerous, they are dangerous buffoons and are often too incompetent to pull off their own deadly plots.
In this way, stand-up comedians can be understood as articulators of knowledge about the world. As I have argued, they contribute to the persistence of stereotypes at times, but they can also articulate convincing arguments against stereotypes. But what is true of stand-up comedy seems to hold for other types of comedic performance as well. Political cartoons, comedy sketches, and even situation comedies all peddle this indelicate knowledge about the racialized other. In "Ali-Baba Bound
," a Looney Tunes cartoon from 1940, Porky Pig runs up against Ali-Baba and his "Dirty Sleeves." The humor is constructed around a basic scaffolding of the Arab as dirty and sneaky. Ali-Baba's Arab underlings in the cartoon are depicted as too primitive to competently use rockets and must must run as suicide bombers toward a colonial fort with explosives strapped to their heads.
The articulation and reinforcement of Arabs as buffoons or Muslims as extremists, the elevation of these images above others as iconic representations ironically limits the field of vision. But shortly after 1940, events would transpire so that for a time Arabs and Muslims occupied a relatively small sliver of American concern. The sneak attack on Pearl Harbor the following year ignited a discursive explosion surrounding the Japanese, both those living in American neighborhoods and abroad. It is striking how eerily similar representations of Japanese persons were to those claimed for Arabs and Muslims. However, fed by photographed destruction of Pearl Harbor and the tangible realities associated with the American war machine shifted back into high gear, dominant representations of the treacherous Japanese other went further and faster. Each representation of the "Jap" became more and more fanciful; each illustration seemingly emboldened by the last to push the caricature even further.
"Waiting for the Signal from Home..." Dr. Seuss. February 13, 1942
Celebrated children's author, Dr. Seuss, published a cartoon only weeks before the United States would forcibly relocate 120,000 ethnic Japanese persons living in the United States to internment camps. The cartoon depicts a buck-toothed, fifth column of Japanese Americans lining up from Washington to California for their very own box of TNT. A man with a monocular scales the rooftop of the explosives depot "waiting for the signal from home." Or consider a Looney Tunes cartoon from the period, which is named "Tokio Jokio" and similarly claims buck teeth and buffoonish behavior for all Japanese persons on the planet.
The cartoon elaborates upon many of the typical stereotypes associated with Japanese persons but unlike the Dr. Seuss cartoon, the attempt at humor is harder to miss. Whereas the Seuss cartoon reverberates extant fears about a treacherous Japanese enemy living among us, the Looney Tunes cartoon lampoons them as bumbling idiots. In the Seuss cartoon, their tribal-like loyalties to the Emperor mean they are capable of doing just about anything, but in the Looney Tunes cartoon they are too incompetent to prevent their own Fire Prevention Headquarters from burning to the ground. Such seemingly contradictory representations permeated the American imagination of the time, alternately stoking anxieties while assuring Americans of their national and even racial superiority.
These racist representations aimed at the Japanese were not buried by the detonation of two atomic bombs over Japanese cities. Just as before the Second World War, they have proven to be free-floating to a degree and transferable to our emergent enemies. Today, Arabs and Muslims are routinely depicted in popular cinema as incompetent. In our comedy, they are again the bumbling idiots, simultaneously too stupid to successfully perpetrate an attack against us and just stupid enough to commit truly heinous crimes. What was an imagined fifth column, has become the terrorist sleeper cell. In 1942 we feared Japanese Americans were blindly loyal to "their" Emperor. Today we are bombarded with ideas about the tribal loyalties of American Muslims. So powerful are these loyalties, it is often suggested, Muslims would happily kill themselves to bring about the demise of Western civilization. The fanatical Middle Eastern suicide bomber is the new banzai charger and Japanese Kamikazi pilot.
There is a joke that is now getting tossed around the internet, and it goes something like this, "A friend of mine has started a new business. He is manufacturing land mines that look like prayer mats. It's doing well. He says prophets are going through the roof." What this joke, Dunham's comedy sketch, and the Looney Tunes cartoon all share is that they mark historical moments when the racialized other became so thoroughly demonized and devalued in the public consciousness, our undifferentiated Arab "enemies" became so feared for their treachery and immorality that it became possible to make light of hypothetical and real violence perpetrated against them. What does it say about a people when they find it possible to laugh at a joke about a human detonating a bomb which is strapped to his body? One might speculate that it is strangely intoxicating to spot the boogieman tripping on his shoelaces, embarrassing himself, or dying by his own venom. The Achmed character's tired threat, "I kill you!" is funny, perhaps because his voice cracks like a thirteen-year-old boy, and we are entertained by the irony that someone so evil could appear so weak. "Look at the Muslim boogieman acting so foolishly!" we seem to be saying through our laughter.
Of course Arabs and Muslims are not born evil; the boogieman is a creature that gets created in the accounts of what might happen if the nation ceases being vigilant.
But the larger point I am arguing is that comedy, which uncritically trades in the negative stereotypes aimed at Arabs and Muslims and is able to make an audience pop with laughter with references to suicide bombing, is only possible because
Arabs and Muslims have been successfully demonized and devalued. Comedians write jokes to get laughs, but as I mentioned at the outset, they also operate from a space which grants them temporary license to openly discuss controversial ideas. Comedians contribute to the discourse, just as readily they respond to it, and their sets are just as capable of exposing hidden discrimination as reinforcing it. This is important to consider because what is at stake here is the differential valuing of human life, and the way representations are organized to aid in that horrific project.
Perhaps five hundred years from now, when historians are able to look back on this moment, freed from the myopic principles of vision and division that currently ensnare us, I wonder if they will find it ironic that during this zenith of global information flows, a time when information about the intimate lives of people in distant lands so easily zipped across the planet, Americans persisted in holding fast to such gross generalizations. And if those historians archive the media which depicts the moral panic of these decades, they would do well to note what made us laugh.Lester Andrist
Originally published by RH Reality Check.
I saw this video Tuesday evening when a friend posted it on her tumblr page. There was a trigger warning regarding suicide, violence, and bullying. I wanted to share this video because I did not know what to expect while watching and when the video was over I was stunned. Not just with the messaging and representations, but in the possibilities of using this video in a classroom or youth group. Please watch the video below. I’ve posted a few ideas I have on how to use this video, please share some ideas and suggestions you may have!
There are so many ways to use this video with youth. I wanted to share and hope others want to add how they may use this video as well or what discussions you may envision having.
I’d first start by introducing the video. This may require some background of the artist Marsha Ambrosius
, who is the other half of the R&B duo Floetry
. They reached a height in mainstream popularity in 2002-2003. This is important to keep in mind, as some youth may not know who the artist is because of this time period.Discussions of Bullying
I’m not sure if the concept of “bullying” would connect clearly with some viewers. It may be that some youth and other folks may view the experiences presented as intra-racial violence and not only bullying. There may also be a connection between bullying and age. Some may view the men in the video as adult males who may be too old to experience bullying in the ways we’ve heard about it in the past several months. This may lead to some interesting dialogue about how bullying can be considered an age-specific experience.
Conversations about masculinity and how it is connected to gender, race, ethnicity, age, geographic location, and ability (to name a few) will also be important. How are racially Black men living in the US expected to present themselves? How was Black masculinity represented in this video (make a list of all the forms of masculinity and Blackness seen, for example clothing, forms of affection, solidarity, etc.). Were there attempts at defending masculinity? How is intra-racial violence affecting our community? (this may be a good opportunity to have information about intra-racial violence as connected to various forms of violence from rape to murder). What could some community responses to violence look like in this situation/scenario?Discussions on Men of Color & Same Gender Relationships
I’d make it clear that this is NOT a “down low” relationship. Both men have publicly been together and showing affection for and with one another. Living in NYC where the anti-homophobia campaign “I Love My Boo
” began in October 2010, representations of men of Color in same gender relationships remain limited (see some of the images here
). I have not seen in mainstream popular culture such images since Noah’s Arc
(which I’m still recovering from it’s absence in my life) and the film that was released in select theaters in 2008, Noah’s Arc: Jumping the Broom
The phrase “alternative Lifestyles” is the one thing I have an issue with in this video. My opinion is that this term assumes there is a choice in how people are living and I believe that we do not choose our sexual orientation. I came to this space while working as an intern at the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) over a decade ago. GLAAD has a great Media Reference Guide
that has a section on offensive and problematic phrases/words to avoid and “lifestyle” is included with this discussion
Offensive: "gay lifestyle" or "homosexual lifestyle"
Preferred: "gay lives," "gay and lesbian lives"
There is no single lesbian, gay or bisexual lifestyle. Lesbians, gay men
and bisexuals are diverse in the ways they lead their lives. The phrase
"gay lifestyle" is used to denigrate lesbians and gay men, suggesting that
their orientation is a choice and therefore can and should be "cured"
In the beginning of the video the viewer may assume that there is a heterosexual relationship until there is affection in a specific way shown among two men of Color. This would be a useful time to discuss how we assume heterosexuality often, how heterosexuality is seen as a “norm” in our society, and what that does to all of us, not just people who do not identify as heterosexual. Here is a good article
about heterosexual privilege and a checklist that may be useful for this conversation.
These are a few things that immediately come to mind and I’m hoping that others will share some of their own. I know over the next several days as I think about this video I’ll come up with more ideas and possibilities. Thanks in advance for all of you who share!Bianca I. Laureano