Dave Chappelle is back, to the excitement of some and to the dismay of others. For the record, I fall into neither camp. I’ve seen some of his work. Some I enjoyed, some I didn’t. So when news of his Netflix specials hit, I thought “good for him” and kept it pushing.
The specials were released, and suddenly social media was abuzz with praise and criticism. Accusations of transphobia and homophobia flew as fans came to the comedian’s defense. I remained silent as I read through comment after comment. I’ll call out problematic behavior when I see it, but I also know how quick folks are to jump at an opportunity to demonize a person of color. Particularly when those folks lack an understanding of the cultural standpoint from which that person of color is speaking. I decided I’d give Chappelle the benefit of doubt and watch his latest works for myself.
After watching both specials, I can definitively say that they are not funny. I watched The Age of Spin and laughed once over the course of the 67 minute show – during the Kevin Hart bit. Deep in the Heart of Texas was equally unfunny, eliciting not a single giggle. I can also say that the criticism is totally valid. The routines were just as transphobic and homophobic as I hoped they wouldn’t be, with some misogyny, femmephobia, and a touch of ageism (among other things) thrown in for good measure.
Well, I don’t think it’s bigoted…
For those of you who are denying or are “not seeing” the bigotry in Chappelle’s specials, I’ll help you out. Reducing gay men to effeminate stereotypes is homophobic. Using homophobic slurs is – surprise! – homophobic. Misgendering trans folks is transphobic. So is suggesting that trans women “trick” men into having sex with them. As is perpetuating the misconception that trans women are simply men in women’s clothing.
**I won’t get into the misogyny, but suffice it to say, it was in no short supply. That’s another piece altogether.**
But!!! Chappelle said he’s an ally to gay people. He acknowledged the discrimination trans folks face…
That’s true, kinda.
In Deep in the Heart of Texas, Chappelle states, “I got no problem with gay people.” Later he says, “I’m your ally, motherfucker. I’m not trying to stop gay people. I got better shit to do.” This isn’t allyship. This isn’t even acceptance. It’s indifference. Not caring is not the same as being an ally.
Later, Chappelle is bothered by the prospect of having to refer to a trans woman by her pronouns, stating, “Is it fair that I have to change my whole pronoun game up for this motherfucker? That doesn’t make sense.” Yet he has no problem with referring to a gay man as the “wife” in his relationship. Does this sound hypocritical to anyone else? Correctly gendering a trans woman is too much work, but apparently misgendering a gay man is fine. Hmm…
In The Age of Spin, Chappelle states, “Of those letters,” referring to LGBTQ, “the ‘T’ has the toughest road ahead. In fact, I think ‘T’ should stand for ‘tough road ahead.’” Chappelle is specifically saying that trans folks have a tougher road than (presumably cis) queer folks. Shortly thereafter, he gives us this gem:
How the fuck are transgender people beating Black people in the discrimination Olympics. If the police shot half as many transgenders as they did niggas last year it’d be a fuckin’ war in L.A. I know Black dudes in Brooklyn – hard, street motherfuckers – who wear high heels just to feel safe.
Let’s unpack this shit.
There are those who will argue that Chappelle is commenting on the seeming acceptance of mainstream LGBTQ movements versus the lack of acceptance of Black liberation movements. Some might even argue that it’s a comment on how mainstream LGBTQ movements exclude Black people and other PoC. It could be a comment on how whiter, wealthier trans folks who meet society’s standards of how to perform femininity/masculinity – e.g. Jenner – are accepted, while Black trans folks fail to achieve the same level of acceptance. That would be giving Chappelle far too much credit.
What he’s doing is creating a Them vs. Us situation. “They” are the LGBTQ community. “We” are Black folks (read: cishet Black men). He acts as if intersectionality ain’t a thing. He erases the very existence of queer and trans Black folks. He ignores the fact that trans people, particularly trans women of color, face the same violence at the hands of police as Black men. He makes no mention of the violence cishet men of color commit against trans women of color.
He speaks of cishet men wearing high heels to feel safe, but when femme men walk down the street in heels they’re a target for violence. And any trans woman can tell you that their gender provides no protection. Quite the opposite, in fact. It doesn’t matter if they’re rocking stilettos, Chucks, or Timbs. They are in danger, period.
But!!! Black people…
Chappelle is often praised for how he addresses race, but is how he addresses race supposed to excuse how he addresses other topics? Sadly, this time around he didn’t live up to expectations in his area of expertise anyway. In Deep in the Heart of Texas Chappelle states,
America has a racial hot seat. I think we can all agree that that’s the true. And we can also agree that that hot seat is traditionally occupied by African-Americans in general, African-American men in particular.
Remember Black women? Remember those aforementioned queer and trans Black folks? Black Muslims? Black immigrants? Black disabled folks? As MeLa Machinko said, “Cishet Black men are the white people of Black people.” With that role comes the ignorance of one’s own privilege seen so often in white folks. Chappelle possesses and seems to relish in that ignorance.
That’s just Chappelle’s style. He pushes buttons…
There’s nothing wrong with pushing buttons. Comedy can be raunchy, vulgar, crude, swear-filled, even politically incorrect. None of that necessitates bigotry. If a comedian can’t be funny without relying on bigotry, it speaks only to their own lack of talent.
But Chappelle takes jabs at everybody…
As has been said many a time before, the best comedy punches up, not down. Joking about white people is punching up, against those with more privilege.
Black people are marginalized, but Chappelle is Black. It’s like how you can talk mess about your mama, but you’ll fight anyone else who does the same. She’s your mama. You have a firm understanding of her behaviors and motivations. You know the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s the same basic principle here. When Chappelle takes shots at Black folks, he’s talking about his own mama. He’s a member of the in-group. He understands the context from which these jokes stem.
Chappelle taking shots at LGBTQ folks is talking mess about someone else’s mama. He’s a member of the out-group, so there is nuance he will never understand. More importantly he’s ignoring historical context, privilege, and power dynamics. Punching down.
He and comedians like him may take jabs at everyone, but the results are not the same for everyone.
But it’s just comedy, right?
Nah, not really. The language we use matters. The things we say are indicative of our mindsets. One can’t go onstage, spout bigotry for an hour, and walk off saying, “Oh, I don’t really feel that way.” Chappelle and other comedians may not necessarily believe every bigoted thing they say in their sets, but their willingness to make those statements is evidence of their complicity in the oppression of the marginalized groups they target with their jokes.
When I hear people say comedians should be able to joke about anything they want, what I hear is that the stage should be a space where bigots can say what they want without critique. Perhaps, what these people want is to be able to live vicariously through the comedian. Perhaps in their everyday lives they cannot express their bigotry freely. So a comedy show is a place where queerantagonists, misogynists, and transantagonists can all gather to see a comedian earn money, praise, and laughter for openly being the bigot they wish they could be.
But we all need a good laugh sometimes…
We do. With the nation being what it is and with our president being who he is, we all could use some release. Does our laughter have to come at the expense of the most marginalized of our society, though? Don’t they deserve to laugh without being antagonized?
What do these kinds of jokes say about the comedian? About someone who is willing to kick those who are already down?
What does our laughter at these jokes say about us as a society? Is the constant justification of comedic bigotry by fans anything more than a fear of implication in the oppression of of marginalized people?
But free speech! Stop censoring!
Comedians have every right to free speech. So do their critics. They can say what they want onstage, but to expect folks not to critique their work is wholly unrealistic. Calling folks out and holding them accountable for their problematic behavior, particularly when that behavior has real-life consequences, is not censoring.
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Overall, The Age of Spin and Deep in the Heart of Texas are disappointing. Jokes are funny when they’re rooted in truth. Instead, Chappelle’s jokes are rooted in falsehoods, misconceptions, and stereotypes. To say that he’s pushing the envelope isn’t completely incorrect, but to what end? He’s not calling out mainstream LGBTQ movements for being exclusive. He’s not analyzing the intersection of race, gender, and sexuality as it pertains to power dynamics amongst marginalized peoples in our society. His analysis and critique is basically limited to “Black men have it hard.”
If you don’t like it, don’t watch it!
That’s an option. I could also watch it and then write about it. And if folks don’t like what I have to say, they can always not read it.