Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Racism (3): Racism Can Be Fun

Racism is poop.

I do not mean by this that racism is a poop-y thing, although it certainly is. I mean that racism to our sophisticated adult minds is what poop is to the minds of five-year-olds.

As any parent of young kids above the age of three will testify, poop is very very funny. It is hilarious. If someone just says ‘poop’ or ‘ass’, that is comedy that can make a kid roll on the floor laughing for an hour. Hitting someone on the ass? Comedy gold.

Poop stops being funny the older we get. For the most part. Still, the mere mention of poop is certainly not as funny as it used to be. But although the subject has changed, the mechanism has remained the same. And the mechanism is all about the forbidden, the taboo, that which shouldn’t be mentioned but causes no harm if it is.

Let’s take a look at a recent example from the writers of The Daily Show (who like to throw poop a lot), and see if you notice how they keep saying aloud that which society believes shouldn’t be said.

A couple of weeks ago, Jon Stewart turned to the camera, and said: “Here with more on the Obama candidacy is our senior black correspondent, Larry Wilmore. Larry, thanks for joining us.” After the intro, Stewart got to the question: “I am also hearing that the African-American community is not supporting him because his father is Kenyan and not American.”

Wilmore: “It’s true, Jon. American blacks love African art, African clothes, African music, we’re just not that crazy about Africans. [...] So, for blacks to support Obama, he’s got to make up his mind: Is he African or American? Because he can’t be both. That doesn’t make sense.”

Stewart: “But, obviously, an American of African descent, wouldn’t that just make him...”

As Stewart trails off, Wilmore finishes his line for him: “...Some kind of unspeakable hybrid? Exactly, Jon.”

Stewart stares at Wilmore, uncomprehending. Then, “So, you really believe this affects his chances?”

“Oh, yeah, absolutely. Right now, only 20% of black voters support Obama. That’s bad. But, is it bad enough for him to win?”

“I’m sorry, bad enough to win?”

“Yeah, look. The last thing a black candidate wants is to be seen as the black candidate. [...] Look, it works like this.” As he speaks, a visual goes up, sporting the headline ‘VOTING RACIAL PATTERNS’. The visual has five white men and three black men. “For every three black votes,” explains Wilmore, “you scare away five white votes.” And, indeed, as he speaks, the white drawn men vanish off-screen, screaming. “Do the math. Black support is really worth three-fifths as much as white support.”

Recognize that little statistic? Ever think you would hear someone say it with conviction? As the audience laughed during this bit, it couldn’t believe that it was hearing what was being said. And it laughed harder because it couldn’t believe someone was actually saying that. That’s poop for ya.

Let’s look at another piece from The Daily Show. A recent “investigative report” by the team of Wilmore (“our chief black correspondent” again) and Oliver (white and British), had the two sit down to talk with New York City Councilman Leroy Comrie who wants us not to use the N-word.

Oliver (who is white): “So, Leroy, you want to ban this word... um... Larry?”

Wilmore (who is black): “Nigger.”

Oliver: “Thank you. What he said. Is the word, um...”

Wilmore: “...Nigger...”

Oliver: “...Offensive to everyone or just to...”

Wilmore: “...Niggers?”

At which Oliver jumps, “No, no,” and explains that he paused for effect.

It’s funny because it’s wrong. But at the same time, it easily makes a point of how ridiculous it is to be offended by poop. It may stink, but it does no harm.

Here is another way in which Stephen Colbert (who is white) from The Colbert Report made a similar point. His guest was the author of a book called The N-Word, Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, and Why.

Says Colbert, “Alright. First question. Did you want to name the book The N-Word, and they said, no, you gotta call it The N-Word? Or did you say, I want to name this book The N-Word and they assumed you meant, you know, The N-Word, when in fact, you meant The N-Word?”

After receiving an answer, Colbert asks, “This raises another interesting subject to me, is that the N-word has become so synonymous with the N-word. Is saying the N-word pretty much like saying the N-word? Because I would never say the N-word. But I don’t want somebody to think I’m saying the N-word by saying the N-word.”

To poop or not to poop, that is the question. Colbert was being both naughty and nice, and the sharp-eyed readers will also note that he and Stewart used a tactic mentioned in the previous article about racism and brought to the fore questions and issues we’ve closed the book on, leaving it to us to think about them without any spin.

Last and certainly not least is the funniest racist of them all, Archie Bunker from All in the Family. Archie, a sweet white racist, has learned that Mike, his son-in-law, a.k.a. Meathead, is eligible for a position on the other coast of the U.S., which means that Archie will be far from his daughter, Gloria. Archie has also learned that competing for the same position is a black man. Archie suddenly finds himself fighting for the rights of the black man.

Archie stands in Gloria and Mike’s living room, and accuses Mike of being a bigot.

He’s a bigot?!” Gloria is on her feet.

“A bigot, yes. And that’s the same guy that used to be marching in all the peace riots. That’s right. That bigot over there won’t give an even break to a spade.”

Mike then learns that he’s probably got the job. That’s when Archie really gets going: “Listen to this. I can’t believe my ears. A white guy standing there, bloating over taking a job from a colored guy. That ain’t the American way, buddy. No sirree! Listen here, professor, you’re the one that needs an American history lesson. You don’t know nothing about Lady Liberty, standing there in the harbor, with her torch on high,” and as he says it, he mimes it, and his voice goes up, “screaming out to all the nations of the world: ‘Send me your poor, your deadbeats, your filthy!’ And all the nations send them in here. They come swarming in like ants. The Spanish PR’s from the Carriboo there, your Japs, your Chinamen, your Krauts and your Hebes and your English fags!”

And he’s not done: “And all of them come in here. And they’re all free to live in their own separate sections, where they feel safe, and they bust your head if you go in there. That’s what makes America great, buddy!”

This great speech is funny because it crams in many varied forms of poop and because while Archie tries to take the equal-opportunity side, he only proves how big a racist he is. And lastly, it is funny because as he tries to prove how great America is (in that last bit) he shows how far it still has to go. And there lies the statement of the writers, delivered to us through all those jokes.

We all have our own taboos to contend with that are actually harmless when mentioned aloud. Three-fifths of a person and curses such as the N-word are only a few. We have many, many more.

So as I leave you this week with a question: What’s your poop?

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