Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Artie Lange's Failure and Richard Pryor's Genius: New Research Details How White People View Blacks as Being "Superhuman"

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.

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.
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 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.


kokanee said...

Very insightful article. Reminds me of witch-hunts where witches had threatening supernatural powers and must be destroyed. We (mankind) never learn...


Dear Ann Landers Chauncey DeVega,

I had a disturbing incident on the subway today. The guy in front and to the left of me stopped right in the door way of the subway as we were stepping into it. He was inside and slightly to the right of the doorway. I said, "excuse me" as I was coming in from the same right side. No response. I said, "excuse me" again and then turned my body sideways and slipped in between him and the door before it closed barely brushing against him.

No now he accused me of "bumping" him and saying excuse me after I bumped him. Then he said I should have gone around the other side. (Note that the doors can close very quickly.) I totally botched my response. All I could muster was, "I did say excuse me before bumping you" over and over again.

I feel like he set up the whole incident on purpose just to go off on someone. It ended when he walked over to the other end of the subway car.

I still feel bad about it and somewhat disturbed by it. I wish I had apologized for upsetting him. I wish I has said, "Dude, you got me all wrong. I wish I had said that he stopped right in the middle of the doorway and that I said excuse me twice before slipping into the car —barely brushing him as I did it and that there wasn't necessarily time for me to go around the other side and that he was creating a scene over nothing.

At least I didn't think he had supernatural powers and run away. That's about all I can say for myself.

Aggg! Was this a racial issue? Was this someone with a chip on his shoulder? And if so, I really can understand. Any thoughts on the matter?

chauncey devega said...

Don't over-think how some folks are looking trouble...from anyone...at any time. I think it was a stupidity issue.

If you had a superpower what would it be?

kokanee said...

Thanks. It's a new day and I'm over it. How's that for a superpower?

Just one superpower? Hells so, I'd take them all! Nothing short of a god. But if I had to choose just one, I'll take Neo's power to bend or break the laws of physics.

Myshkin the Idiot said...

This piece was absolutely brilliant, Chauncey.

I had the fortune of watching the folly of contemporary anti-intellectualism as conservatives tried to understand the meaning of the study about white people's beliefs in the supernatural abilities of black people.

To put it simply, the study is false because they don't want to make sense of it. It's just another ruse to "divide people by color."

How much money did Miss Cleo fleece from Americans at the turn of the millennium?

"CALL ME NOW for your free readin'!!!"

Buddy H said...

Chauncey, have you seen this short animated film "How Ferguson Showed Us The Truth"?


Gable1111 said...

"Likewise, Artie Lange also needs to have a moment of critical self-reflection where he owns his racist behavior and speech."

Don't hold your breath.

I don't know Lange, and what I know of his work is likely less than others. But being an artist does not necessarily make one enlightened and imbued with a willingness to do the right thing, especially where there is the potential for enrichment in not doing it.

Lang's initial contriteness was likely a genuine response, but then the lure of being able to continue on with the veneer of absolution provided by a stance against "political correctness" was apparently irresistible.

The character of artists and others who make their coin in the public realm can be peeped by how they respond to the least of them, mainly, those who have power over the mercenary aspect of their craft. Lange realized that, the political correctness crows will provide sustenance, so WTF does he need "us" for?

chauncey devega said...

It is sad to watch. He is a somewhat reformed drug addict who is always teetering on the edge of relapse. This episode is right out of his book. He knows he is wrong. He listens to his white racist and racially resentful enablers and doubles down on his bad behavior. It has already cost him serious money in the long term--he denies this fact because he sees how his racist fans are falling all over him for being "controversial". Unfortunate.

chauncey devega said...

If you tell the truth and it the white right doesn't like it they default to their own fantasy land and distorted thinking. The white right is highly propagandized. If Fox News and their media told them to publicly to start killing people en masse they would do so immediately. I do not say that with hyperbole, but with cold and detached analysis.

Waterwitch said...

See Jamie Foxx's character in Amazing Spider Man 2. The character is a genius geek in the beginning, but he morphs fairly quickly into a muscle-bound, unstoppable GIANT BLACK MAN with superpowers, who can drain all the energy out of an entire city and all its law enforcers. He even drags an innocent White woman up a tower. Can it get more blatant?

OldPolarBear said...

Beautiful comments on Richard Pryor. When I think of him, I often think of the distinction made between "laughing at" and "laughing with." I always felt about Richard Pryor's comedy that I was laughing with. Likewise, I never felt that he was laughing at any of the objects of his routines, but laughing with them.

IIRC, didn't he also, eventually, pretty much swear off using the word "nigger" anymore?

chauncey devega said...

He is playing a character from the Spider Man Universe. Interesting question though about maintaining verisimilitude with the source material.

chauncey devega said...

One of his greatest routines...if not his best. I remember seeing that and it reframed my thinking on that language.

KissedByTheSun said...

This study raises several questions in my mind as it relates to the white superheros that inundates pop culture.

1. How is it in a culture awash in images of white male superheros that black men are seen as more likely to possess super human abilities?

2. The infamous "doll test" revealed that kids as young as four are taught that black is bad and white is good by pop culture. How come white as super human doesn't get taught as well even though it is constantly depicted as such?

3. Is the "giant negro" a way to undermine black success in the physical realm? Meaning if blacks defy being a sub human that is worthy of mistreatment does making him a "giant negro", a super human, help the white gaze to circle back to justifying his mistreatment?

Miles_Ellison said...

That train is never late.

Waterwitch said...

And the Spider Man Universe is playing with the same archetype, just in a different medium.

Miles_Ellison said...

Expecting perspective and self-awareness about race and sex from someone who was once a major contributor to a show whose stock in trade is crass racist "humor" and where women were spanked, stripped naked, and probed with sex toys is quite a stretch. What do you expect from a pig but a grunt?

mr. pop pop said...

Yes the movies king kong and creature fom the black lagoon

Myshkin the Idiot said...

My mom shared a story that caled the protesters in Ferguson terrorists and said they had turned Ferguson into their own caliphate. I also saw that the police referred to protesters as extremists for procuring bulletproof vests to protect them against the police use of excessive force.

Up really is down.

chauncey devega said...

Can black men and women not be villains?

Richard Bottoms said...

The problem isn't Arte Lange is insufficiently sensitive, it's that you've been listening to Howard Stern and are some how surprised to find out that the racist frat boy humor on the show isn't an act.

Stern and company aren't engaged in a sly lampooning of T&A obsessed misogynistic frat boy stereotypes, they are those people and have always been.