This past Saturday, Gawker ran an article featuring Olympic swimming champ Ryan Lochte’s sister Megan yukking it up on a comedy show. Presented as a “field correspondent,” Ms. Lochte describes a trip to China while tossing out some pretty nasty racist stereotypes and slurs, including liberal use of the word “chink.” I won’t get too far into the details as you can see the clip here.
Responding to criticism of her performance, Ms. Lochte had the following to say –
This was not a real interview, and it in no way reflects my true feelings or persona whatsoever. The intent was to make fun of the ignorance of people who actually do not have an understanding of other cultures and speak in racist ways. The skit and my character were supposed to be making fun of ignorance.
I’m not sure what’s so funny about racist ignorance, but I’m giving her the benefit of the doubt. Anyway, Megan Lochte is not the source of the problem. She’s just a symptom.
The problem is that we’ve made it okay for white people to behave like racists as a joke, as if, ha ha ha, aren’t racists hilarious? To which I answer, not to their targets.
While this should seem obvious to any thinking person, many comics (Chelsea Handler and, once upon a time, Andrew Dice Clay, being notable among them) play the racist ignoramus for laughs and, ahem, for cash. They shield themselves against accusations of racism by reasoning that by playing with race, they are addressing a societal truth, not just sweeping it under the rug.
This, to me, is the comedy equivalent of white folks making racist “observations” and then using the shield “but don’t get me wrong, some of my best friends are…” to deflect the perception that they’re racists. Take away the shield, and all you have is someone trying to avoid being called a racist while providing justifications for racism. Likewise, remove the comic’s shield of playing the racist as an ignoramus, and all you have is someone giving audiences permission to laugh at racist jokes.
Now I know a bunch of folks who argue that what makes this kind of so-called comedy funny is that it makes us uncomfortable and forces us to have to face ourselves. But I call b.s. on that rationale. It makes people like you and me who understand racism is a serious problem uncomfortable, and it might even make us laugh, but that’s not what it’s doing for most (white) people.
For most people, joking of this kind sanitizes racism by reducing racist stereotypes to a bunch of punchlines and racists into socially marginal idiots whose worst crime is looking ignorant.
The fact is, racist words are attached to racist actions that exist on a continuum that includes voting for racist policies, acts of harassment, and even violence, and that’s not the half of it. The climate in which racism thrives is one in which racist social policy can define standards of law enforcement and social programs, education, and commerce and in which racists operate at every level of our society – in academia, medicine, education, even (I’ll go so far as to say especially) in elected offices.
For this reason, where race is concerned, we need to tread carefully.
The extraordinary suicide rate among Native Americans is not funny. The wildly racist way in which drug laws are enforced is in no way hilarious. Armed vigilantes patrolling our Southern border, sex traffickers selling Asian women as “wives,” the falling down horrible standard of schools in communities with high concentrations of poor brown people are not matters about which people ought to be laughing. Whites parodying racists trivialize the consequences of racist people’s attitudes and behaviors.
When people like Ms. Lochte make jokes about “chinks,” they’re opening up a social space for racism that would be better left closed. We fought too long and hard throughout the violently racist history of this country in order to try to close that space by changing the public consensus on racism.
Now, the same opening that Ms. Lochte is stepping into in order to develop her career is the opening that makes it okay for Mitt Romney to make jokes that wink at racist birtherism and that allows someone like Pat Rogers (who thinks New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez’s staff meeting with American Indians “dishonored” notorious Indian killer and white supremacist Gen. George Armstrong Custer) to rise to the Executive Committee of the Republican National Committee, one of the most powerful political organizations in the world.
So maybe it makes me uncool that I won’t laugh at these jokes. But if being called uncool or a thought cop is the only consequence, let’s let them call us names and say something about it.
And no, the fact that comedians of color sometimes play to similar punchlines is not the same thing. Where white supremacy is concerned, white comics’ racist jokes are gestures of compliance. When people like Dave Chappelle or Margaret Cho make jokes that parody themselves or white racism, those are acts of defiance. There’s a difference.