(The Root) — Chris Rock sent a message to white voters on the Jimmy Kimmel Show recently.
Hilarity ensued, right?! I watched the clip with a few friends, and they laughed! I, on the other hand, crossed my arms and looked toward the ground. I felt really weird and didn’t want to comment at all. My friends noticed my silence and lack of gut-busting laughter and asked what was wrong. I almost said nothing because I didn’t want to be that guy. I didn’t want to throw water on the fire of fun that everyone was having. And come on! Chris Rock is hitting his comedy dougie! This is great, right?
The whole gag here is based on the idea that Barack Obama doesn’t have a stereotypically black background. His nickname was Barry. He was born in Hawaii. He went to Ivy League schools. The joke is based on the idea that Obama’s blackness scares some folks so much, but when you compare his life experience with that of the “average” black person in America, he’s way more similar to whites.
I get it.
My issue with the gag is that it plays into the stereotypes that have plagued black Americans for decades. There are blacks right now being told how white they are because they’re doing something like hiking, skiing, brunching, studying, etc. Within the black community, people are “black checked” for not living up to some sort of predetermined idea of what black folks do. They’re mocked and shunned for not being what others have decided they should be. And the reason is the thought process that says “golfing is what white people do.”
Comments like “Barack Obama supports gay marriage; most black men don’t support straight marriage” are problematic. Not because Chris Rock dictates what blackness is — but because of his fame and notoriety, in addition to the ignorant ideas that some whites already believe and some blacks already internalize.
I can hear the furious typing already telling me “But he’s a comedian!” Yes, I’m aware of that. I’m not currently boycotting Chris Rock. I get what he’s doing. I’m a comedian myself! But I personally believe in a certain responsibility that comes with inhabiting the public sphere in society. Once your words are read and listened to by the masses, I would argue that you owe it to society itself to choose words that would do the least harm.
Rock is one of the most talented comedians alive. Do you think he couldn’t have written something equally funny that didn’t play into the stereotypes of what blackness is and isn’t?
I realize how this sounds. I’ve already told myself to shut up a couple of times. But whether or not you think I’m being “annoying” isn’t the point. There are reasons that certain language and jokes are problematic. When they play into problematic preconceived notions without challenging them directly, they implicitly co-sign the problematic preconception.
If I make a joke about how we need to be careful about leaving young boys in front of gay men, I’ve added to the problem of how homosexuality is viewed in our society: that gay men are pedophiles and shouldn’t be allowed to adopt. I can make the argument that I’m not homophobic and that I didn’t mean any harm by the statement. “It was just a joke!” But the joke plays into dangerous themes. As someone with a public space, I have to take responsibility for my words.
Words matter. The end.