Taking Hate Speech Seriously When Racism is a Joke

I’ve been pondering a contradiction about racism.  On the one hand, I’ve argued here and in my book that racist hate speech, including on the Internet, is something that we should take seriously.   On the other hand, Internet culture in general is one where humor is the prevailing norm and racist hate speech often gets treated as a joke.     One of the students at Johns Hopkins University earlier this week raised this point in the Q&A following a talk I gave there.  It’s also a nuanced point that Lisa Nakamura made in her talk about “Enlightened Racism” in online games at Harvard’s Berkman Center a few months ago.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: theloushe

Part of the reason I (and other critical race theorists) argue that it’s important to take racist hate speech seriously is that words harm people.  Everyone living in a democracy has a right to be equally protected from harm and to not be subjected to a particular kind of harm just because of their race, religion or other identity status.   In the U.S., that’s known as “equal protection” and it’s covered by the 14th Amendment, among other laws.   As a recent example of how racist hate speech harms people, there’s a story out of Roanoke, Virginia about a notorious white supremacist with the rather un-ironic name of William A. White.   White recently lost a lawsuit – and fined over half a million dollars  – for his racist hate speech.  The lawsuit was filed by five African American women who had the bad luck to be tenants in a Virginia Beach apartment complex where White was the landlord.  White wrote threatening letters to the women, saying they were “Section 8 N—s” and elsewhere referred to all blacks as “parasites.”

These words had an impact.   During testimony in U.S. District Court in Roanoke, the five black women described their reactions to getting the threatening letters from White: one said she began to suffer seizures; another developed an ulcer.  Yet another woman testified that she no longer lets her 10-year-old grandson outside to play or ride his bike alone. “I didn’t know what was around the corner waiting for us because of him,” she said.  All five of the women testified that they still live in fear of White based on the racist hate speech he sent in that letter.   Although White used a traditional form of letter for this round of racist hate speech, he’s used the Internet in other attacks.

The jury did the right thing when they found in favor of the women suing White (it was a civil case, so he was not found “guilty”). Part of what this jury did was take hate speech, and the harm it caused, seriously.  That kind of racist hate speech is not, as many Americans assume, protected as “free speech” under the first amendment.   In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled (Virginia v. Black, 2003) that a “burning-cross is not protected speech” because it’s not speech that’s intended to contribute to democracy, but is intended to terrorize people.

I know, I know – not very funny so far.   Where are the lulz in this story?

The second part of this contradiction I’m pondering is that the culture of the Internet is all about what’s funny.  Lisa Nakamura made the excellent point in her talk about the “racist griefing” that goes on in online games which often makes explicit use of racist epithets, which she explains this way: “The n-word is funny because it is so extreme that no one could really mean it. And humor is all about ‘not meaning it.’ If you take humor and the n-word, you get enlightened racism online and attention.” She calls this “enlightened racism.”  Nakamura goes on to argue that paradoxically, “the worse the racism and sexism are, the more extreme and cartoonish it is, the harder it is to take seriously, and the harder it is to call it out.”

She points out, quite astutely I think, that for those within gaming culture, calling out racism in this context signals you as someone “not of the gaming culture” and thus, as someone who is taking racism “too seriously” and doesn’t have a good sense of humor. Yet, this sort of humor is a “confusing discursive mode for young people,” she observes, because they are “unable to separate enlightened racism from regular racism.” And, indeed, I think this is a real problem here. As Nakamura notes, the image of the “humorless feminist” is now joined with the image of a “humorless” old(er) person who takes race too seriously.   I’m going to have to plead guilty to this.  Racism, in my view, is serious business, but that stance is antithetical to mainstream Internet culture.

There are some people, far more talented than I am, who can take racism – even racist hate speech – and make it funny.   No, really.   Let me introduce you to Elon James White (no relation to William A. White, that I know of), and his video blog series, “This Week in Blackness”(TWIB). His take on Dr. Laura’s racist rant a few weeks ago (Season 3, Episode #8) is one of the funniest things I’ve heard in awhile.  In addition to being funny, Elon’s routines are scathing, and much needed, critiques of white privilege and white culture.  I’m a fan of Elon’s (even downloaded the iPhone app of TWIB) and I think what he does is valuable and entertaining.

I think it’s the racism as entertainment meme where we need to be careful here.    Chauncey de Vega (of We are Respectable Negroes) has a thoughtful piece about Slavery as Entertainment, in which he highlights two role-playing games in which people can reenact some aspects of slavery (“I wonder if visitors can be whipped, branded, physically disfigured, manacled, or raped and defiled to complete the “historical” experience?”).  He notes that these types of “reenactments” can go oh so wrong because they trivialize the experience of what was until then an unimaginable historical tragedy.  If you look at historical accounts of lynchings, those were considered entertaining by whites at the time.  Whites often packed picnics and smiled when they had their photo taken at those vigilante lynching “parties.”

And, I see I’ve veered right back into the unfunny material.  I’m old school like that.

I’m not sure there’s a way out of this contradiction.   In some ways, this contradiction speaks to the “both/and” quality of racism that characterizes the current historical moment.  We have both the vitriolic racist hate speech, often spread via the Internet; and, we have a dominant culture in which humor is the prevailing norm, often making racism into entertainment.  Just because some of us are laughing doesn’t necessarily mean we’re making progress.

Laughing at Racism

It is hard to find anything to laugh about when it comes to racism and anti-racism, but damali ayo (her capitalization) has put together some humorous and satirical books, How to Rent a Negro, and the 2010 book, Obamistan! Land without Racism, to demonstrate the nonsense about a post-racial world with humor and insight.

She has an art background, and has also been involved in eco-activism. Her website describes her approach as “Now Art”:

She describes Now Art as being immediate, participatory, and engaging social issues. Ayo believes that “art should make you think and feel.” She eschews art that is primarily for decoration. She believes that artists and comedians have a special task to push our culture to understand itself in order to change itself.

One of her interesting “Now Art” pieces is a

free practical guide of ten steps to improving race relations titled I Can Fix It! This guide gives ten simple solutions to address our current “third grade level of race relations.” … damali brings the I Can Fix It! guide [download from here] to life in her stage shows where she uses humor, stories, and slides to inspire people. Presented simply and directly, ayo’s approach to race relations is unforgettable. She makes people pay attention to what is going on inside and around them and to take responsibility for changing it. And damali has plenty of first-hand experience doing just that- she started at a young age by integrating her school’s doll collection with Black Raggedy Ann and Andy.

The commentaries by numerous whites on her book point up the impact of even a humorous look at white racist stuff on many whites. The positive and confirmation comments from people of color and some whites are even more interesting and revealing about its truths. Strategies against racism come, and need to come, in many different forms.

Antiracist Action: Against Tea Party Antics in Minnesota

The twincities.indymedia.org blog (HT/ Christopher Day) has a post on, “Anti-Racists Steal the Show at White Supremacist ‘Tea Party Against Amnesty,” with some pretty funny and ironic tactics against the anti-immigration folks:

Forty-five anti-immigration activists held a small rally outside the state capitol on Saturday. Counter-protest from members of Anti-Racist Action, Bash Back, the Minnesota Immigrants’ Rights Action Coalition and others was frequent, vigorous and hilarious. (“America is not for Russians! America is not for Germans! Europeans go home!”)

The cheerful crowd of immigrants’ rights activists held a banner reading “Stop the raids and deportations”. In conversation with members of Minnesotans Seeking Immigration Reform, the activists repeatedly pointed out that all non-native people in Minnesota are illegal immigrants–Minnesota was taken by force by whites from the native people who lived here for centuries before white arrival. One activist, under the name “Robert Erickson,” managed to get on the list of speakers and riled the crowd into a frenzy about the theft, murder and disease inflicted by illegal immigrants… from Europe, upon indigenous populations. In a “Yes Men” moment, the anti-immigrant crowd sat in silence, trying to figure out what just happened.

Here is part of Erickson’s speech (see video here):

It’s no secret that with an invasion of immigrants, comes waves of crime. We see them involved in massive theft, in murder, and bringing diseases like smallpox, which is responsible for the death of millions of Americans. These aren’t new problems though, they have been going on for hundreds of years, and continue to this day. I say its time for us to say enough is enough! Are you with me? Are you with me? Lets send these European immigrants back where they came from! I don’t care if they are Polish, Irish, English, Italian, or Norwegian! European immigrants are responsible for the most violent and heinus crimes in the history of the world, including genocide and slavery! Its time to restore the sovereignty of people native to this land! I want more workplace raids, starting with the big banks downtown. There are thousands of illegals working in those buildings, hiding in their offices, and taking Dakota jobs. Let’s round them up and ship them out. Then we need to hit them at home where they sleep, I don’t care if we separate families, they should have known better when they came here illegally!

Rather clever use of lampooning, indeed.

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.