(The Root) In recent years the conversation on whether or not to take comedians seriously when it comes to matters of import has been all the rage. From Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s daily smack down of the political establishment to Katt Williams and Tracy Morgan on stage. From Bill Maher with his weekly show diving directly into controversy to a tweet sent by Chris Rock mocking independence day. There are always points where everyone gives a controversial statement a proverbial high five and yells “RIGHT ON! YOU TELL’EM!” then the next day people back pedal their endorsements of these entertainers with the statement “they’re just comedians.”
I grow weary of this dance.
As a nationally touring stand-up comedian myself I understand why comedians are often brought into the political landscape (CNN gave D.L. Hughley his own TV Show; Lizz Winstead is a regular on the MSNBC.) We are allowed to tell the truth in an engaging manner. We deliver one-liners that regular old pundits aren’t allowed because society has decided “we’re just comedians.” “Are you getting upset with something a comedian said?” And although this isn’t quite the same defense that conservatives give their jesters (Limbaugh and Beck or often referred to simply as “entertainers”) there’s a certain amount of distancing that comes from everyone as soon as the person who has used their public platform, no matter how large or small, to make political commentary wades into a space that people don’t like.
I grow weary of this dance.
I believe that comedians have the right to say wacky, funny, controversial things. I believe that it’s our job to call bullshit wherever it’s found. But the “they’re just comedians” line is getting a bit old. If a joke is being told then of course, you shouldn’t be surprised—we’re comedians (not “just comedians”) and of course it should be taken as such. But when we use our platform, our public space to make commentary about society, race, gender and politics we are no longer simply “just comedians.” We are public figures and have the same responsibilities that befall anyone who reaches a space where people genuinely listen to them. We have a responsibility to society to be aware of what we’re saying, how we’re saying it and who we’re saying it to. I’m not speaking of some random “dick joke” or observational humor; I’m not speaking of something absurd and obviously wacky that might be (read: will completely be) off color. I’m speaking of words that have real world impact. You can say “well they’re just a comedian” when you don’t like something but you can’t turn around and say “Well comedians are the real truth tellers in our society!”
Case in point: D. L. Hughley appeared on a satellite radio and the discussion turned to Obama. Hughley weighed in on the president saying this:
“…He’s closer to being a white kid than he is to being—the way—intellectually, like his experiences are so different from mine that uh, that he responded, I should say he responded like an intellect as opposed to a regular, like he doesn’t seem very comfortable—like when shit gets—like here’s the thing: if you were with man and that man um never reacted, never got mad, always even keeled, at a certain point that woman would start to believe that man didn’t care about her. That’s how this country is. Because he is so plain, so nonplussed, people see that as devoid of passion. … And I think they’re reacting like – if a woman wants a reaction she does shit to push your buttons and that’s what the country is doing…”
When Hughley made this statement he was on a Ron Bennington’s show and was promoting a new book where he takes on the current state of America. He’s waving his “Comedians speak truth to power!” flag but yet he spouts off with this sort of nonsense on the radio.
The idea that Obama’s closer to a white kid because of his intellectual response to things is offensive. It’s not a joke. There’s no punch line. This was simply a statement on the president. This isn’t speaking truth to power. This is playing into a certain thought pattern—a stereotype—that many people genuinely believe. When I was a young kid I would refer to my Mom as “Mother.” Speaking to my uncle I said “I don’t think mother would be amused by that” and he responded “What are you trying to do? Sound like a little white kid?” He was subscribing to the idea that speaking in that manner, speaking formally was somehow a trait of “Whiteness.” In Hughley’s remark he tries to black check the president with “his experiences are so different from mine” comment. He jumps from “white kid” to “intellectually” implying that black kids don’t think or respond that way. This is a pervasive thought process within certain sections of the black community that is only spurred on when people of Hughley’s stature feed in to this myth.
When I mentioned this on Twitter the replies were fast and furious. As I expressed my inner rage concerning such commentary a small exchange happened.
When Hughley responded I wasn’t surprised. I don’t believe he consciously thinks that whiteness equals intelligence. That is why his commentary is even more disheartening. He should know better. He should know how his words sound. His entire job is based on words and he’s actively decided to step into a space of political and social commentary, but yet he still created another reference point in the big diagram of America about blackness and intelligence.
I’m not one of those people who think comedians shouldn’t weigh in on topics of import, obviously. But what I do believe is that comedians—and entertainers in general, have to be aware of the platform they are afforded and the responsibility that comes along with it. I am thankful every day that my being a comedian has given me an opportunity to bring important things to the forefront of national news. I’m thankful that I can call out ridiculousness and put into words what many of my fellow citizen’s desires and frustrations are. But there’s a tradeoff. I don’t get to just think out loud and randomly spout ignorant ideas. I have a responsibility. A responsibility that I took on without ever formally agreeing to do so. It’s implied (although, to clarify, I don't think this spreads to the stage when working out comedic material, which is a raw process where some missteps may be made. This is a part of the work and should not be judged the same way as a finished comedy special or media appearance).
If more people within the sphere of entertainment understood that perhaps we wouldn’t have so many instances of ignorance creating or propping up yet more ignorance.
Elon James White is a writer and satirist and host of the award-winning video and radio series This Week in Blackness. Listen Monday to Thursday at 1:30 p.m. EST at TWIB.FM and watch at TV.TWIB.ME/LIVE. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and Tumblr.