Thursday, February 28, 2008

From the Mind of Mencia: Ah, the Old "I Was Joking" Defense

There is an old Saturday Night Live sketch starring Eddie Murphy that satirizes then-dominant cultural assumptions about black and white race relations. The premise is this: Eddie Murphy goes "undercover," wearing make-up and wardrobe meant to disguise him as Caucasian. In costume, Murphy is given a free newspaper at a newspaper stand and discovers that the MTA bus becomes a swinging club when all the passengers are presumably white. The skit works because it hyperbolizes white privilege and institutional racism, and while the viewers who are white know they are watching a farce, they are likely to reflect on what, if any, differences they are aware of between racially homogeneous and heterogeneous groups.

In the 21st century, American culture is beset with Carlos Mencia, a "comedian" who utilizes racist stereotypes not to debunk them or to make dominant culture reflect, but to placate those who have power. For example, in some of his stand-up routines, he makes fun of white Americans who cannot tell the difference between "a Hindu and a Muslim." In the sketch, available on the Mencia site here, Mencia adopts a presumably mental-disability-based accent in order to denigrate tolerance before announcing that he pities Hindus because they are often mistaken for (implicitly stigmatized) Muslims. Mencia gets away with this because he is "ethnic," and his brand of "in your face" humor is defended by suggesting that you, the viewer, have a problem if you object to the sketch. In short, because he is a "comedian," he is not being racist; he is being funny.1

When the line is so blurred between racism, sexism, ableism, and any of the negative -isms, those who do the actual blurring encourage the dominant culture not to know the difference.

Consider State Senator Shawn Mitchell (R, and white), who, when addressing the President of the Colorado State Senate, Senator Peter Groff (D, and black), mistakenly called him Senator Gordon (D, and white), who was also at the podium. In response to his mistake, Senator Mitchell said, "Excuse me, Mr. President. You all look alike to me" (

Now, there probably isn't a single sentient American alive who does not know that this "punch line" comes from the racist stereotype that black Americans look alike (in fairness, Bill Cosby uses this stereotype in Himself, when he tells his son that he will kill him and "make another one who look[s] just like [him]"). Senator Mitchell contends that he meant to suggest that all Democrats look alike to him because of their liberal politics. Regardless, the claim is still racist. Here's why.

Mitchell is relying on the audience to understand that within his normative gaze, the objects upon which he looks are marginal, trivial, and that he enjoys the dominant, hegemonic position: i.e. Democrats are indistinguishable because one trait overwhelms all others when he, the empowered, gazes upon them. The reason that the audience understands his comment as a put down, even if they've never heard the term "hegemony,"2 is because it invokes that same discrediting, stigmatizing, attitude that was so and remains prevalent among many white Americans with (no?) respect to black Americans.

The point is, Mitchell's joke only works if you can reference a bigoted, racist attitude toward black Americans and index it within the context of the partisan Colorado State Senate. Thus, even if you take Mitchell at his word (and as a politician his word is sacrosanct, no?), he needs you to think like a racist in order for the "joke" to come off at all.

In his own defense, Mitchell explains:

"My attempted joke was that a tall black man and a short white man look alike to me because of their liberal politics," Mitchell said to a reporter later in explaining his remark. "If someone tries to turn that into a racial issue, they're just playing cheap campaign games."
One might counter, by denying any racial element to the statement, Mitchell is playing a cheap campaign game. In fact, by suggesting that criticism of his remark would amount to politics, he is suggesting that common decency is a political issue. If that is the case, we are headed for an even "greater depression" than most of us thought.3

1 This defense worked well for Don Imus.
2 This is the Colorado State Senate. Anything is possible.
3 As a rider or earmark, if you will, to this story, consider this description of local Denver television coverage of Senator Groff's rise to the Senate Presidency: "Earlier this year, a Denver television station ran a news story about Groff's historic ascension to the Senate presidency. However, the station inadvertently ran a picture of Rep. Terrance Carroll, D-Denver, another black lawmaker, during the story." Awesome.

1 comment:

  1. nice catch on the disparaging without even realizing how disparaging it really is. i'm sure there are a ton of other examples here of common "jokes" or simple expressions with pretty awful genesis. your thesis here--that self-deprecating "humor" encourages the "dominant culture to not know the difference"--is similar to the often-heard "dominant culture" argument that it's ok to use disparaging labels (e.g., the "n" word) even jokingly because those being labeled do it themselves. my own view is the "dominant culture" should know better.

    Side note: Mitchell (like every other politician I've heard) offends everyone here with the maddening "campaign game" comment. Please make this over-used act of desperation, along wtih its close cousin "playing politics", stop.