If you’ve been at this school long enough, odds are that you’ve encountered more than a few people who have absolutely no sense of humor when it comes to race. Quote Dave Chappelle or Borat, and that person will not laugh. He or she may even argue that laughing at such jokes is dangerous because there is so much racism and anti-Semitism is still present in our society; laughing at a joke that invokes racial stereotypes only serves to validate those stereotypes.
It’s true that racism is still a glaring problem in this society, but laughing at a Chapelle sketch is the least of our concerns. Over the last 30 years, we’ve seen racial protest in the U.S. switch from addressing growing social problems to addressing isolated incidents of highly public displays of insensitivity. Because we’ve confused prejudice with discrimination, we’ve lost sight of where the real problems lie.
This past year we saw an unusual number of controversies surrounding slurs and comments, be it George Allen’s use of “macaca,” Mel Gibson’s drunken anti-Semitic tirade, or Michael Richards’ screaming the N-word during a comedy club meltdown. These stories all got a lot of media coverage, but the most damaging developments in race relations and nation-wide prejudice in this country did not.
In all the talk of the “thumpin’” by Democrats in last November’s election, what got lost was that Michigan voters overwhelmingly decided to overturn affirmative action and that seven more states passed constitutional amendments against same-sex marriage. Say what you will about the effectiveness of affirmative action, but it’s one of the only tools we have to correct centuries of violence, segregation and disenfranchisement of African Americans. As for same-sex marriage, the only hope for possible legal equality of gay couples has been nearly irrevocably damaged in over half the states in the Union. Compared to those developments, whatever Michael Richards or Tim Hardaway have to say seems irrelevant.
The emphasis on prejudice has been no less prominent on this campus either. Last school year, we saw a seemingly unending string of racial incidents, between the May house “straight-thuggin’” party, the Hitchcock whiteboard incident, the Muhammad cartoon in Hoover House, and the military recruiting protest in the Reynolds Club. Based on the amount of attention drawn to those incidents, you’d think black students and Jews on this campus hide in their rooms in fear.
If you want to find the real racism on this campus—don’t look within, look outside. You won’t find racism in May House; You’ll find it on the 55 and the Red Line, where this campus’s relationship with the surrounding community can be summarized in uneasy stares, awkward silences, and condescending comments. This university has historically had an absolutely shameful in relationship with the South Side, and most students’ absolute ignorance of the lives of those west of Cottage Grove or south of 61st Street only perpetuates these biases. Which do you think is a more destructive term: “straight-thuggin’” or “those people”?
That’s not to say we shouldn’t ignore bigoted public comments. If a prominent figure in our society shows glaring insensitivity, it should be addressed. But, I would argue we already let insensitivity pass in certain situations. In 1992 Charles Barkley called a player on the Angolan basketball team a “spear chucker,” yet because Barkley is black the comment was not as controversial as it would have been if, say, his teammate Larry Bird had said it. For that matter, we let beer ads and movies like Blades of Glory make homosexuality seem freakish and something to avoid, yet we don’t accept it when people like Hardaway say things that beer ads merely imply.
Furthermore, one of the most blatant examples of discrimination in our society has gotten no attention from the press. The last few decades has seen nearly an eradication of all the progress women made in the ’60s and ’70s. As women have entered the workforce, they still do not earn as much money as men, are judged more for their attractiveness than for their ability, and face unnecessary obstacles to go on maternity leaves. Since 1980, the number of women claiming to be feminists has declined dramatically while the number of women with eating disorders has increased. At this point the word “feminist” has a negative connotation; I’ve heard males on this campus use the term “feminazi” nearly as much as the term “feminist.” It’ll take more than a Dove advertising campaign to overcome this problem, yet no one seems to really be addressing it.
In regards to comedy acts, an effective one will serve only to degrade racial stereotypes instead of promoting them. Mel Brooks has continuously pointed out that making someone laugh at a racist is more effective than outright denouncing them. (Such an argument was needed after The Producers took Broadway by storm.) Chappelle cancelled production of the third season when a white crew member laughed at one sketch because he felt he was being laughed at instead of laughed with. Unfortunately, the current status of discrimination is no laughing matter, and until we stop looking at individual incidents and start looking at policy, we’ll just be treading water.