Monday, June 08, 2009

Satire and Social Justice: Racial Jokes, Racial Wisdom, and Richard Pryor as a Philosopher of Race

Warning: this post contains quotations and links that use language that might offend some readers.

From City Journal: an interesting article about Richard Pryor and how, over the long term of his career, he developed some very nuanced views about race and white racism. One of Pryor's monologues explains how he gained some insight into race dynamics in the United States after a trip to Africa:

"One thing that happened to me that was magic was that I was leaving, sitting around the hotel lobby, and a voice said, “What do you see? Look around.”

And I looked around, and I looked around, and I saw black people everywhere. At the hotel, on television, in stores, on the street, in the newspapers, at restaurants, running the government, on advertisements. Everywhere.

And the voice said, “You see any niggers?”

I said, “No.”

It said, “You know why? ’Cause there aren’t any.”

I’d been there three weeks and hadn’t said it. And it started making me cry, man. All that crap. All the acts I’ve been doing. As an artist and comedian. Speaking and trying to say something. And I’d been saying that. That’s a devastating word. That had nothing to do with us. We are from a place where they first started people. I left regretting ever having uttered the word on a stage or off it. It was a wretched word. I felt its lameness. It was misunderstood by people. They didn’t get what I was talking about. And so I vowed never to say “nigger” again."

I've mentioned before how use of humor, and satire, in particular, to explore and challenge dominant ideas in society is a particular powerful tool. But it's a very volatile one.

Recent studies suggest that satire is a form of humor that can challenge, but also reassure and confirm, one's own biases. In one study, liberal and conservative viewers were asked to assess the political humor of Stephen Colbert. Liberals tended to think he was using humor to poke fun of right wingers; conservatives thought he was using satire to make fun of liberals.

This kind of indeterminacy of satire as a tool of social justice makes me think about Dave Chappelle. During the last season of his wildly successful show on Comedy Central, Chappelle developed a series of sketches about racial stereotypes called the Pixie series. The idea was to show the kind of burden certain stereotypes impose on different ethnic groups. But he decided to abandon the show, in part, because he wasn't sure that his humor was having the effect he wanted it to have. He wasn't sure whether he was challenging the stereotype or, instead, retrenching the stereotype in the mind of some viewers. Here is a clip from the show:

Chappelle's Show
Pixie Stereotypes - In-Flight Meal
Buy Chappelle's Show DVDsBlack ComedyTrue Hollywood Story

Should people concerned with social justice trust humor, and especially satire, as tools to raise critical awareness about issues such as racism?

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