Oct. 27th, 2013

pktechgirlbackup: (pktechgirl)
Like rape jokes, I think jokes about racism are powerful and important, and follow roughly the same rules: kick up, don't minimize, don't use it cheaply, and remember that people are worse than you can possibly imagine and your obvious caricature of how awful an opinion is is someone else's reality. I have less freedom to joke about race and racism than rape, because I'm white (which is totally fair and not me being oppressed), but that is not the same as saying white comedians can't talk about race. For example, please enjoy this clip from my go-to social justice comedian, Louis CK*


[Louis CK: Being White]

Key phrase: "I'm not saying that white people are better. I'm saying that being white is clearly better"

Or Wanda Sykes on reverse racism:

Key phrase: "That's not reverse racism. What you're afraid of is called karma"

Or Chris Rock on when white people can say the word nigger.


ETA: Lenny Bruce on the word nigger.


On the other hand, I have really limited sympathy when your entire schtick is using emotionally charged words, and someone becomes emotional in response to them This seems to be Sarah Silverman's problem. In her autobiography The Bedwetter she talks about telling the following joke on Conan:

I got jury duty … and I didn't want to go, so my friend said, "You should write something really really racist on the form when you return it. Like, you should put 'I hate chinks'." And I said, "I'm not going to put that on there just to get out of jury duty. I don't want people to think that about me." So instead I wrote, "I love chinks." And who doesn't?
Note: the original slur was nigger, but NBC made her change it to chink. So it's not like anyone was unaware what the driving force of the joke was.

In her autobiography, Silverman is really upset at the idea that anyone was offended (i.e. hurt) by this joke. She defends it as not being about Chinese people (or black people) at all, but about her being an idiot. I don't think that's a good defense. At a bare minimum, just using the world chink is reminding every Chinese person who has ever been a victim of overt racism (and I would be shocked if there was anyone who had been completely unscathed by racism) who hears it that racism exists and it is hurting them. That hurts. That invokes pain. And it's not incidental, it is the entire point of using a racial slur. Every joke involving race or racism invokes that pain, and it is their duty to have a point that is worth that cost. Louis CK's joke does: he's making people more aware of how racism is not a thing of the past.**

Here is the thing: just like jokes can reinforce rape culture without being about rape or sex, and without anyone wanting to imply that penetration without consent is okay, jokes can be racist without being about race. Kayne West (about whom I know almost nothing) said some batshit things on TV. Jimmy Kimmel did a bit on his show where he reenacted the interview with 9 year old children. I didn't see it until after I read the the criticism of it, but if I was seeing it fresh, I don't know if I would have picked up on the racial overtones. It would have been equally funny if it had been a white person spouting nonsense. But as Cord Jefferson points out, calling a black man a boy has a very long and specific history. I knew that intellectually, but I have no faith I would seen the implications in this particular instance. I was going to say that is many ways the greatest white privilege, but generations of accumulated wealth and not having my neighborhood torn apart by militarized police are pretty neat too.

My comedian boyfriend interpreted Jefferson's article as saying that any mockery of West was off limits. I don't think that's what he meant. I don't think he said anything about jokes one way or the other. I think he was trying to convey that West's abnormalities are not randomly distributed. West doesn't just live in a world where he's discriminated against, he lives in a world where people refuse to acknowledge he's discriminated against. Where the burden of proof is on him to prove the discrimination was racially motivated and not random noise. Which is just about impossible to do in any one instance- some people are universally assholes, some people are nice but having a bad day and sharing it with everyone. And yet over the some total of her life, a black woman will be the victim of a lot more of other people's bad days than I will. Telling black people they're not experiencing racism unless they can prove it is gaslighting.

For a really good, pure example of this, see the comments thread on a BoingBoing post about a Biology Online editor asking black female scientist Danielle lee, who blogged under the name "Urban Scientist" to write for him for free, and calling her an "urban whore" when she refused (she didn't name him, so I'm not going to either). One of the first comments is someone asking why BoingBoing mentioned her race. From there, the conversation devolved into "but you can't know for sure he was racist! It's a parallel to her blogging name! The fact that he was already using a misogynistic slur has no relevance to his argument! I am so logical and you are being ruled by emotions! Being offended is a choice!". The message being that 1. this man's intentions were the only thing that mattered. Pain caused by a slur used unintentionally is a moral failing of the victim. 2. some people on the internet incorrectly believing this man did something racist is a million times worse than some people on the internet incorrectly believing he didn't do something racist.

And it's all so focused on a word. Even as they made themselves look like ignorant, racist buffoons, his supporters successfully prevented the conversation from reaching the deeper issue of the severe entitlement issues this man displayed towards Lee, much less the fact that lots of other people, people in power, have those same entitlement issues and the good sense not to call their victims whores in a recorded medium.

To return to the subject of comedy and subtle racism: let's talk about the Smith kids. Everything I know about them I learned from Suri's Burn Book, but I'm prepared to admit they probably are arrogant little fucks whose parents are buying careers for them. That's what happens when your parents are that rich and famous and beautiful. Are they worse than white children would be, given similar parents? Do they receive more criticism than white children in the same situation displaying the same attitudes? Is that the right question, given that the situations are not the same, that these kids are growing up in a racist world? Are Willow and Jaden entitled to more leeway over attitude problems than white kids? Isn't that the path to infantalizing and invalidating black people?

The best answer I can come up with is that abstract opinions and interpersonal interactions are very different thing. A young black celebrity offspring is not entitled to cut in line at the DMV (an example I just made up), and if they did the people involved have every right to tell them to cut it out. Race blindness is sufficient to get the not-racist merit badge. But celebrity news sites should go softer on them*** , and adults as well. And yet, coverage on celebrity news can help a celebrity's career. But it seems entirely possible for coverage to be net positive for the individual celebrity but net negative for black celebrities as a whole, or black people as a whole, because it reinforces negative stereotypes.**** But it's the fault of a racist system that black celebrities idiotic actions hurt black people in ways a white celebrity's don't.

There may not be a fair outcome here. And I hate that. I want there to be something I can do, now, that means I don't have to think about hundreds of years of oppression or violence. Contemplating that there may not be, or that it may require sacrifice of things I feel like I earned, is really scary.



*Who I learned while researching this post is Mexican. As in, born in Mexico, learned English when he came to the US at age 7, still has Mexican citizenship. Ethnically he's 1/2 Irish, 1/4 European Jewish, and 1/4 Spanish/Indigenous Mexican. HH looks white, and his schtick is very much privileged white guy so I still feel like this is a valid example of how you can talk about race while looking white, and also I didn't want to rewrite 3 paragraphs, but it does complicate the point somewhat.

**I know I'm spending a lot of time praising Louis CK, but see also this clip on how recent slavery was. "Every year white people add 100 years to how long ago slavery was. I’ve heard educated white people say, ‘slavery was 400 years ago.’ No it very wasn’t. It was 140 years ago…that’s two 70-year-old ladies living and dying back to back. That’s how recently you could buy a guy. And it's not like slavery ended and then everything has been amazing”

***To the extent they are talking about children at all. I mostly don't they should, except for Suri's Burn Book, because that is really making fun of the rest of the media. But like I said about feminism last week: being not-racist is not the same as being good.

****See: the Flavor Flav Minstrel Show.

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