Race humor be polarizing, intelligent … and good for society?
It’s been more than a year since Katt Williams unleashed a seven minute anti-Mexican tirade in Phoenix, Ariz., that sounded more like a racist, overzealous, “pro-USA” rant than a comic routine, and which inspired at least one audience member to get up and leave.
The Williams incident raises serious questions regarding the ethics of race humor that remain unanswered today.
Race can be one of the most polarizing subjects in comedy. Comedians who decide to wade through this dangerous quagmire run the risk of alienating and offending their audience. Yet when performed tastefully, race comedy can be illuminating and alleviating, as well as incredibly funny.
Kathleen Fearn-Banks, a communications professor at the UW, said comedians who execute tasteful race humor begin by researching particular subcultures they intend to discuss, as well as the audience they are performing for.
“A person who is doing a comedy must first of all be intelligent,” Fearn-Banks said, “… and know who they are talking about, and thoroughly be familiar with these people they’re talking about, and who they’re talking to.”
Patrick Okocha, a junior studying English, is interested in race comedy. He said he loves race humor but only when it is informed and thoughtful.
According to Okocha, comedians who artfully incorporate race into their acts have spent the time to understand and experience the cultures and races they intend to parody. These comics notice odd quirks about particular subsections of society and use these racial eccentricities to write jokes that are smart, informed, and justified.
Omar Shaukat, a recent graduate from the UW now performing stand-up in Washington, D.C., said educated race humor can help society politely open conversations about race. Such humor provides a comfortable context to discuss a controversial subject.
“Racial stand-up can address these problems directly and bring them out into the open before the public eye,” Shaukat said.
But he identified an important shortcoming: “When you’re doing stand-up, it’s not a dialogue, it’s a performance,” Shaukat said. “But I still think that even just putting those ideas out in the open and into people’s consciousness is a healthy tool for society.”
Carl Powers, a senior studying economics and the co-director of the Collective, an on-campus comedy group, said making observations tainted by race is inevitable. Race is simply everywhere—especially for students at the UW.
“It’s 2013; we live in a major metropolitan area,” Powers said. “There are different races; it’s part of our lives.”
Shaukat agreed, saying that a comedian’s personal observations serve as inspiration. And because the world we live in is undeniably racial, observations about race, especially a comedian’s own race, are going to shape the comedian’s outlook on the world and make it into his or her stand-up.
But race humor is not always tasteful and well-informed. Okocha said it becomes crude when jokes are based on secondhand experience and uninformed generalizations.
“You hear jokes about ‘Mufasa.’ And it’s like, ‘How many African people do you know?’” said Okocha, whose parents are from Nigeria. “You can’t make a joke about Africans clicking if you don’t know an African that clicks,” referring to Xhosa, a national language of South Africa that incorporates click consonants.
Fearn-Banks said race humor that isn’t intentionally malicious can still be racist. Comedians who don’t understand the people they caricature rely on stereotypes to ground their jokes and make them funny. But this sort of comedy is demeaning and subjugating. Race comedy shouldn’t ridicule groups by using a stereotype; it should suggestively point to the existence of those stereotypes.
Quality race comedy can even mock people who abuse stereotypes for cheap laughs. Powers said that poking fun at racism as a phenomenon is a model for discerning race humor.
“Racism really is pretty ridiculous,” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense, yet it’s a cultural thing, and there’s definitely a lot of humor in that.”
He showed how comedy can expose the ridiculousness of stereotypes with a joke: “Can you believe that there’s a guy who thinks that all Asians don’t drive well?”
At the same time though, some comedians worry that even good race humor can become socially irresponsible. When Dave Chappelle came back from his trip to Africa, he told Oprah Winfrey that he was plagued by a moral dilemma about his show. Chappelle felt that by ridiculing a stereotype, he was in effect actually promulgating, not mitigating, the stereotype.
“I’m a comedian. Nobody watches a comedian to see how socially responsible they’re going to be,” Chappelle told Oprah. “What I didn’t consider is how many people watch the show, and how the way people use television is subjective.”
Powers said for an audience to understand a joke, there needs to be broad awareness of the issue the joke intends to mock. Good race comedy doesn’t promote stereotypes, as much as it brings them to the surface.
But Shaukat also places some moral culpability on audience members. He said audiences shouldn’t base their perceptions of race on his observations. Audiences, like comedians, should still go out into the world and investigate for themselves the truthfulness of their views.
“By laughing at [a race joke], you’re observing the problem, you’re acknowledging it’s a problem whatever the joke is,” Shaukat said. “I know what my morals are, and it’s on the audience at that point.”
Race comedy is a powerful tool that societies can use to illuminate race problems in a polite and comfortable environment. Many a true word has been spoken in jest. However, race humor remains a divisive issue; this generation will not have the last say.
The text of this article was originally published here by the University of Washington’s Daily on February 18, 2013.
Read more in Men Are Funny.