I’m not a comedian. I also am not terribly funny although I can tell a decent story or joke once in awhile in a sermon. And maybe after a few drinks. But, not together. Drinks with dinner, I mean. Andy will tell you that I don’t have a grasp of timing and executing punchlines. But, like most anyone else, I love to laugh. I love stand-up comedy – I love Kevin Hart, Margaret Cho, Chris Rock, Louis C.K, Eddie Murphy, Aziz Ansari for the ways they make me engage the realities around me differently.
“Humor is a rubber sword – it allows you to make a point without drawing blood.” -Mary Hirsch, Humorist
That’s the point of comedy, maybe, besides letting some of the air out of those realities that on many days feels particularly burdensome and unbearable. On the other hand, comedy can hold a mirror up in a way, and force us to confront those uncomfortable realities. It can give social critique and instigate transformation in a creative way. It can make these issues more accessible because it appeals to something that’s basic to humanity: the spoken word and how stories have a way of opening up the world in a fresh way.
And sometimes, honestly, you just need a good laugh to keep from crying because so much of the world is ugly and horrible.
Now, Andy and I didn’t watch the Oscars because actually we never watch the Oscars, but mostly because we don’t have cable TV, and we got sucked into watching the Crossfit Invitational on the ESPN channel on the ROKU. But, after following it on social media in between #justiceforflint and watching some snippets of Chris Rock’s stand-up, and then reading the reactions of numerous writers, I felt like I didn’t miss much. Because the kind of comedy Chris Rock employed wasn’t his usual thoughtful and intelligent social commentary on race and race relations.
Akiba Solomon articulated the problems well: Besides disrespecting women, Black women and making light of the history of violence towards black people from lynching to police brutality, “he effectively disappeared an encyclopedia of interlocking issues within the broader movement for racial justice.” He was as Solomon said, a “cliche monster.” He took the despicable (pun intended because Ali G’s joke about the minions) and easy road, and instead of following through with his initial crusade on the blatant racism of #OscarsSoWhite, he became a pawn for the sake of a paycheck and a few laughs from the people who create, perpetuate, and benefit from these white supremacist structures.
It was more than a little disappointing.
So when he paraded out the three Asian kids on stage, which I did see the next morning, I was done. Because those were our kids. On that stage. Being used as props for a bad (at least), confusing (at most) joke about what? What was the point? Slate writer Lowen Liu wrestles with it:
The joke here is garbled at best and doubly offensive at worst. It fails as a satire of Asian jokes, because while it flatters Rock to be one step ahead of the audience, it relies on equally base premises: Asian kids are either accountants or child laborers. But is he talking about privileged Asian Americans, raised in graduate-degree households (at least one with a Jewish parent!) now stocking white-collar jobs? Or is he talking about kids from a mostly rural China, whose population is trying to leap into the middle class by soldering circuit boards? He points to the briefcase-toting tots on stage as if they are a single group, when, of course, they are not. And this is the very misapprehension that undergirds every stereotype about Asians: that they are all the same.
The optics of the bit were an erasure, which is in itself a violence towards me, and people who look like me, my family, my parents, my kids, my home church, a whole host of people who continue to experience daily violence at so many levels and be used as a wedge and scapegoat between communities of color. There was nothing smart about it and nothing productive. Just another reminder that AAPI continue to be used as the token butt of the joke, but that’s okay because all the Asians in this country are doing well and what’s wrong with having a stereotype like that?
Grace Ji-Sun Kim writes: “White supremacy works when people of color are in disagreement and in tension with each other. White supremacy works when people of color do not support each other and ignore each other’s plight for equality and opportunity. White supremacy works when we continue to speak about racism in binary terms.”
Remember, Stephen Colbert did the same in the spring of 2014. He tried to make a point mocking Dan Snyder’s Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation and in one segment he said “I am willing to show the Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong, Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” Suey Park created #cancelcolbert – she obviously wasn’t serious – but used it to critique white liberals who use forms of racial humor to mock more blatant forms of racism. Because it was a cheap joke – it hit on a narrow image – stereotype – a trope of a minority in order to get a point across. It was the same thing with Chris Rock. Do we really think that it’s okay – it’s helpful or productive – to fight against racism – with more racism?
And so, yes, Chris Rock failed us. Like Anthony Berteaux wrote:
Rock himself has forgotten how the Asian model minority myth has been utilized to relegate Black Americans as a “problem” minority who are lazy and uneducated. It cannot be forgotten that in 2014, Bill O’Reilly used the myth of Asian success and intelligence to discredit white privilege and justify the perception of Black Americans as a “failure” minority.
Good comedy should take the power out of these stereotypes. It should break down those expectations and empower their communities by providing a way for others to see their humanity. Chris Rock failed us by playing right into Oscars that are always so white, to a world that center whiteness and one that ultimately needs those stereotypes and for us to play them out – our bodies, our children, our lives – to prop up these institutions of whiteness. Whether it’s blatant racism or tokenism or the feel-good language of “diversity” and “diverse leaders” that ends up covering up deeper institutional problems like a flimsy multicultural bandaid or the grandstanding of liberal progressives who love to pat themselves on their backs because they work for inner-city agencies – it’s all whiteness. It’s all about whiteness and protecting its towers and pillars. And, what Chris Rock did failed us – his kids, my kids, our kids. Because this humor isn’t made of rubber. It draws blood.
But, failure and success aren’t static realities. I’m hopeful that the conversations that come out of this – and maybe even Chris Rock will be a part of it – they will accomplish so much more than these cheap jokes and stories. Because we can tell better stories. We can and we will.