Dave Chappelle should not be immune to criticism from a Black critic : NPR


Dave Chappelle delivers his monologue Saturday Night Live last week.

NBC/Will Heath/NBC

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NBC/Will Heath/NBC

Dave Chappelle delivers his monologue Saturday Night Live last week.

NBC/Will Heath/NBC

It may have been the poison of a twittering raccoon.

Or the cropped photo of me standing with a student and a teacher after speaking at a high school, claiming I’d professed my love for the “ugliest white woman.” [I] could find.” Or the message that I should “keep my white wife happy” even though my marriage ended in 2015.

These messages, delivered virtually to my doorstep via Twitter after I dared to write a column criticizing the recent Saturday Night Live monologue, were part of a punitive deluge of social media comments aimed at attacking me as a black man. According to these diatribes, I was a traitor to my race, a cookie-eating sellout, a coonish, Uncle Tom/Sambo who allowed his Jewish paymasters to dictate his writing.

All because I had the audacity to say I was disappointed in Chappelle’s last performance.

Of course, it’s hard to say which of these accounts might have been bots or malicious hackers more interested in sowing discord and hatred than any logical argument. But some of the arguments advanced in these spaces nonetheless echoed justifications and defenses I’d seen from real people—inadvertently embodying my concerns about Chappelle’s original comments emboldening those who believed terrible stereotypes about Jewish people.

And, as always, it was disheartening that we seem to be having the same discussions about stereotyping and fairness that once seemed to have been resolved years ago – reignited by an artist whose slanted and provocative comedy hits the nerves without offering much of a solution.

A genius stand-up comic

Chappelle’s superpower as a performer – something he has bragged about in the past – is his ability to control an audience, laugh when he wants, stunned silence at other times. Indeed, his SNL monologue is a masterclass in saying just enough for fans to defend his words, while sidestepping their more provocative implications.

The question was—for me, at least—whether Chappelle was downplaying and tacitly covering up the anti-Semitic actions of Kanye West and Kyrie Irving. Chappelle dances around the issue in his monologue, noting how many Jewish people work in Hollywood, then says, “You could go to Hollywood, you could kind of start connecting lines, and you might assume the delusion that the Jews run show business.” Using the word “delusional” in that sentence sounds appropriate.

But the next moment he says, “It’s not crazy to think. But it’s crazy to say out loud in a climate like this.” Which begs the question: When will it ever be a good climate to regurgitate the old prejudice that Jewish people conspire to corner big institutions—a prejudice that has been used to justify oppression of all kinds, including the Holocaust?

Fans online insisted I wasn’t being honest, noting that Chappelle also joked, “There’s a lot of black people in Ferguson, Missouri. That doesn’t mean we’re running the place.” But I also paid attention to his very last joke, in which he commented on how difficult it is to talk about controversial topics, and added slyly, “I hope they don’t take anything away from me. Whoever they are.”

Given that there was only one group of people he’d talked about who may or may not have been running show business, it was hard to imagine Chappelle’s “she” referring to anyone else.

The monologue drew criticism from Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League tweeted that Chappelle had normalized and popularized anti-Semitism by asking, “Why does our trauma elicit applause?” That is a good question; Chappelle certainly drew an audience and pulled in the highest ratings of the season, drawing nearly 5 million viewers.

But Chappelle also has a well-known defender: former Daily show host and longtime friend Jon Stewart. Appears on Stephen Colbert’s The Late ShowStewart, who often jokes about his own Jewish heritage, argued against the idea that Chappelle normalized anti-Semitism and appeared to criticize efforts to marginalize West and Irving.

“I don’t believe censorship and punishment are the way to end anti-Semitism or gain understanding,” he said. Moments later, Stewart added, “Punishing someone for having a thought – I don’t think that’s the way to change your mind or gain understanding.”

Defenses that miss the target

In the wake of my column, some classic defenses surfaced.

He’s a comedian, not a journalist, some said (which I mentioned in my column). But those of us who have been doing this for a while know that humor rooted in unfair and inaccurate stereotypes can become ideas that the people who are the subject of those with prejudices have to live with for a very long time.

Some fans insisted that observing how many Jewish people work in show business is just a fact. But, of course, the point of such observations is often to provide evidence for a darker conclusion: that Jewish people control show business to make it a dangerous taboo for others to criticize them.

The strange thing about this perspective is that I’ve heard similar sentiments from some white people who feel there are taboos when it comes to discussing how black people talk about racism.

In my 2012 book Race Baiter, I describe a comment from former Fox News Channel anchor Bill O’Reilly, who blamed civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, the liberal watchdog group Media Matters — and, er, me — for creating a climate in which accusations of racism “pull millions of whites mean. Americans won’t think twice about discussing race with blacks.” He called me “one of the biggest race-baiters in the country.” Talk about creating a climate for constructive dialogue.

The fact is that our modern media argument culture doesn’t leave much room for nuanced discussions. However, when I brought the issue back to Chappelle, I thought my comments were pretty measured.

I didn’t call him an anti-Semite. I didn’t even say he wasn’t funny. I have accused him of covering up “a problem that needs to be cut and dried”. And before that, one fan insisted I was “spitting poison,” another accused me of “attacking another black person,” and a third insisted I had “black skin and a white mind.”

(There were also a few posters that seemed to use my column to falsely portray all or most black people as anti-Semitic—yet another twist of my words to serve up a terrible bias.)

The hypocrisy is astonishing. Chappelle herself said, “It shouldn’t be so scary to talk about something.” But some who claim to be his fans are determined to make it scary for anyone to disagree with him. Because if you dare to go there, you must not be black enough.

This idea can be so pervasive that the last time I wrote a major column criticizing Chappelle, Bill Maher commented on it with a joke on his HBO show Real time which convinced me that he thought a white man had written my words. (Maher talked about a “kink” he suspected some white people have because they want to harshly criticize themselves, which he called “white disgust.”)

Needless to say I disagree. Black people, we know this: When bigotry puts on its ugly face, the last thing we need in the public space is ambiguity and two-sidedness.

As police brutality against black people increases, we must state unequivocally that Black Lives Matter. And when anti-Semitism surfaces, even from some of the best-known black performers in music and sports, we must denounce it unreservedly.

Of course, there are tensions between black people and Jewish people over access to white privilege, differences in oppression, and a host of other issues. There is justified anger among black people when some people use white privilege to escape the oppression we face. But, as I mentioned last year in my column about Chappelle; just because some members of a group use their privilege in horrible ways, that’s not a green light to express unfair prejudices about everyone in that group.

These tensions are best resolved in an environment that unequivocally rejects false assumptions and prejudices on all sides. And to insist on this is not a betrayal of one’s race – it is exactly what we should expect in a free and fair society.

The Valley Voice
The Valley Voicehttp://thevalleyvoice.org
Christopher Brito is a social media producer and trending writer for The Valley Voice, with a focus on sports and stories related to race and culture.


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