Thursday, July 31, 2008

The politics of racial satire

I know I'm about two weeks behind on talking about the now infamous New Yorker cover of the Obamas--the one that was meant to be satirical.

[This is the cover in question]

There have been A LOT of talking heads, bloggers, and journalists who have weighed in on this issue already--The Huffington Post (this is actually a Q&A with New Yorker editor, David Remnick, but it contains a link to Rachel Sklar's own take (and several comments) about the cover, Racialicious (who talks about its link to hipster racism and the long comment threads are, as always, very interesting reading), and The New York Times, which gives an account of political satire in the general public sphere related to the upcoming presidential elections.

And really, after all these people have said so much, what exactly do I have to add to all this?

Simply this: racial satire is difficult and is best avoided by any but the most practiced and skilled of humorists.

According to the on-line Merriam-Webster dictionary, satire is defined as:

1 : a literary work holding up human vices and follies to ridicule or scorn
2 : trenchant wit, irony, or sarcasm used to expose and discredit vice or folly

One of the most famous satirists, Jonathan Swift, was reviled after he wrote "A Modest Proposal" in which many readers did not understand that he was not seriously proposing cannibalism as a remedy to poverty in Ireland. The essay is now a model for exactly what the definition of satire suggests--it uses irony and trenchant wit to expose the ridiculousness and vice of the impoverished situation of many in Ireland living under British colonial rule.

Now racial satire is a more distinct entity than satire--it's not simply political satire as The New York Times article wants to suggest; racial satire hinges on a distinct understanding on the parts of the person creating the satire and her/his audience. It requires, in other words, an understanding of racism and in the U.S. what those conditions have been like for various groups--what those stereotypes are--so that the send-up, the sarcasm, the satire will be successful.

And racial satire seems best practiced when the person who is doing the satire is sending up the racial group that s/he identifies with. Hence Margaret Cho's routine when she talks about being Korean and Asian American can be seen as satirical because she is mocking both mainstream culture (largely white) as well as her fellow Korean and Asian Americans. And it's easier for us to take her racial satire because she is speaking from an in-group position.

Similarly, in "The Racial Draft" skit, Dave Chappelle introduces his skit by talking about his Asian American wife and the difficulties of multiracial identification. His personal admission lets us know that he is speaking from a place of experience--and if he has children, they will be part of the "confusion" that he is trying to satirize.

Yet even with Cho and Chappelle, there can be moments of discomfort--times when I laugh and I wonder what, exactly, am I laughing at...and moments of discomfort wondering if the other people around me (I've been to several of Cho's live shows) really "get" the joke.

Racial satire, and really, racial humor in general, are so tricky that a comedian as skilled as Dave Chappelle has cancelled his show, in part, because he was disturbed by some white people not getting the satire--not understanding that what he was trying to do was to expose the absurdity of race and racism in a humorous vein and not simply to mock African Americans and others.

[BTW, this is what I've largely heard reported about Chappelle--but does anyone have a link to an interview he has done that specifically talks about the reasons he ended his show?]

The New Yorker cover failed, in my opinion, largely because a magazine like The New Yorker isn't skilled in handling racial satire and not only didn't show an appropriate sensitivity but also failed to make that satire clear--as one commenter noted in the Racialicious thread, if this image had appeared in the heads of an anxious, white conservative voter, or even an "average white American" and then another thought bubble appeared with an "average African American" or even the Obamas' themselves picturing the scene very differently, THEN, maybe, we could see the satire better.

But even had they done this, The New Yorker is indelibly marked as an elitist magazine, one associated with the New York upper-East side intelligensia, largely marked as white (albeit liberal). If this same image had appeared on the cover of Ebony or Jet or Hyphen or Colorlines, I think there would have been a different reaction--some people may have still talked about the inappropriateness of the cover, but the context would have changed a lot--the readership of these magazines would be assumed to have more access to the stereotypes and to understanding the racism inherent in what was trying to be satirized. And the staffs and editorial boards (and editors-in-chief) of these magazines would be assumed to be either people or color or white allies who understand the fraught dynamics of race and racism and the trickiness of racial satire.

Because at the end of the day, some things aren't funny. And while I know The New Yorker was trying to talk about the politics of fear and anxiety that lead some people to view the Obamas through the lens of the cover, the unfortunate reality is that like in Swift's 18th C. Ireland, many people didn't get the joke and just assumed that the cover was a reflection of reality rather than a mirror held up to the racist fantasies of some people.


Unknown said...

I love this cover and I don't think it needs any softening up or explaining. "The New Yorker" IS an elitist magazine and they would never try to explain what they believe their audience should understand. And dangit, any college educated person in this country should get this satire immediately. If they don't, it's because they don't pay any attention to presidential politics and they should have their degrees revoked.

The other day I was watching the Senior British Open on t.v. A 60+ white American man sank a crucial putt and he and his caddy immediately did the fist jab/pound. I laughed out loud. Why? Because wacky Fox News gets away with trying to make an incredibly mainstream action by the Obamas into some kind of frightening black thing or terrorist thing we better watch out for. Who watches Senior golf? The same guys who watch Fox News. I wonder how many of them were offended at the fist bump comment/attack? I wonder how many do the fist bump when they play golf? Most of them probably love Tiger Woods. How many of them were deeply offended when Fuzzy Zoeller suggested that Tiger serve up fried chicken and collard greens for the Champion's dinner after he first won The Master's? I seem to be rambling here, but the point I'm trying to make is that we allow deeply racist things to occur all the time and then pretend that they're not serious (at work, in our own families, on t.v.). So why does this clearly anti-racist, anti-ignorance piece of art get attacked more than the clearly racist, clearly inflammatory comments and ideas we encounter all the time? Good comedy is always courageous and satire takes more courage than any other kind of comedy. Racial satire is about as gutsy as it gets. A young white comedian (Jeff Dye--sp.?) did a pretty long racial bit on "Last Comic Standing" tonight. It was pretty darn funny but not getting big laughs because (I think) he was white and the audience seemed a little nervous about him telling a joke focused on racism. I've no doubt that if he was black and telling that joke he would have gotten a much better response. He ended this bit by making a not-very-funny crack about Asians being good in math (not really trying to be ironic). It fell sort of flat. But a month ago a Korean-American comic told essentially the same joke and got huge laughs. Her joke and her whole routine was tired recycled ethnic humor but she was praised for "making fun or her own." I think Jeff Dye's piece was important tonight because it pointed out something that was true (a board game he played as a kid was racist) and pointed out something ironic (that his mother wanted him to play a racist board game but didn't want him to play a violent video game). How can we ever get over our race issues if we try to control the discussion of race? I'd rather a few people get offended than not have the discussion at all.

Even if a good percentage of Dave Chapelle's audience didn't "get it," his stuff was important because it did get to some people in a way that safe humor never does. Twenty-something males love "The Shield" and "The Sopranos," but they rarely "get it" in the way that the directors mean them to get it. They are turned on by the violence and womanizing, not repulsed. Those shows don't need toning down. The audience needs to watch more carefully.

I really believe that our country has serious sense of humor issues. I bet the Obamas laughed like crazy when they saw that "New Yorker" cover. Maybe to prove that he wasn't so elitist that he actually thought this funny, Obama had to say that he was offended by it (but I don't believe it for a second). And based on McCain's recent attack ad on Obama (comparing him to Paris Hilton and Brittney Spears), his statement that he was offended by the "New Yorker" cover is just ridiculous, unless he was offended by the notion of satire altogether (which seems unlikely as he's made many appearances on "The Daily Show"). McCain's people probably distributed copies of the cover to the uneducated repubican voters on their database with the new headline, "Be Very Scared."

Evan Carden said...

As I understand it (, he left more over some fairly standard disputes with Comedy Central, which became wildly exaggerated (not in the sense of overblown, but in the sense that the disputes just ept growing because of the amount of money involved).

As for Jason's "And dangit, any college educated person in this country should get this satire immediately. If they don't, it's because they don't pay any attention to presidential politics and they should have their degrees revoked."

I'm going to assume that the comment about revoking degrees for insuffecient political participation is a joke, but I'm a little worried. Are you under the impression that only college educated people vote? Only college educated people watch television, where this has been discussed ad nauseum? Only college educated people read blogs, like this one? Really?

As for the statement that they "should get this satire immediately." I believe the problem is not that it isn't being gotten, but that some people, a lot of people are finding it offensive and not satire.

Satire, in my mind holds up a mirror, reflecting the worst parts of something. But if you can't see the frame of the mirror, all you see is a creepy stranger looking at you. The frame was missing here.

Just my two cents.

Jennifer said...

Thanks for leaving a comment, although (as is probably evident from my post) I do see this situation differently. I'm going to leave aside the "college educated" part of your comment because I think that Evan addressed that point very well.

I want to instead, address, the question of cross-racial humor. I don't watch Last Comic Standing (although I have read others blogging about it) and so I can't speak to how humorous (or not) each comic you mention was. But I can guess that a white guy making jokes about race would make people nervous. It's why I believe despite what Jon Stewart and others disussed in that New York Times article, most white Americans really aren't comfortable making jokes about "race" or rather about non-white people because they don't want to be perceived as racist. [I'm not even going to address Esther Ku, the Korean American comic you mention, because quite frankly, she's just not funny. It's not that I find her comedy offensive or not--it's just not good.]

Getting back to humor and satire--again, I think Evan summed it up best--it's not that people were stupid and didn't understand it was satirical, it's that many found the cover offensive because they saw it as a reflection of reality rather than an ironic commentary about race and politics.

And Evan, I love the frame analogy that you used--and I appreciate the heads up about what happened with Chappelle!

Unknown said...

I agree that it wasn't done skillfully enough to really qualify as effective satire.