Thursday, January 26, 2006

Are whiteys allowed to joke about colored folks?

Not pictured above: Gawker editors Jessica Coen and Jesse Oxfeld, the Assimilated Negro (from Black People Love Us).

I realize Martin Luther King Day is old news but what's kosher and what isn't in the business of sarcasm and tongueincheekery is always relevant, right? Anyway, last week, Paul over at A Blog Soup asked me to comment for his post about Gawker's coverage of MLK Jr Day. I had to agree that their treatment of the civil rights leader was, at best, tasteless. After some thought and beer, I responded, in part:
... At the same time, I'm not comfortable with the canonization of MLK either. He is one of the greatest Americans of the last century, undoubtedly. But that doesn't mean he should be exempt from the same type of jokes that Abe Lincoln or Benjamin Franklin or JFK are the butts of. Plus, I'd lose all respect for Jesse and Jess if Gawker granted sacred cow status to anyone...

See, the whole point of satire is to touch the untouchable and mention the unmentionable. And that's what I appreciate about satire, and comedy in general. By breaking taboos, it gets closer to the truth, much in the same way you can get more insightful political commentary from Jon Stewart than, say, anyone on a 24-hour news network.

But Nichelle (her Chicks and Giggles show is fantastic, btw) offers this:
The Gawker posts were stupid and thoughtless, because they think that being "ironic" makes it funny. The blog post just proves the opposite, which is that the writers are so far removed from the real reality of racism today that it is actually pretty sad. Even James Frey cannot make up to fictional world that Gawker lives in where it is OK to wrongly attribute the contributions of George Washington Carver, Colin Powell, Jackie Robinson, Harriet Tubman or Hattie McDaniel to Martin Luther King. We (Black People) do not all look alike, think alike, or write alike.

It's a reasonable point. Gawker has an almost all-white staff and talks about a predominantly white industry with a majority white audience. At the risk of over-generalizing, we're talking about people who are simply oblivious to racism as it exists today.

I'll joke about my family but that doesn't mean you can. Likewise, you might enjoy talking about your mother's alcoholic high jinks but it stops being funny when I join in. I might say "Dude, that chick is fobby as shit" or "Chinese look like this (pull up eyelids), Japanese look like this (pull down eyelids)", but if a bunch of white people (or black or Latino or smurfs) started cracking the same jokes amongst themselves? We're going to have problems (and by "problems", I mean a really evil stare).

Though I offer this Devil's Avocado: I'm thinking what Jess and Jesse were trying to get at was the lip service paid to the holiday by the oblivious masses. The butt of the jokes wasn't Dr. King or the day that honors him, It was the general apathy about the issues. The posts were lighthearted, not because they represent Gawker's attitude, but because there are really people who saw last Monday as nothing more than a day off.

Their list of MLK's accomplishments, which included working "as a conductor on the Underground Railroad", certainly isn't reverential by any stretch, but it could also serve as commentary on American society's tendency to cram complex issues and ideas into one person or a single soundbite, right? It's like that Chris Rock joke, "Are you sure it was a woman? I got it, Martina Luther King!" Why actually study the history and the issues when you have one day out of 365 when you can say, "He was a great man. Yay, dream! Done."? If you celebrate MLK Day, you're a-ok! That is a prevalent attitude, whether or not anyone admits it.

I'm a believer in the saying, "Matters of great importance should be taken lightly" and its converse, "Matters of small importance should be taken seriously." Big things tend to take care of themselves. It's the little, everyday stuff that really matters, and if you don't take care of the details - be it at work, in a relationship or wherever else, it doesn't matter how you treat the big stuff.

People are always going to give a fuck about Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks, and that's great. But when so much emphasis is placed on them, they become mere cults of personality and real lessons are lost. Do all the people who mourned Rosa Parks really care about poverty, class and institutional racism in 2006? Some do, most don't. So I'm glad Gawker does what it does. Sure, they come off like assholes, but you need the assholes to cut through the fake niceties and shine a light to the dirty, smelly truth.


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