Humor is subjective. What one finds funny another may find tasteless or despicable.
For example, I have always been partial to the Three Stooges and find their humor to be pure genius. My love of Redd Foxx and Cleavon Little is well-known. I also think that Woody Allen's Match Point is one of the greatest movies of the last two decades with its darkly comic and tragic sensibilities where a foul harpy ruins the well-ordered life of our cavalier protagonist. By comparison, some think that the Honeymooners is a tour de force of comedic genius, a standard in television yet to be matched. By comparison, I think that the Honeymooners is grating and tacky: I simply cannot watch Ralph Kramden, a boorish lout, verbally and emotionally abuse his wife, Alice. Simply, I find no humor in it. Of course, when we add in the complexities of race in a racialized society that is struggling with its efforts, however deformed and half-conceived, to move towards being "post-racial," the question of humor, and what exactly should or ought to be laughed at, falls into sharper relief.
The brewing controversy over True Colors, where race as the ultimate circumstance of both social unease and the source of American obsession meets the classic television show Candid Camera, speaks to this tension in rare form.
Should we laugh at mammy figures such as Tyler Perry's Madea, figures who channel no more than the most basic stereotypes and coonery? Historically, were Black elites correct to condemn such shows as Amos N' Andy, when the masses found the show funny and in many ways surprisingly empowering? Is it so wrong to laugh at J.J. Walker's character in Good Times? Is it shameful to laugh at black folks throwing a fit over Popeye's running out of fried chicken? Do we lose our "progressive" card when we enjoy "regressive" or "un-PC" popular culture? Is it so problematic that we sometimes find humor in those things, be it music, art, literature, movies, or the like that do not serve the best and highest standards of what we imagine ourselves as good, respectable citizens to be? And if we do so, should we heed the words of Mao ZeDong and pause for a moment of critical self-reflection?
Because humor and comedy are so normative and subjective, I prefer not to emphasize the how in these matters--I am less concerned with why something is funny to a given person, as opposed to why a person (or a society) finds some things, events, or circumstances worthy of humor (or not). This is a subtle but important distinction. Moreover, I ask myself, what does the fact that it is okay to laugh at certain things--and do not forget that this criteria is itself socially constructed and contingent on certain arrangements and understandings of what is "natural" or "normal"--tell us about a community's values?
In watching True Colors, I laughed. I will admit it. I laughed with great reservation and unease. I laughed with sympathy. I also laughed with surprise akin to "the didn't just do that, did they?" I also laughed knowing that what I was watching was utterly lacking in wit because of its obviousness. Nevertheless, some of the funniest things are in fact the most uncomfortable.
Consider the following clip:
Okay, a funny sight gag. Yes, the reactions are "entertaining." But just as in the first clip, why would they (the producers/the writers of True Colors) find it appropriate to use this comedic setup? What boundaries of decency do they dare not cross? Where is their internal self-censor, that little voice that says one should not cross a given line of propriety? That perhaps, it is not appropriate to stage a gag that plays on racial terrorism and murder.
Here is one of the dividing lines of race, one that remains (and will continue to) long past the post-racial halcyon days of Obama's first 100 days as president. Racism and white supremacy in this country have centered upon inflicting trauma on those deemed by convention, law, and practice to be outside of Whiteness. This exercise of power on the body and mind has also traumatized--psychologically, spiritually, and emotionally its victims--and yes, Whiteness has also profoundly damaged White people as well.
Of course, a victimized mass of undifferentiated blackness and browness is not all that we are, because to hold such a belief both erases our individuality as well as robs us of agency. For me, the fact that we have overcome so much speaks to our glorious struggle and steel-willed drive and perseverance. It also explains why I shudder with disdain and disgust when so many black Americans, young and old alike, display what is at times a chronic lack of race pride.
With this qualifier noted, the fact that the trauma afflicted on Black Americans can be used for comedic fodder says much about how the full range of our humanity goes unacknowledged in America and the West, and that there is a particular type of historical myopia at work in the heart of Whiteness:
The provincialism of the Whiteness on display in True Colors is one that is incapable of putting oneself in the place of the object of humor, i.e. perhaps, why wouldn't a black person find it funny to see a KKK robe in their doctor's office? The Whiteness on display in True Colors is also a demonstration of an almost pathological narcissism. Here, the world revolves around an unnamed, universal "I". The "I" of Whiteness need not empathize or sympathize with the Other because to not have to do so is the practical advantage that is White privilege.
In total, this may be the unbridgeable divide. For Whiteness, the idea that a Klan robe in a doctor's office may be terrifying because of the complicity of doctors in racist medical experiments on black people, is unacknowledged. Moreover, that there is strong evidence of systematic racism in the medical community which negatively impacts the quality of care that people of color receive by their health providers is ignored. Or that to show a black woman images of "beautiful" White women, and then to have her "boyfriend" consistently pick them over pictures of comparable black women may in fact be speaking to dominant, narrow, and exclusive norms of Eurocentric beauty?
In teasing out how these standards surrounding what is, or is not, fair game and terrain for humor, let us consider the following (not so) True Colors inspired scenarios. Ask yourself: is this funny? why or why not?
1. Instead of two black women discovering that their doctor is a member of the KKK, 2 aged Jewish Holocaust survivors look into their doctor's closet and see a German SS uniform. Funny or not?
2. At a mall, a black pollster asks a white couple if they wouldn't mind sharing their opinions about which men in a selection of pictures were handsome (or not). The wife in the duo is shown photos of naked, muscular, well-endowed black men, all the while indicating how she prefers those men to the comparatively scrawny and more "modestly" endowed white men she is shown in the companion photos. The husband is deeply hurt and offended. Funny or not?
3. Two parents with a son in Afghanistan are visited by an actor posing as an Army chaplain. Said person then informs the parents that their son was killed in a roadside bombing. The big reveal: their son is actually alive and safe. Funny or not?
4. A person applies for life insurance and gives blood to a nurse practitioner as part of the exam. After drawing the blood, the nurse tells the patient that the needle was previously used and that he may have been exposed to HIV. Funny or not?
What scenarios would you add to the list? And what does this experiment tell us about the Whiteness of humor?