Sunday, December 13, 2009

Minstrel Show

After a play this weekend I turned to the person next to me and was forced to ask, "who's going to be the last person to do a minstrel show?" I meant it as a rhetorical question, but her answer was simple: "Do you really think that will happen?"

Oh. Well. No. But why the hell not? On one level I suppose it will always be an underbelly of cultural differences for members of one culture to find it satisfying or entertaining to see members of their own culture "act like" members of another culture. I can see how maybe that's just a human instinct. And maybe even in the way it's "funny" for football players to act like nerds it's "funny" for a white person to "act black." The juxtaposition of cultures, a person will argue, is the entertainment, not actually the ridicule of a single group.

But, life is a lot more complicated than that. In fact, the very idea of "acting black" is a vicious cultural virus, and the even more fundamental idea of interpreting action as color is a remarkably perverse and destructive synesthesia.

So: stop it. Stop assuming you can make racist jokes to me and it will be acceptible because "we're not racist." Don't you understand that you are assuming a white audience? That's bad. Stop expecting a laugh after every time you say "Shaniqua." You will not get one from me. The next time I see a white guy "act black" even to illustrate how hopelessly uncool he is, I walk out. That's the deal.

Now let me complicate this further by saying: cultural differences are funny.

Part of the genius of this bit is that not only does Dave Chappelle have a "white" voice - like every black comic in America - he also has a "black" voice - like every white person in America - and his play with the two stereotypes is what keeps the grape drink joke so dynamic. He is not interacting with a strawman he is pitting two strawmen against each other. So he explores differences from a more complicated way even as he overtly identifies with the black character ("us"/"you"). Interestingly, Chappelle also assumes a white audience (watch his pronouns throughout), a receptive but foreign other, who can't understand him. His use of the n-word too is pretty remarkable: upperclass, yankee, liberals address him with the n-word all the time in his bits.

So, if you have something to say about race, let's hear it. Sober, comic, challenging? Bring it on. "Post-racial"? Bullshit. Stop assuming I won't hate your show for making me complicit in perpetuating the worst and most aggravating self-righteousness of our time, the ludicrously pious pride of your comfortably snide, snickering racism.

1 comment:

James said...


There are half a million "edgy" sketch and improv shows you should not go see in Chicago, btw.