I, like many other people of color, make fun of white people (a lot). I make no apologies for doing this. You get to be white in a world of global white privilege, and I get to be disadvantaged because of it. Thus, by default, I get to make fun of white people as much as I want. My one white friend tells me they have no problem with this, by the way. That was a joke. Did you miss it? (I have more than one white friend. And now that I’ve explained it, the joke isn’t that funny anymore. Lame.) Racial comedy, whether formal or informal, calls into consideration the dynamics that are involved in humor as a tool of survival in the world of identity, privilege, and disadvantage.
Two Sundays ago, I saw Dave Chappelle LIVE in Chicago. Having been a huge fan of Chappelle for many years and never having the chance to see him in the flesh until then, I was more than a little excited. Don’t ask me for proof though – our cell phones were put in indestructible cases at the entrance of the venue, so there were no photos taken. You’ll just have to take my word for it: Chappelle’s still got it. Maybe not as much as he used to, but he’s still definitely got it.
Chappelle, like many black comedians, centers a lot of his comedy on race. Racial humor, when done right, has the capacity to have more social commentary and resistance potential than academic research. This is not a new idea, but comedians oftentimes do double duty as public intellectuals. Chappelle is one of those comedians. From his famous “racial draft” skit to his “reparations/Black money” skit, Chappelle has educated the attentive mind in the country as well as, and perhaps even better than, any cultural college class.
The truth of humor however, and this is especially true in racial humor, and specifically in Chappelle’s comedy, is that you can miss the underlying social meaning of the joke. There is of course, not only one social meaning in any one joke. There can be multiple interpretations used to deduce social commentary made in a single joke, and dependent on different lenses too.
But there are good and bad ways to conduct deductions of social commentary. Take Chappelle’s reparations skit in which he showcases poor black people buying seemingly ridiculous (and stereotypical) things with reparations checks. Was it about making fun of the black and poor? Or was it about making commentary on the perceptions of how (white) America views the black and poor, and their perception of what would ensue if reparations were ever made to black Americans? One of these interpretations allows for more nuance on social commentary than the other. One of these interpretations allows for deconstructing Chappelle’s comedy as more than a simplistic text that further disempowers the disenfranchised.
Not wanting to get away from the point of the premise however, why is racial humor (like Chappelle’s) significant for understanding the social reality of people of color? Is it just as simple as humor’s utility in making social commentary? Is it that humor is a tool of survival for people in disadvantaged positions in terms of sense-making and being able to deal with very harsh realities of discrimination and prejudice? It is probably both of these things. But there are also other dynamics involved in making making fun of the oppressor(s).
Oscar Wilde gave us insight into the reasons for utilizing humor to make social commentary beyond the obvious reasons of survival and making general observations. In The Nightingale and the Rose, Wilde wrote, “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.” That seems to lend itself to the idea that racial humor provides a way to say things that in polite conversation – and even in intellectual conversation – we might find it difficult to articulate. It is much easier to laugh at Aamer Rahman’s joke about the historical events that would have to occur for reverse racism to be a real experience, and to juxtapose that racism doesn’t constitute asking white people, “Why can’t you dance?” than to digest social theories of race and history, that essentially say the same things (and even with statistical evidence to back such claims).
Aside from offering survival, a means of sense-making, and the capacity to reveal hidden truths, racial humor is also socially located in shared experiences. Jazmine Hughes discussed this in her excellent piece earlier this year, “How Many White People Does It Take To Ruin A Good Joke? Hughes also discussed that the space of humorous racialized experience sharing for people of color, has become co-opted by white people making fun of white people. So the question arises of whether and how racial humor can continue to be a means of social resistance, when the privileged use it against themselves. Essentially, does white people making fun of white people offer any assistance in survival, sense-making, truth-telling, and shared experience for people of color?
One could argue that shared racial humor, especially when white people are in on the joke that makes white people the butt of the joke, offers a space where social bridges can be built between the experiences of people of color and white people. But it can also be argued that the space changes as a tool of shared experience for people of color when the privileged are making fun of the privileged, in what formerly constituted disadvantage-to-privileged humor.
On the one hand, it may mean that spaces based on shared experience morph into being more than for those who experience systems of discrimination – to include those who can choose to empathize. In this way, it can be easy to separate the white people who are “down,” and those who “don’t get it” i.e. those who you can’t take to a Chappelle show with you. But it also means that people of color open the space up to be a place only for making fun of those white people who don’t get it, rather than making commentary on entire systems and privileges of whiteness – that all white people benefit from at the expense of people of color.
In other words, even the space made for resistance, truth-telling, and shared experience can become a site where whiteness can be privileged. And in this context, the whiteness need only be accompanied by a certain neoliberal, down-with-the-struggle, “I really liked Drake’s album” troupe.
Now, I think it’s great that white people are making fun of white people. It certainly makes me less embarrassed when I mistakenly send a “black joke” to a white friend via text, or share an article that is hilariously relevant (but probably mostly to people of color). And it’s certainly better than the racism that occurs when “fun” is made of people of color. Yes, we can take a joke (contrary to the emails I receive from white MRAs in my inbox), but for some reason, the jokes targeting us always seem to come with a side of dehumanization.
But I am also cautious enough to know that racial humor – which does immensely wonderful things for social commentary and public intellectualism – should be weary of the potential for whiteness to reimagine itself and continue its hegemony in a new age, and yes, even in humor; even if “it’s just a joke.” As we’ve learned, jokes, especially those told by comedians, are powerful tools that can at their best, force a nation to see its reflection in unflattering lighting, and even make insightful and powerful statements that empower the disenfranchised.
So how do we prevent this watering down of the otherwise powerful racial joke? Or more importantly, resist making racial humor another site of privilege for particular kinds of white people? (Yes, Drake listeners, I’m still looking at you.) I’m not entirely sure. But I think it starts and ends with humor and making new, good racial jokes that are cognizant of the new racial humor space where “white-on-white” (Ha!) jokes are rampant. Comedians and those of us who attempt to be funny in our everyday lives in terms of race, will have to make more intelligent jokes. The sort of jokes that even the “down” white person realizes, “Wow, that was funny and insightful and that joke is making fun of me. Not some other white person. That joke may even be resistance to racial oppression.”
As for the white person who doesn’t get it, well, you might find him or her in the comments section of an article on racial humor (or anything on race, really) probably yelling some version of, “If you wrote this about black people/people of color, that would be racist!!!” Or at the very least, telling the author something about how she should go back to Africa. Yawn. Let me guess, #AllJokesMatter, right?