A Philosopher's Blog

Obama, Race and Comedy

Posted in Ethics, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on November 14, 2008

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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