Humor as a Subversive Political Act

Humor can be a subversive political act.   There are a couple of examples I’ve stumbled across about race and the election that I thought I’d share.   Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing at The Atlantic, has a very funny and scathing piece called “In Defense of White Racism,” that’s worth reading.   And, Keef who draws the KChronicles has a rather devastating political cartoon up (I’d reproduce it here, but I’m pretty sure it’s protected, so I’ll just link to it).  There’s a long tradition of using humor to skewer whites. And as I’ve written here before, Chris Rock is just the most recent in a long line of comedians to use their craft in subversive ways (image from here).   As just about every late night comedian has noted, and even the New York Times has picked up on, it’s going to be a difficult time for comedy writers if Obama gets elected.   Not that that’s a bad thing, as they would say on Seinfeld.   But it is worth noting, I think.

And, here’s both the challenge and strength of humor: it’s best when it’s skewering those in power. So, take the example I mentioned above. Chris Rock does some amazing political commentary on race and racism in his stand-up routines.    In his current routine, he does a great bit about the neighborhood he lives in in New Jersey where his neighbors include some of the black elite entertainers (Mary J. Blige, Jay-Z).  The punch line is something like, “and you know what the white guy does that lives there?  He’s a dentist.”   Much funnier when Chris Rock delivers it, of course, than with me re-typing it into text-only here, but it’s a very funny, and very pointed, routine that really lays bare one little corner (albeit a very privileged corner) of racial inequality.    Still, Rock’s current routine is also a little disappointing for his reliance on the old, decidedly unfunny tropes of sexism and homophobia.   Humor that sets out to hurt people or groups that are already pummeled by life or social position is not funny, in my opinion, so much as a form of bullying.

Yet, trying to find this particular brand of humor is vexing, to say the least.  For example, I do wish Google would quit suggesting “racist jokes” as a search term.   If I use Google in a browser, and type in “racis”  (yes – the beginning of a vanity search for my own blog), Google suggests several search terms for me: “racing games” “racing post” and third on the list, “racist jokes” (425,000 results).   The Google-app on my iPhone suggests “racist jokes” first, as a tab.  And, apparently this is a fairly popular search term.  As Macon D points out over here, lots of people end up at his blog who initially started out searching for racist jokes.    If, instead, you Google “anti-racist jokes” you get many fewer results (39,100) and no prompts from the search engine at any point that might lead you in that direction or suggest that as an option.   And, there’s really no tag or Google alert that I can set for “subversive humor, non-sexist, non-homophobic, please.”  Or, maybe there is but I’m just not tech-savvy enough.     It seems to me that the search engine is undermining even the possibility of finding subversive humor.

So how to find, create and support subversive humor?   I’m not sure, but I’d love to hear any ideas.  I could use a good laugh.

Proud to be White?

Last week was International Blog Against Racism Week (IBARW) and, a bit belatedly, I wanted to draw attention to a couple of excellent posts from that event, both of which deal in some way with whiteness and what it means to be white (image: “Shiny Happy White People” from DCVision, Flickr CreativeCommons) and struggle against racism.

Alexis Lothian blogging at QueerGeekTheory praises the focus on intersectionality in this year’s cautions about what she sees as the downside:

“That doesn’t, of course, come without a risk – of interminable ‘white guilt’ posts, of the idea that this is the one week in the year when bloggers should think about race, et cetera – but I still think it’s a rather wonderful example of the way online community creates mobile sites of theorizing and activism that don’t necessarily rely on established networks or on the academy.”

White guilt seems an inevitable, if regrettable, cul-de-sac of conversation about racism with white people, because it leads to white resentment. A number of multicultural trainers have adopted a group-work exercise meant to address this, and Priscilla Brice-Weller blogging at Solidariti writes about her experience with this:

“…we were asked to … talk for three minutes with a partner about what we hate about [being white … or whatever other group we belong to … it could be related to sexuality, race, age, class, or anything else]. Then we were asked to talk for three minutes about what we love about [being white]. The one rule was that we couldn’t talk about our group in relation to other groups (so in my example, I couldn’t talk about being white in relation to being black/brown/anyone else).

It turned out that for the first minute or two I focussed on stereotypes. When the stereotypes were out the way, the truth started to emerge. I found that during the second “what I love about being white” session, it was difficult to speak because I had nothing positive to say. When you find yourself in that situation, and particularly as an anti-racism campaigner, it’s pretty confronting.

When I reflect on this, all I can think of is how white people invaded Australia, how the English invaded India, how the Americans invaded Iraq, how the global north (which includes Australia) lives in comparable wealth to the global south and still fails to address the balance of power in that relationship. There’s plenty of wonderful things white people have done, but I think about the negative things first. Obviously I’ve still more reflection to do, because to work effectively across difference I need to be able to embrace my own people too.”

While I admire Priscilla and others involved in IBAWR for tackling these issues, I think that the approach advocated by many multicultural trainers like the one she encountered in Sydney is wrong-headed because it suggests a symmetrical, “we are all the same,” approach to dealing with racism. As I noted in a post awhile back, uncovering the history of racial oppression and privilege is an asymmetrical process that has an asymmetrical effect in the present depending upon one’s standpoint.These sorts of exercises, if followed to the logical conclusion, would have us believe that if we are “proud to be white” just as people of color are “proud to be black” or “proud to be Latina,” then we will all have moved away from racism and toward racial harmony. I don’t agree. Cultivating the notion that one is “proud to be white” leads – it seems quite obviously – to white pride. That certainly seems to be the wrong direction.

Of course, individual whites can, and should, take action to find examples of white, anti-racist activism and to adopt those as models for their own lives. Yet, if what we end up doing is sitting around in racially-segregated groups discovering why we’re “proud to be white,” I don’t think we’re engaging in anti-racism. A more productive approach is one that foregrounds accountability and responsiveness, as our occasional fellow-blogger Tim Wise explains (via Macon D at Stuff White People Do and originally from Carmen at Racialicious):

“And I think that’s because a lot of white folks come to this work with the mentality that we’re doing it for other people. And, one of the things I learned doing community organizing, working in public housing in New Orleans for about fifteen months with a great organization down there called Agenda for Children, that was connected to the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, which does anti-racism training, was that they really taught me—and I haven’t figured it all out—but they taught me the importance of accountability, and trying to be responsive, and responsible to, people of color, understanding that ultimately we want to follow the lead of people of color, but that we’re not doing it for them. . .”

What Tim suggests here – being accountable to and responsive to people of color – is a very different project than the multicultural-training where we all put our chairs in a circle and decide what we like about being white. The challenge, of course, for white people is understanding the history and present-day record of racial discrimination and oppression, then choosing to take action to end it rather than getting mired in the dead-end of guilt and resentment.