Monday, November 16, 2009

From the vault: Who is allowed to laugh at black culture?

[This post was originally published on Jan. 8, 2008.]

Today's New York Times includes a review of comedian Chris Rock's New Year's Eve stand-up performance at Madison Square Garden. the review alleges that while Rock is still edgy and, most importantly, funny, the comedian has shifted his approach to racial comedy over the years. Kelefah Sanneh writes:

Where once he held forth conspiratorially, flattering fans by sharing taboo insights with them, now he is more likely to hold forth confrontationally, as a way (perhaps) to acknowledge the Michael Scotts in the crowd. Where once he was mainly descriptive, now he is prescriptive too. Monday's set included a long bit about when it is permissible for white people to use his favorite racial epithet (there is only one hypothetical occasion, and it involves extreme suffering); advice to women with careers not to complain to their nannies; and an explanation of why no one should have been surprised when Don Imus made his comments about the Rutgers women's basketball team.

Conscious of the weight on his shoulders, Mr. Rock now seems a little less roguish and a little more righteous. Almost out of the blue, he asked, "Do you know how much better Seabiscuit's life was than my grandfather's?" And a riff on Regis Philbin built to a climax that was shocking and amusing in equal measure. SOURCE

"Michael Scott" refers to the lead character on NBC's popular "The Office." Despite Scott's professed tolerance, he often horrifies his staff with social gaffes related to race, gender and sexual orientation. In a recent episode, Scott performed Chris Rock's infamous "two kinds of black people" routine and later wondered "How come Chris Rock can do a routine, and everybody finds it hilarious and groundbreaking, and then I go and do the exact same routine, same comedic timing, and people file a complaint to corporate?"

My question is not why non-black people need to tread carefully when finding humor in African American culture. I find it disingenuous when people claim to not understand why jokes at a group's expense (or certain words) are not appropriate when they come from outside of the group. My question is, is it okay for black folks to laugh at the racial stereotypes often found in comedy? What does it say about us? And what responsibility do black comedians have to censor what they say when their words have the power to influence mainstream perceptions of our race?

The topic of race seems to be a mainstay for modern black comics. Some, like Chris Rock, are usually able to tackle sensitive issues deftly. But a bunch are BET's Comic View-type hacks that traffic in "black people do this" and "white people do that" jokes. If you've ever heard these ubiquitous comedians, you know that in their routines the things black people do are always negative. We have bad credit. We have bad attitudes. We are always late. We are lazy. We do drugs. Black men are unfaithful. Black women are loud, aggressive and emasculating. Both black men and women are hypersexual and crass. [Editor's note: I tried to listen to Jamie Foxx's station on Sirius satellite radio and it basically involves these sort of "comedy" routines strung back-to-back, 24/7.]

These gross generalizations and stereotypes don't seem to bother black audiences or black comedians. Is it because we have internalized society's negative view of us? Though we'll go to battle if a Don Imus cracks wise about black folks, do we secretly believe all the bad things people say? I find it telling that allegedly Dave Chapelle was okay with his TV show's often prejudiced content until he noticed that a white guy was laughing a little too hard at the jokes.

I'll admit it...I laugh at Chris Rock and Dave Chapelle. Can't stomach the Comic View brigade, though. I would be surprised if there is a black person who hasn't ever nodded and smirked at one of those "black people do this" routines. But laughter seems a lot like acceptance and knowing that makes me awfully uncomfortable.

Is it really okay for me, a black woman, to laugh along with stereotypes? And even if, as black people, popular comics have the right to send up African Americans and our habits, is it prudent for them to do so? Are they just polluting the social atmosphere, keeping black minds colonized and stoking prejudices in white minds?

Surprisingly, on this issue, I don't have an answer. Maybe you do. What do you think?


Kelly Hogaboom said...

I wrote, then erased, this huge comment about why I find the Michael Scott office humor stuff to be problematic, but then I realized you were in no way asking about white comedians and "politially incorrect" television / film. That's just something I'VE been thinking about.

As for your questions:

"Is it really okay for me, a black woman, to laugh along with stereotypes? And even if, as black people, popular comics have the right to send up African Americans and our habits, is it prudent for them to do so? Are they just polluting the social atmosphere, keeping black minds colonized and stoking prejudices in white minds?"

As for if the comedians are doing something imprudent as you say - I think it depends on the white mind. When I see "black people do this / white people do that" kind of stuff, I do not automatically assume it is accurate and I certainly know it couldn't possibly represent ALL folk. However I do prick up my ears, because maybe we are hearing something important about race relations today - even amongst the jokes. But do I walk away from a riff like that and think those things are true about an entire race or racial background? Nope. (P.S., I used to, kind of, in my very early twenties, and concomitantly when I thought America was 'post-race').

Do I think some whites listen to that stuff and gladly gobble it up and start to look at all black people those ways? Absolutely. Should the black comedians be held responsible for some white-folks lazy and prejudiced behaviors? ...?

I am subscribing to the comment feed and am interested to hear more opinions.

Lauren said...

I have always found black comedians riffs disparaging black people as a group to be offensive. It is like trying to be self-deprecating but doing it so as to be on the offensive, before others can put you down first.

As for Michael Scott, the viewer is SUPPOSED to find him offensive. And it is meant to hit home--It is satire. And it makes you realize how easy it is to be racist while trying not to be.

Lovin' your blog. It makes me think.

Joy-Mari Cloete said...

Oy, this is something I've been thinking about for some time.

I, too, laugh at racist jokes. And then I cringe inside.

Comedians have a social responsibility, even if they don't want to know it.

I'm glad that Chris has matured to know certain groups are off-limits. It gives me hope for humanity.

cocolamala said...

are you getting at the distinction between people who are laughing at the stereotype and people who are laughing with the stereotype? two different levels of appreciation?

because some people in the audience are laughing and thinking "haha, but that's not me!" and others are laughing and thinking "that's you right??"

it makes sense that there are different interpretations of the same jokes, because people are approaching them from different perspectives.

comedy isn't a science, so identical performances won't always produce the same results.

thats all i got

GoldenAh said...

How to tell when a joke is funny (at least to me): any adult could repeat it. Otherwise, the "joke" is lame, stupid, and not thought provoking enough.


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