Obama, Race and Comedy

I recently heard a bit on the radio about comedy and Obama. The point was raised that white comedians are tending to avoid making fun of Obama out of fear of seeming racist. It was also said that the Obama victory has helped bring greater opportunities for black comedians-they will be needed because they can make fun of Obama without seeming racist. This does raise interesting issues about race and comedy.

I teach a class on Aesthetics and have included a discussion of race and comedy for the past several years. Naturally, when I teach the class this spring we will no doubt be discussing this issue as it relates to Obama.

The general consensus in the class has been that race is quite relevant when it comes to the question of who can make fun of whom and in what manner. Content is, of course, relevant and presumably any comedian could cross the line into racism. Put roughly, I’ve found that the majority of students think that comedians can “mock up and across”, but that “mocking down” is not acceptable. “Mocking up” means to make jokes towards those who are seen, as a class, to have more power. Or, as one student put it, “towards the oppressors.” For example, women making fun of men could be seen as “mocking up” as could blacks making fun of whites. “Mocking across” is to mock other groups that are seen as being at the same level. Obviously, one’s own group would be included here. For example, a Hispanic comedian making jokes about Hispanics or blacks might be seen as “mocking across” because Hispanics and blacks are seen as being oppressed by whites. “Mocking down” has often been seen as being unacceptable by my students, mainly because such humor can be seen as part of the tools of oppression. For example, it might be regarded as belittling or condescending.

In contrast, “Mocking up” can be regarded as an act of defiance against the oppressor classes and “mocking across” could be seen as comradely. Obviously enough, this sort of view takes the notion of oppressors and oppressed very seriously (even in comedy).

This view does have some plausibility. However, the fact that Obama is the President elect does change the power dynamic. Any comedian making fun of Obama would be “mocking up”, unless the comedian also happens to be a world leader as well. In this case, she would be “mocking across.” As such, it would seem to be fine for white comedians to make fun of Obama.

Then again, it might be the case that the direction of mocking (up, down or across) depends not on the individuals but the status of the classes they belong to. Since Obama is black, for white comedians to make fun of him would be “mocking down” because whites as a class are above blacks as a class on the power curve. So, until blacks and whites are on equal footing, white comedians will need to be careful in what they say about Obama (and the next black President).

Race can also be taken to matter in ways other than in terms of classes and power. I have heard people argue that it is acceptable for the members of one race to make fun of their own race, but not others. This has often been based on the view that a person cannot be racist to his own race. For example, David Alan Grier can present comedic pieces on Chocolate News based on black stereotypes without being racist because he is black. Some people extend this privilege to all minorities in terms of comedians from one minority making jokes about another minority. Not surprisingly, whites are fair game for everyone.

Of course, it seems obvious that a person can be racist towards his own race and that being in a minority is not proof against racism. This can easily be shown. Imagine you heard someone expressing all the hateful stereotypes about blacks and his hatred of blacks. You would no doubt think “what a racist.” But, suppose when you saw him, he turned out to be black. Would you then say, “well, I guess he is no racist after all”? Obviously not. Naturally, I have in mind the fictional blind black racist from the Chapelle Show.

In the case of why a minority can be racist, simply imagine that the white population became a minority and that people in the Ku Klux Klan and other such groups still held the views they do now. It would be absurd to say “well, since whites are a minority, the KKK is suddenly not racist.” Mere numbers, one suspects, is not a decisive factor in defining what is racist.

It might be thought that race provides a person with a special status that allows certain behavior between members of that race that is denied to others. An obvious example is the use of the N-word. I sometimes hear black students using that term when referring to each other and people generally do not take offense (there have been some rather notable exceptions). Obviously, if a white student started throwing the word around, things would be just a bit different. Perhaps the same applies to comedy.

Of course, the view that race grants such special comedic and language privileges does seem to be a bit racist. This is because it is based on the assumption that racial distinctions are real and that people are to be granted certain privileges because they belong to a particular race. So, to think that white comedians cannot make fun of Obama without being racist and that black comedians can safely do so because they are black would seem to be a racist view. After all, race would be the deciding factor rather than the content of the comedy. Obviously, there can be racist comedy-but the color of the comedian should not be the determining factor.

So, everyone should be free to make fun of Obama (within the limits of comedic taste, of course). He is the President of all Americans and we have a God given right to make jokes about whoever sits in that oval office regardless of race, creed or color.

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11 Comments.

  1. What if the content of the humour (even mocking) is clearly not directed at Obama as a black man, but Obama as president? Would that still be seen as racist if coming from a comedian who happened to be white?

  2. Here, in Europe, we don’t seem to have those problems: Itallian prime minister Berlusconi mocked very soon on Obama’s colour after his election.
    (Or perhaps Berlusconi is also a ‘world leader’).

  3. Mike:
    Is there a sense in which PC as negative space limns that which cannot be talked about? The Labour Party (Ireland) used to squirm at the sneer of being smoked salmon socialists until they established that delicacy as a fixed item in their annual dinner. For Berlusconi’s state visit banquet at the White House Citrullus Lanatus would be a suitable entree.

  4. I’m not sure the issue is whether white people can make fun of individual black people – of course they can – but they can’t make fun of them for being black without seeming racist. We give more leeway to black comedians to make jokes about white people as white people.

    Which is why a lot of the jokes I’ve seen recently linking Obama and hip hop seem very dodgy. And any white comedian who feels the need to black up should be very damn careful.

  5. I can’t see how having the topic of race be such a horrible minefield is a good thing at all – I mean, short of hanging all the racists, how are you going to get rid of racism?

    Shame only goes so far, and when that stops working and you’ve pretty much ruled out the possibility of an open minded, comfortable dialogue… what then?

  6. T”his must become an issue of humor related to the President and to Politics. Any person who chooses to become a politician must be open to humorous attack. Just as they must be open to political/social commentary that is negative.

    Our system requires freedom to be highly critical and that must include criticism via humor..

  7. Personally, i’d think it’s the joke that should be judged, not the comedians skin colour. If I should make a Joke concerning Obama’s skin colour, or other racial characteristics or stereotipes, It’ll probably be a racist joke (and whether It’s acceptable or not should depend on how hurtfull it is for the race involved). If the joke is about his presidency, his politics, etc… It’ll probably be that kind of joke.
    I know that It would still be more shoking to hear Chris Rock’s “niggers” joke, from a white bloke than a black one… But is that just racism getting in the way of good comedy, or is belonging to the stereotipe part of the joke?

  8. I agree with the bulk of this post if the goal is to describe people’s actual norms.

    But if the goal is just to describe people’s opinions, then it seems kind of arbitrary: someone could see things very differently (for instance, they might think it’s fine for anyone to make fun of anyone), and there wouldn’t be much basis to look down on that person aside from that they’re in the (ahem) minority.

    The more important/interesting question, it seems to me, is what the norms SHOULD be, not what they happen to be in the US at this particular point in our history.

  9. Norman Hanscombe

    It’s interesting how blind we ‘progressives’ can be to our own prejudices. If we disagree with something, for example we call it discrimination; but if we agree with a logically equivalent act, it becomes ‘affirmative action’.

    Similarly, it’s seen by many ‘progressives’ to be de jure to complain about the ‘glass ceiling’ effect, even in situations where there might be perfectly valid alternative explanations staring us in the face. Often the same person who argues that all outcomes in which males do better than females, it ‘must’ be the result of social factors, sees no such absolute at work when males are shown to have far less positive outcomes in some areas than their “equal” female counterparts.

    The dominant P.C. zeitgeist requires that we apply inconsistent logic if we’re to come to ‘progressive’ conclusions. Sadly, progress just isn’t what it once was — but I guess it helps ‘progressives’ feel good about themselves, and not become too guilty about their own (relative) personal advantages in life?

  10. Norman: I strongly agree with your comment except I’d replace “Sadly, progress just isn’t what it once was” with “Happily, progress isn’t what it once was.”

    The reason less progress is being made these days is that there’s less progress left to be made, since most of what had to be accomplished has already been accomplished.

  11. Norman Hanscombe

    Non-sadly, I have to point out that there are areas where more progress is more possible now than before.

    1. Basic literacy levels have gone back so markedly in some areas that there’s more scope for them to progress now than when I was a kid. I’m not suggesting my primary school was a “Golden Age”. In the 40s I was conscious that my curriculum had been watered down from what recently had been the norm. Since then it has declined even further, as successive waves of “educationists” sought to make it ever more difficult for anyone to not “pass”.

    2. We have destroyed, with the help of those who blindly follow the seminal philosophical ideas of Humpty Dumpty, the precision of the words we scatter around as nonchalantly as we might disperse lollies at a Greek wedding. There’s room for progress there, even if it’s only recovering lost ground.

    3. In terms of our increasing knowledge of the universe, the one constant is that the more we discover, the more questions there are still to answer. One significant problem here for ‘progressives’ is that many of the discoveries aaren’t palatable, so we don’t want to follow up their implications.

    All of this results in the ‘progressives’ not being very progressive; but fortunately for them, we’ve enabled levels of self-esteem to reach unprecedented heights, so non-progressive “progressives’ can continue to say, in all seriousness:

    “Happily, progress isn’t what it once was.”

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