I’m getting ready to facilitate a training on white privilege this weekend. It’s one of the most challenging workshops I facilitate, and it’s one of my favorites. Why? Because it’s heavy on accountability, and it’s even heavier on humor. It’s a conversation about oppression with privileged people: it requires holding people accountable to the misconceptions that they perpetuate and the racism they’ve internalized. But if our first conversation about our shared privilege were only serious, heavy-handed accountability, I’m pretty sure we’d all implode, or at least be so terrified at the prospect of implosion that we’d disengage. So, to engage new allies in thinking critically about their own privilege, humor is a must. It allows us to keep conversations political and dive deep into difficult conversations that many of us spend a lot of time & energy trying to avoid.
Conversations with allies are necessary. Where I live, there aren’t enough queer and trans people to comprise a majority and make widespread social change on our own. Same goes for communities of color, immigrant communities, and most marginalized people. In order to create change, we’ve got to be good at educating and engaging allies. And when we’re doing that, humor is paramount.
I’ll start by saying that this is strictly a first-person narrative—I’m speaking only to my own experience of comedy. The clips I’ve chosen don’t offend me, but that doesn’t mean they’re universally inoffensive. What I want to talk about here is the power of humor to make us recognize privilege and oppression, and I’ll do that in the first person.
I have one friend who’s spectacular when it comes to joking about identity. It’s a master class: in one quick turn of phrase, he can identify the power, privilege, oppression and interpersonal dynamics that are happening in the room at that moment. When he makes a great joke, I feel delighted, impressed, jubilant and, with the jokes designed to call out my privilege, a little bit embarrassed. It’s the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. And I’ve seen it work with volunteers, movement leaders, strangers on the street, and even my most recalcitrant family members.
On a person-to-person basis, it works. And when that happens on a wider stage, something magical happens. It’s social alchemy. It’s movement building.
Louis CK and Privilege
Case in point: Louis CK, a white comedian who jokes about identity constantly. Take this appearance on the Tonight Show:
Did you see what just happened? On one of the most mainstream, middle-of-the-road TV shows around, Louis CK spent several solid minutes talking about race, history, neocolonialism (!), privilege, and experience. He damn near has an accountability session with the white folks in the audience. Had this been a serious conversation, it could have looked like the nightmare scenarios that many of us have experienced and continue to relive: the kind where things quickly devolve into personal attacks and someone ends up storming out. Instead, because it was funny, this audience laughed and applauded.
Exhibit B, the first scene from an episode of the FX series Louie (very NSFW):
It’s not inoffensive, but it’s authentic. And in amongst the dick jokes and shit talk, this scene manages to do more public education about gay men’s culture, history and experience than just about any other mainstream show I’ve seen. It speaks to many straight men’s squeamishness and ignorance, allows them to feel it, and ultimately gets them to deeply experience a gay character’s world-weary familiarity with his daily experience of homophobia, and their role in perpetuating that homophobia.
And that gay character’s demeanor is important, too. He doesn’t come across as a tragic victim, although he’s aware he could be, and many gay men are. He appears to have a fairly thick skin, taking his lumps just like any of the straight guys around the table. And when you get down to it (for once!) this queer person, speaking from his own experience, comes across as one of the most reasonable people in the room. This is a notable break from the usual options of Brokeback Mountain tragic queers, impossible-to-please angry queers, and inconsolably hypersensitive queers.
The scene is, as far as I’m concerned, a little coup.
Maria Bamford and mental illness
Maria Bamford is an accomplished comedian who, in 2006, released a YouTube series called The Maria Bamford Show, chronicling Bamford’s recovery from a mental break (also NSFW):
As with Louis CK’s work, Maria Bamford’s comedy manages to speak in a deep way to the impact that mental illness can have on a person’s life, and how that impact is specific and distinct for women. It also conveys the tangle of mutually reinforcing systems of internalized sexism, relational aggression amongst women, homophobia, and the stigma of mental illness.
And her work is deeply vulnerable. She’s dealing with the humiliation of returning to her hometown, and facing the nightmarish realization that, while she’d left her hometown for years, her hometown didn’t forget her. In her work, I can see myself and people I’ve known and in so doing, I can reach some greater realizations about my parallel experiences. Plus, it’s a cathartic release to laugh at those experiences and begin to let them go. And I’m guessing I’m not the only one who feels that way.
Why humor matters
Neither of these comedians are unassailable. Like any comedian, they have certainly offended someone (or lots of people) at some point. And, as viewers, many of us have been offended. (I certainly have.) For me, the difference between the clips provided here and the infamous EstroMaxx sketch is how humor is used. In so many cases (EstroMaxx included), humor is used as a tool of harassment and humiliation. It isn’t the same thing as face-to-face harassment or physical assault, but it’s certainly on the same continuum. It illuminates just enough oppression to perpetuate it. In the cases of Louis CK and Maria Bamford (and, I would argue, Margaret Cho, Dave Chappelle, and other deftly brilliant comedians), oppression doesn’t illuminate humor, humor illuminates oppression, shining a light on privilege’s cover of darkness. Humor isn’t an end here, it’s means to an end.
But the point here isn’t to set a seal of approval on a comedian’s full body of work. It isn’t to create a rubric for determining which jokes are progressive enough, and when. It’s to recognize the ways in which comedy can move us forward, engaging unlikely allies in even more unlikely settings.
Humor can gain access to spaces, people and attitudes that our communities and movements would otherwise struggle to engage. In the sweet violence of laughter, something cracks, and we open ourselves up to others’ experiences in a way that, without humor, would feel too vulnerable to bear. There really is something revolutionary about humor. When it works, it allows us to see ourselves and others clearly, bringing us closer together, and bringing our differences into sharper focus. It affirms our experiences and the experiences of those around us, and engages us in deeper conversations about power, privilege and oppression than we otherwise would.