In 1956 the celebrated author Robert Penn Warren wrote about racism in America. He described how there is a “national rhythm” related to race matters that sways gratuitously between “complacency and panic.” We certainly know which way the pendulum is swinging at the moment. If Warren is right in his analysis, then the question arises as to how do you find your way out of this rhythm? Warren himself spoke of needing leadership grounded in “moral identity” in order to “break out”, and God only knows what “moral identity” means in this post-Trump universe we all seem to be imprisoned in.
Another way to “break out” is to inject your intellect with new ideas and new perspectives, told by voices old or new. The most obvious voices belong to the serious people, be they historians, academics, and such like. Joseph Harker is one such example. Harker is the Guardian newspaper’s deputy opinion editor as well as the former editor and publisher of the weekly newspaper Black Briton. He recently made the following observation:
If I hear one more white person say “Black Lives Matter” I think my head will explode. The slogan, powerful when first popularised by black people after the shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012 in the US, has now become so ubiquitous as to have lost almost all meaning. A way for people to endlessly repeat “I hate racism” while doing nothing to actually stop it…You can say “Black Lives Matter” a million times but it will change nothing…To make lasting change, we ultimately have to get off the streets and into the rooms where these decision-makers operate…Black Lives Matter is a catchy slogan. But right now, action is what really matters. – Joseph Harker, 11 Jun 2020, theguardian.com
As well as Trayvon Martin, Harker was also referring to the murder of George Floyd, the aftermath of which has unleashed an international conversation on questions of race and racism. And it seems everybody has an opinion, a voice they wish to share. Here we have the American-Korean designer Courtney Ahn with her simple but honest take on ‘white privilege’:
White privilege doesn’t mean your life hasn’t been hard, it doesn’t mean you haven’t experienced prejudice, hardship, or earned your successes, but it does mean that your life hasn’t been harder because of your skin tone. – Courtney Ahn
But there are other voices that I think should be heard too. These voices belong to comedians and satirists who, believe it or not, have also expressed deep and thoughtful pronouncements regarding the murder of George Floyd. But why listen to the non-serious people? Well, during a crisis comedians do the impossible task of finding what’s funny about a dire scenario, thus giving us permission to laugh. They also keep us informed about important issues in an entertaining and digestible way.
For example, the Marx Brothers released classic movies like Duck Soup during the Great Depression, providing a cheap laugh (in a good way) amid grave economic uncertainty. The black American stand-up Dick Gregory satirized the inequality and discrimination faced by black Americans during the height of the civil rights struggle (he also managed to back up his words with sustained activism). And in the sombre days after 9/11, the return of comedy institutions like Saturday Night Live signalled that irony was far from dead. And today we need humour more than usual, a fact that is not lost on the black actress Taylor Garron:
Even as a satirist, it’s admittedly not the easiest (or the most helpful) thing for me to find humour in police brutality, white supremacy, and the seemingly endless fight for Black people’s rights. It can feel hopeless, inappropriate, and sometimes even damaging to use comedy to bring attention to something so serious and so urgent. But at the same time, I think that using humour is an effective way to highlight the hypocrisy and cast light onto blind spots that even the best-intentioned allies can perpetuate. – Taylor Garron
With that in mind, here are a few quotes from comedians related to current events. We begin with the late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel who recently said something similar to Courtney Ahn:
White privilege doesn’t mean your life hasn’t been hard, it just means the colour of your skin isn’t one of the things that makes it harder. – Jimmy Kimmel
And then you have comments such as these:
The police are a reflection of a society. They’re not a rogue alien organization that came down to torment the black community. They’re enforcing segregation. Segregation is legally over, but it never ended. The police are, in some respects, a border patrol, and they patrol the border between the two Americas. We have that so that the rest of us don’t have to deal with it. Then that situation erupts, and we express our shock and indignation…The root of this problem is the society that we’ve created that contains this schism, and we don’t deal with it, because we’ve outsourced our accountability to the police…We use the police as surrogates to quarantine these racial and economic inequalities so that we don’t have to deal with them. – Jon Stewart, 15 Jun 2020, nytimes.com
It actually makes me feel good that white people are showing the level of passion for black people that they normally reserve for animals. – Larry Wilmore, 12 Jun 2020, from the TV show Real Time With Bill Maher, referring to white people joining Black Lives Matter protests
I’m mixed race. If there are reparations for slavery, I’ll owe myself a fortune. – Andy J White, 19 Jun 2020
And then you have the following videos, all featuring well known comedians, that have really helped me to understand these complex issues in a new way. I hope they help you too. As best as one can in these turbulent times, enjoy…
Arguably the greatest living stand-up on the planet, Chappelle delivers a blistering 27-minute set that cuts straight to the brutality of the murder of an innocent African-American. At one point he muses “Why would anyone care what their favourite comedian thinks after they saw a police officer kneel on a man’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds?” After listening to his passionate and urgent lament, it is clear that we should all care.
Noah, a bi-racial South African who has made it big in the States, spends 18 reflective minutes telling us about the domino effect, or how some things are more connected than you may realise. He also discusses the “unspoken contract” that exists between us all, and how this contract seems to be broken for black people in America.
Minhaj, a Muslim like his fellow comedian Dave Chappelle, offers many home truths in just 12 minutes about how we all perhaps need to reflect more, including Muslims as well as angsty white teenagers.
You have polytheism (belief in more than one God), monotheism (belief in only one God), agnosticism (belief in sitting on some imaginary theological fence), and atheism (belief in no God). And then you have your anti-theists, a militant form of atheism where people believe that believing in God in any way is completely stupid, and they’re not afraid to speak their mind about it. Maher is just such a guy, so perhaps I, a practising Muslim, should steer clear of anything he has to say. Trouble is he often says things I happen to agree with, and this 5-minute rant about how easy it is for white people to be “helping wrong” because of the “guardians of ‘gotcha’” is a perfect example.
Honorary mentions go out to an 8-minute video of Keegan-Michael Key, one half of comedy duo Key and Peele, who, in an interview with Stephen Colbert, gives his thoughts on racism, with reference to Trevor Noah and the aforementioned “unspoken contract.”
Likewise, author Kimberly Jones very passionately explains the difference between protesting, rioting, and looting, all in under 7 minutes. She too refers to Trevor Noah and some of his earlier comments.
And finally, Dr Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism, shares many of her thoughts and experiences in an interview on CNN. The 17-minute interview took place in September of 2018, but CNN consider it so relevant they recently released an extended version of it. A few selected quotes are also presented.
It takes very little to set white people off, to set us off into defensiveness. So, for many white people, the mere suggestion that white has meaning will cause us to erupt in defensiveness. For many of your listeners, the fact that I’m generalizing right now about white people, will set off the defensiveness. Individualism is a really precious ideology for white people, and we do not like to be generalized about.
It’s a kind of delusion. I think that some people have said when you’re used to 100 percent, 98 feels oppressive. As a white person I was just raised to expect the world to be mine, in absolutely any field. I see myself represented. I see myself represented in all my teachers and my curriculum and my heroes and heroines. And so, just even a suggestion that we need to make sure we’re being fair and including other people, seems to set the white collective off.
Toni Morrison beautifully argues that white people need black people. There is no white without black. I cannot be superior if you are not inferior. And so, there’s a kind of investment in those positions. And it’s the bedrock of this country. It’s maybe buried in a way that it wasn’t in the past, but it sure looks like it’s coming back up.