Artie Lange, comedian, and former co-host on the Howard Stern Show, recently told a joke that involved a slavery fantasy, plantations, whipping, masturbation, and sex with ESPN's Cari Champion, one of their TV personalities who happens to be black and a woman.
Lange was heavily criticized as a result.
His effort at humor through the mocking of how black Americans were targets of systematic rape and torture during centuries of chattel slavery was a failure on all accounts: it revealed no deep truth, pointed no light on matters little discussed, and there was no self-sacrifice or vulnerability on the part of Lange because he failed in this instance to make himself (and his failings) the fulcrum on which the comedic revelation could turn or pivot.
I am an unapologetic fan of Howard Stern. As such, I am a fan of Artie Lange. Unfortunately, his joke about white on black rape during chattel slavery has put that "relationship" in peril.
I know Artie Lange in the sense that he is a fellow traveler of sorts.
Of course, I do not "know" Artie Lange the individual. But, I know him in the sense that I feel and "get" his life story, upbringing, and generational experience growing up in the Northeast, from a working class background that was tenuously clung to by his family, pain about the injury suffered by his father, and making promises to his mother about her future prosperity while hanging out at diners in New Jersey.
Lange, in his own way, also helped me to survive one of the darkest times in my life some years ago. I am known to have depressive moods while I dance with the dark and the morbid, trying to make sense of my life trajectory. As I was tempted to take one step too close to surrendering to those impulses, Lange's autobiography Too Fat to Fish pulled me back.
For that I am indebted to him.
Because I am a fan of Artie Lange, I reached out to him on Twitter. To my surprise he responded. I told him that he should just be contrite, apologize for a joke gone wrong, and that there are many people, like myself, across the color line, who support his career and are concerned about him as a person. All Artie Lange needed to do is to own his mistake and bad behavior; we are human; not all of our art--or in this case--jokes are going to be winners.
Artie's first response was contrite and honest. There seemed to be a certain amount of direct honesty and vulnerability to it. Several tweets later, Lange explained that he is a comedian and that he can't be limited by concerns about "offending" people. I was and remain disappointed. Based on his recent appearance on the Opie and Jimmy radio show, and buttressed by the tweets of his overwhelmingly white fans and supporters, Lange has put on a shield, one emblazoned with a slogan that he is standing up against "political correctness". His racist jokes are an act of free speech. Moreover, somehow his fans and defenders believe that Lange is working in the great tradition of Richard Pryor, showing no fear about making the public uncomfortable.
Defiance of "political correctness" on matters of race and racism are an effort to reinscribe white privilege and white supremacy as the default position(s) from which the feelings of non-whites about white racism must be judged and assessed. As such, there is no "offense" unless a white person determines that one has taken place.
The excuse-making claim that Lange and other white comedians are simply working in a genre known as "frat boy humor" are banal: offense for the petty sake of offending is the lowest form of comedy; it is empty; it is childish; and when done by white comedians who are discussing matters of race, the ultimate goal is for them to play with white racism in a cowardly way.
White comedians' "fun" with racism is black and brown people's pain. Men's "fun" with sexism and rape are women's pain. It is only a profound divide in a sense of shared humanity that makes such humor acceptable.
As in this case, Lange and others who work in the frat boy style of comedy are protected from taking ownership of their racist behavior. And in the most grotesque moments, he or she who tells racist and white supremacist jokes can retreat to the alcove of white victimology, a safe space where they can find comfort that somehow they have been wronged by overly "sensitive" non-whites, "liberals", and "social justice warriors".
Artie Lange's white slave rape sex fantasy debacle is an unintentional reminder of Richard Pryor's genius wit and wisdom. Pryor is deployed by Lange and his defenders because in their flat and lacking in nuance perspective, the former was 1) black, 2) told "offensive" jokes, and 3) was the greatest American comedian of the modern age.
"A black person did it too so it must be okay" is a standard colorblind racism talking point, one that is often summoned whenever a white person commits a racist act.
Those who channel Richard Pryor in order to defend Artie Lange do not understand that Pryor "offended" his audience as a way of making them see a deeper truth. Pryor was great because he stood before the public, his soul and heart naked, in order for them to see his ugliness, pain, vulnerability, sadness, love, confusion, joy, and complexity. Pryor suffered. His humor was an act of parrhesia. Pryor told the truth. His commitment to telling the truth through comedy was a way of fighting his personal--and America's societal--demons. Pryor's vulnerability would eventually lead to his death.
Pryor the comedian was a master social critic, one with an almost preternatural gift for speaking truth to power. One of Richard Pryor's most insightful routines was the skit called "Super Nigger". There, he offered up blistering insight into racial stereotypes, black vulnerability, the cool pose, soul, and white racism.
In another life, Richard Pryor would have been a gifted university psychologist or sociologist.
The recent article, A Superhumanization Bias in Whites’ Perceptions of Blacks by Adam Waytz, Kelly Marie Hoffman, and Sophie Trawalter reveals that white Americans hold a deep subconscious belief that African-Americans possess superhuman powers and are somehow a "race" that is apart and separate from the mere mortals who comprise White America.
Waytz and his colleagues detail how:
New research suggests that whites think of blacks in general as superhuman, or at least more so than whites. And this bias may have implications far outside the wide world of sports.
Adam Waytz of Northwestern University and Kelly Marie Hoffman and Sophie Trawalter of the University of Virginia report the results of several studies on this subject in an upcoming issue of Social Psychological and Personality Science. In one experiment, white Internet users were shown a white face and a black face and asked to decide:
1) Which person “is more likely to have superhuman skin that is thick enough that it can withstand the pain of burning hot coals?”
2) Which person “is more capable of using their supernatural powers to suppress hunger and thirst?”
3) Which person “is more capable of using supernatural powers to read a person’s mind by touching the person’s head?”
4) Which person “is more capable of surviving a fall from an airplane without breaking a bone through the use of supernatural powers?”
5) Which person “has supernatural quickness that makes them capable of running faster than a fighter jet?”
6) Which person “has supernatural strength that makes them capable of lifting up a tank?”
Blacks were selected 63.5 percent of the time, significantly more than whites. The only two items that did not differ significantly were the ones about reading minds (52 percent blacks) and falling from a plane (54 percent).Black people may possess superhuman powers as viewed through the White Gaze. However, this attitude does not translate into a belief that black people are competent in basic tasks.
The research further details how:
If whites see blacks as excelling at superhuman physical tasks, do whites think they’re better at everyday stuff too?
In another experiment, white subjects saw pictures of a black man and a white man and judged who was more capable when it came to everyday activities like walking a dog, picking a ripe avocado, and sitting through a baseball game, as well as superhuman ones like running as fast as light, lifting up a building, and suppressing bodily needs. They also judged who would require more pain medication for various incidents such as touching a hot dish or dislocating a shoulder.A belief by white respondents as reported by A Superhumanization Bias in Whites’ Perceptions of Blacks that black people are somehow "superior" is neither a complement nor a net positive. It is a way of exoticizing and "othering" black humanity as viewed through the white racial frame. This logic leads to racial paranoiac thinking which legitimates violence and murder.
For superhuman abilities, blacks were chosen 65 percent of the time, but for everyday abilities they were chosen only 46 percent of the time, so whatever leads whites to see blacks as superhuman doesn’t apply to commonplace tasks.
For example, from this deranged perspective Trayvon Martin was "armed" with a bottle of iced-t and Skittles. Thus, George Zimmerman was under threat and had every right to shoot him dead. Rodney King was "dangerous" and the many police who publicly brutalized him were actually at risk from a subdued person. Michael Brown, was "armed" with his "big black scary self". Darren Wilson, and by proxy his white defenders that support him as an extension of their own homicidal ideation and killing the black body wish fulfillment fantasies, who while despite being a heavily armed police officer, had to shoot Brown multiple times even after he surrendered and was falling to the ground because of his super negro powers and resulting ability to resist gunshots.
Apparently, Michael Brown was a zombie. It would seem that black folks in the Age of Austerity, cruelty, "stand your ground", the New Jim Crow, and police militarization are indeed "the walking dead".
White racial paranoiac thinking and the sick, twisted belief that black folks are somehow superhuman resonates from the Age of Obama to the past. In the 21st century, black men are "thugs". One hundred years ago, black people were described by the popular press as "giant negroes". And because black bodies were seen as poisons in the body politic, their ability as seen by the White Gaze to possess unnatural strength, aggressive tendencies, and hyper-violent ways made shooting black people's bodies hundreds of times, setting them on fire, and dismembering the flesh, sinew, and bone during lynchings and mass racial pogroms a natural result of White Racial Logic as both practice and habit.
Richard Pryor was right. The empirics and social scientific data validate his genius. I believe that Artie Lange is a good, if not flawed, man. However, he is no Richard Pryor. To right his racist wrong, all Artie has to do is own his behavior and say "I made a mistake". Instead, he is listening to his fans and the siren chorus of their white victimology songs. Artie has struggled with many demons in his life. He knows that listening to one's enablers is a path to ruin and destruction.
Those life rules apply to those of us who struggle with drug and alcohol addiction.
Those life rules also apply to those white folks who want to be better people by fighting to make American society more just along the color line through their rejecting white racism and the benefits, both material and psychological, that come with white skin privilege.
Artie Lange, like so many other white folks, needs to ask himself "what sort of white person do I want to be?" The answer will determine his future behavior. Personal accountability is important both in fighting racism, as well as in resisting one's inner demons and other temptations.
White America needs to own its (past and present) bad behavior on matters of race, justice, and the color line. Likewise, Artie Lange also needs to have a moment of critical self-reflection where he owns his racist behavior and speech.