In a time where racial matters are front and center can comedy help bring light to the problem?
“No one would listen to a thing I was saying in the whole meeting,” I complained to my close friend and classmate Will.
“It’s because you’re black.”
I laughed, “It’s so hard to be black,” but mentally I winched. Once again I was offered an explanation for being treated like a second class citizen in a situation where I was no different than anyone else except one characteristic; race.
I mean that had to be the only reasonable explanation, right?
I was in a group with all females so it wasn’t gender.
We were all in the same senior class about to graduate from the same University, so it couldn’t have been my educational capability, just like them I’d done my share of long nights filled with projects, papers and studying.
So it has to be race, that had to be the reason…right?
I’d grown up in a predominantly white town. My whole life most of friends had been white. . I was the token black girl and constantly reminded that I was different but it was acceptable because as they put it, “I was the whitest black girl they knew.”
My freshman year of high school I became really close with a classmate, she was what some would say the epitome of a white girl. Beautiful, naturally wavy blond hair and blue eyes. Not only did we become close but weekends at her house and outing with her family became ritual. I’d become part of the family.I’ll never forget one Friday afternoon her mom told us she needed to stop by her parents’ house. As we drove over her mother turned down the car radio and glanced back at me, “Dia, I’m sorry if Paw says anything, he’s just from a different generation. He doesn’t mean anything,” then she turned back up the radio. She didn’t have to say anything else we both knew what she meant and what could I do but smile politely and prepare myself for possible racial slander.
What made her feel she had the right to ask me to do that? To put my feelings aside? To silently approve of racial discrimination? Was that how she proposed we solve the issue of racism, pretend it didn’t exist? Didn’t really mean anything?
But really what was my choice? I was a 14-year-old girl. If he said something should I have remained silent? Should I have told him he was a bigot? Should I have just laughed it off and chalked it up to a “different time?”
Is laughing about it or down playing it another form of acknowledging it? If I say “Yes, I am a black woman. Yes, I am different than you on the outside”, the same as saying, “Yes, I am less than you”? Hell no.
There we sat in the minivan, three women who, I would aggressively argue, are strong capable women all given the same educational opportunities but there was still a divide: my race. My friend’s mom a single woman supporting four kids, my friend a student and star athlete,even at 15 had a promising future and me an A student with an impressive list of extracurricular activities and strong drive, were not equal.
When I got to college I formed a group of friends unlike any other group I’d been in before. A group of social others coming together to complete a diverse family: the nigger, the chink, the wetback and the queer. We had all felt out of place in the groups society would have placed us in and in the midst of freshman education and new found freedom, we found each other. Angela my sweet Asian friend had no desire to be in the large groups of Asians that seemed to inherently flock together. Tania, who had a family full of Spanish culture found herself more at home with the artistic students, than the rich Mexican students who walked around with a sense of entitlement. My dear Steven, who wasn’t even out to his parents, complained often about the flamboyance of most homosexual men he met on campus. And then me the girl who got called “white girl” when she turned to connect with members of her race. We were all aware of what we were and how the world must have seen us, even if it wasn’t true. This and it became a source of humor in our group. Affectionately referring to Steven as “Oh little gay boy,” or us all piling into the car to go find that night’s debauchery and him looking at me and saying, “Get in the back Rosa[Parks].”
But I must wonder, what is the effect of open comfort with our race, gender or sexual orientation when they weren’t the dominant traits in our society? Were we reinforcing these traits as oppressions or taking them back? Claiming them as a part of who we were and what had made us strong or just giving our oppressors evidence that they were in fact superior.
In shows with all or mostly black casts you see a strict culture with strict rules. It isn’t often brought to attention that the characters are black or have this specific culture until it is questioned, it just is. When someone acts outside of the proposed norm it is criticized. I’ve discovered the most important thing is being black correctly. You should only date other black people. You can be educated but not too educated because then you’re trying to be white. If you break these rules you are often considered a trader to your race for being different.
The second role I noticed was the cultural fade away. When the show stars a mostly white cast or a cast of many races, race is disregarded and unmentioned as if it doesn’t exist. All characters fall into the same cultural spectrum which tends to be that of the dominant race; white. Different characters never face persecution (unless its a very ‘special episode’ or black history month). The idea of the other isn’t based on race, gender or sexual orientation in these types of settings but more shallow things like class or fashion.
The role I have found has been most historically popular is the role of the token. This tends to be the equivalent of the creators and directors saying “Hey look we have a black friend! You can relate to the show now.” The characters tend to be supporting cast and when they speak its usually a joke or a “black comment.” This character may be from a rough neighborhood and often make comments about the racial differences but in a comedic light. They often ‘talk black’ using words like ‘yo’, slang or fragmented English and often have to translate this for their non-African American counter parts.
Today public figures are using comedy and recognition of our differences to say, we are different but not less. Comedians like Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele have been instrumental in opening people’s eyes to the issues of race through honest comedy, like their infamous Obama and Luther sketch.
We are in fact attempting to “laugh it off”. But are we really just joking? The jokes we make about racism can have many affects. They can open someone’s eyes to what is going on, however I wonder are they taking away from the issue of discrimination and making them just a joke… I worry that when people hear these jokes they think “It’s funny because it used to be true and is so ridiculous” not “That’s a humorous way to address a serious problem.”
I have constantly asked myself “can we laugh it off” and I come to one conclusion. Any speech class I’ve ever taken has taught me the same thing: If you want your audience to pay attention you have to get their attention, the best way to gain attention we have is the ability to make an audience laugh. So if we have to laugh at ourselves, take back negative stereotypes or even call out our oppressors in the form of humor we should. I call to action every person of the human race, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, straight, gay, bi-sexual, male, female, transgender, Catholic, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, whatever you are, whatever makes you different I challenge you to take it back don’t allow anyone to make you feel ashamed of who you are. Even if it is in the form of humor we must stop seeing our oppressions as something to hide but as uncontrollable parts of our core.