Tag Archives: Republican National Committee

Can’t You People Take A Joke?

27 Aug

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.

Overheard in Brooklyn

19 Jul

This past weekend, two middle-aged African American men were sitting on a bench in Fort Greene Park. A white gay couple walked by provoking one of the Black men to complain to the other about LGBT people, comparing homophobia to racism. He said, “…I’m a Black man. You know that the minute I walk into the room. There’s no hiding…”

I guess that’s what I get for being nosy. The idea here is that comparing queer oppression to racism overstates the problem of homophobia because queers can pass while people of color can’t. Michael Steele, the first African American chair of the Republican National Committee, has made this same argument. So have members of my family.

This logic is damaging to the cause of anti-racism and of social justice.

I get that different people experience oppression differently. I’m also not one of those people who thinks everything is relative. Some things are really worse than others, both to the person experiencing them and to our culture and political system.

However, this is beside the point. While we are oppressed in different ways, those differences don’t obliterate the connections that exist between us.

Case in point: about 50 years ago, when white conservative elites were pushed out of power by liberals, they realized that they needed to change strategies. Their main institution of political power, the Republican Party, needed to stop being the party of the rich and become a party of the people.

To accomplish this, they switched from a more purely pro-business agenda and towards opposing the Democratic Party’s rights agenda, then centered on civil rights for African Americans. The audience for this move was white Southerners who’d become Democrats in opposition to Lincoln and the abolition of slavery, and might react to civil rights for African Americans by becoming Republicans. They were right, but simply opposing civil rights was not enough.

Conservatives needed to reach beyond the South and build a national base of power. So they aligned themselves with the then fast growing evangelical movement. To do this, they appealed to the cultural conservatism of evangelicals by attacking reproductive freedom and LGBT rights. This move built their evangelical base while simultaneously splitting liberals. The liberal split cleared the way for a highly politicized evangelical plurality (the largest minority) of voters to seize control of politics.

We do share common cause, and splitting hairs over who is more oppressed doesn’t help us promote that cause. But, I realize that political arguments are not enough. Folks engage in the sort of fighting exemplified by the “queers can pass but we can’t” argument because too many of us are given little else than our survival in the face of oppression on which to hang our dignity. In a society that makes relief for injustice a zero sum game, with protection only going to those who bleed the most, we are all tempted to engage in oppression competitions.

But here’s some food for thought. As a queer who can usually pass, the very fact that passing is treated as a privilege is part of my oppression. The desire to pass is founded in shame and fear of violence. Every time I choose to hide, I must acknowledge that shame and fear. It’s not a privilege to pass. The privilege lies with those we are passing to appease.

And as long as we continue to minimize this sort of oppression, we hurt the cause of justice. After all, from day to day, most of us are not oppressed in ways that are extreme and outrageous as measured by the yardsticks of those with the most privilege. Our oppression is meted out in little humiliations, small hurts, and quiet indignities. We are followed in stores, or assumed to be foreign. We are sneered at or avoided or simply ignored. Every time looks of derision or suspicion are passed between people for whom we are the other, it chips away at our sense of security, of safety, and of peace with ourselves and the world.

While some of us are more horribly mistreated than others, it is the knowledge that we are all vulnerable to mistreatment – knowledge we are reminded of in little ways, every day – that keeps us from claiming our liberation. We need to honor these slights, these dings and scratches on our dignity, because we are human beings and we deserve better. Bottom line. That’s how we raise the standard on rights and respect.

So yeah, maybe I can pass as straight. But that’s just so not the point.

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