On Black Humor That Only Serves White Audiences

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by Ashleigh Shackelford 

When the 88th Annual Academy Awards premiered this year, almost everyone had opinions about Chris Rock’s opening monologue. Chris Rock undoubtedly surprised audiences with his attitude in addressing the #OscarsSoWhite movement and the lack of diversity within the Oscar nominees this year. From his bit about how Black people have nothing better to protest right now, to chastising Jada Pinkett Smith for her activism - it was a shit show. The performance did nothing to radically further the conversation around racism (especially in Hollywood), and it actually made white people feel comfortable in their racism.

Chris made commentary like, "when we were getting raped and lynched…” to contextualize how different it is now for us as people of color, particularly Black people, to navigate a racist society. When white people roared with laughter as Chris said, “when your grandmothers were swinging from a tree...", it showed how white people are so desensitized to our pain that they will laugh at the violence they’ve caused us. They’ll even laugh when we laugh at our pain because it affirms the mythologies around our pain tolerance and our inhumanity. We aren’t seen as human beings, so, of course, when we’re murdered, it’s hilarious.

This kind of commentary speaks volumes to how white people react to our trauma. Only if we make jokes and utilize sarcasm, can we open up dialogues on the violence we experience. From The Today Show to Saturday Night Live, to The Jeffersons, to Blackish, we utilize comedy as a pacifier for white people. And often we use these comedic entertainment sources for our viewership and coping as well, but with the participation coming heavily from white audiences, things get skewed and our truth telling through humor becomes distorted.

Franchesca Ramsey utilizes her multiple platforms to engage folks on identity politics and current events. On her web series MTV Decoded, Ramsey often utilizes satirical performances to talk about issues of race. For example, one of her episodes discusses the problem with Kylie Jenner’s cornrows. This episode, as educational and quirky as it was, continues to leave the accountability piece out when it comes to addressing structural racism. Using humor and satire to make audiences learn about racism and have a good time easily translates to the maintenance of power.

Let me be clear, though. I’m not blaming Franchesca, or any other Black comedian, for racism or anti-Black violence. I’m saying that the comedy in which Black people (and people of color) discuss the violence and trauma we suffer because of white supremacist power systems can read as respectable way of engaging conversations on real shit.

Katt Williams posted a video challenging fellow comedian Kevin Hart to a battle in comedy and $5 million. This challenge seemed to be predicated on Kevin Hart’s success that has often been critiqued for being built upon pleasing white audiences. Katt states at the end of the video, “And since you not a puppet, don’t bring no white people with you then.” This beef between both comedians calls into question Kevin Hart’s platform that has been intentionally structured through white palatability while Katt Williams has not had similar opportunities to have such a platform. Although many Black comedians within white media or white controlled platforms are often seen through a gaze of minstrelsy, Kevin Hart’s career seems to be taking off because he is the Black guy white people can feel comfortable with. Hart stars in big box office movies twice a year with the same boring plots, the same anti-Black frail masculinity jokes, and a bigger paycheck.

This article isn’t about dragging Kevin Hart or understanding Katt Williams’ explicit reasons for this challenge, but, rather, to add nuance on how comedy is a way for Black people to maintain subordination within an anti-Black society, often for capitalistic means/survival. The scariest part about using comedy as an entry point for conversations about our lived violence and trauma is that there is a psychological warfare happening between your truth and the audience’s truth. You're making jokes about your survival and your day-to-day reality as a Black person, and white people are laughing at your existence and pain. That shit is violence. And at some point, you're actively participating in it so you can survive white supremacist capitalism while also trying to engage in what you love.

Satire is seemingly a white man's game but also a tool Black folks have utilized for survival and creativity. At what point do we realize that comedy and satire are also forms of respectability? When do we realize that satire is also a way to feed our oppressor's voyeurism while they actively ignore their privilege and power from the audience? How can we responsibly engage in satire and humor as healing, education, and entertainment without whiffs of minstrelsy?

When looking at the history of how comedy has evolved to be a platform to degrade, mock, and dehumanize Black people when the stage is created and built for white people, it’s imperative that we critique the platforms that offer us Black comedians and Black comedy and question what exists for us and what may exist to maintain palatability. When our pain and the violence against us is never inherently funny or comedic, how is it possible for us to still use comedy as a coping mechanism and learning strategy without engaging in oppressive paradigms?

It’s required that we become hypercritical of comedy because it is used so often to disparage our humanity and pain, while also fostering a level of comfort with our traumatic experiences. But let’s also challenge ourselves to cultivate an environment that allows for multiple forms of accepted and protected platforms to engage conversations on structural power systems. While anger is often portrayed as the antithesis to comedy and love, let’s challenge the idea that anger is not only a suitable way of addressing these issues but also a means for change. Our navigation of these systems requires us to maintain multiple methodologies for coping, healing, survival, and justice, and that should include more than just agreeable forms of comedy and satire that often maintain instead of transform our political understandings.

Photo: Associated Press

Ashleigh Shackelford is a queer, agender, Black fat femme writer, artist and cultural producer. Ashleigh is a contributing writer at Wear Your Voice Magazine and For Harriet. She is currently working on her M.A. in Africana Studies at Morgan State University. Read more at Facebook.com/AshleighShackelford.

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