Racism in Comedy

Every first and third Tuesday, Brew Works in Bethlehem hosts an open mic night for aspiring comedians. I have attended several events, particularly because my friend is interested in becoming involved in the business. Good beer and good laughs – what could go wrong?

Every first and third Tuesday, I find myself privy to the uncomfortable silence following racist, sexist, or homophobic jokes. Just this week, a man walked up to the stage and said “I hate women, they’re crazy. I also haven’t been laid in awhile.” He then proceeded to make a series of racist and homophobic comments, and none of them drew a laugh besides when he made jokes about how not funny the audience found him. Every week there seems to be someone who makes a “joke” about police brutality or mass incarceration. I still question why these predominantly white comedians think it’s okay to do so. On the other hand, one of the comedians, who is a woman who moved here from Iran when she was younger, makes incredibly witty jokes about feminism, divorce, and her identity as an aging Asian woman. The contrast between her success and the bigotry of the white male comedians is due, in my opinion, to her multiple marginalized identities.

It reminds me of Beverly Daniel Tatum’s definition of racism. One needs power to be able to commit an “-ism.” The female comedian can make jokes about being a woman and being Asian and being an immigrant because she is experiencing all of these marginalized identities. So although she might possess prejudices against other groups, such as men or white people, she does not possess the power to be racist or sexist. Her jokes poke fun at the inequalities she experiences every day, without making light of them. The white male comedians, however, approach these topics from a dominant stance. Making fun of the struggles of marginalized groups without being a member of a marginalized group isn’t funny – it’s hateful and racist and sexist, and serves to further reinforce the power dynamics that place white, male, cisgender, heterosexual individuals at the top.

Comedy is known for pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable and what is not. It challenges entertainers and audiences to question what they notice about the world around them, notice how human behavior can be ironic or interesting, and think about what happens in everyday life that can be shocking or strange. Comedy is brilliant, but it cannot erase “the ever-present power differential afforded Whites by the culture and institutions that make up the system of advantage and continue to reinforce notions of White superiority” (Tatum, 1997, pg. 128).  Moya and Markus make this connection in their piece through their analysis of comic artists who portrayed Obama using black stereotypes. “Playing with stereotypes” is not something that should be taken lightly when considering the vast implications of these stereotypes throughout history, as well as the hatred behind the existence of such stereotypes.

Therefore, I believe that jokes about social issues, particularly race, serve two very different purposes, with drastic consequences. For members of marginalized groups, comedy can serve as an outlet to explore the struggles that they face on a daily basis. For example, Aziz Ansari’s hilarious sitcom, “Master of None,” often tackles important issues like immigration, race, and masculinity in a lighthearted but serious way. However, comedians without marginalized identities making these jokes perpetuate the systemic inequality that exists between whites and minorities.

3 thoughts on “Racism in Comedy

  1. I agree with Cassie’s comment. I don’t think it’s valid to say that it is a “stereotype for a reason,” and with the man who opened for Pete Davidson and otherwise, there are some things that I will never find funny.

  2. I totally agree with who can make certain jokes, because they are coming from lived, personal experiences that do not necessarily harm other groups (or, are less harmful). I’ve had conversations about how certain racist and sexist comments aren’t funny, even though they are passed off as comedy. I usually get the response that, “oh, it was just a joke” or “you’re being too sensitive” or “you can’t just joke anymore these days”. It’s quite annoying, because it’s usually coming white men. It’s easy with white privilege to ignore what these jokes actually mean to someone of a marginalized group who hears them. Side note: I’ve spent about 30 seconds listening to one of the comedians at Brew Works and their (racist and sexist) jokes were definitely off-putting, so I left.

  3. Very insightful! I particularly liked how you brought stereotypes into the conversation. I often hear the argument, “It’s a stereotype for a reason” when people try to explain why it’s okay to make jokes that center around a stereotype or make racist assumptions based on a stereotype.

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