by guest contributor Tami Winfrey Harris, originally published at What Tami Said
Last month, the New York Times reviewed comedian Chris Rock’s New Year’s Eve stand-up performance at Madison Square Garden. the review alleged that while Rock is still edgy and, most importantly, funny, the comedian has shifted his approach to racial comedy over the years. Kelefah Sanneh wrote:
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.
“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 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 hyper sexual and crass.
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 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?
Note from Carmen: If you haven’t already, be sure to check out tstorm’s excellent documentary on race and humor