Check Your Privilege: Slave Jokes and Other Comedy
Yesterday, I discussed the story of Princeton freshman Tal Fortgang and the concept of Privilege. It is very difficult to isolate examples of Privilege, because with individuals comes a multitude of variables that can “better” define/justify/explain their actions.
Some examples of white privilege—such as when dealing with police—are clear, but other instances get murkier. However, since much of our national racial discourse happens by way of critique of art, specifically comedy, let’s dive into the muck.
In September of 2013, Jimmy Kimmel spoofed an interview with Kanye West, in which the rapper’s words were reenacted by children. While almost certainly not Kimmel’s intent—and as a comedian, he’s been an equal opportunity offender—the bit did exhibit Privilege, because of Kimmel’s ignorance of the historical infantilization of the black male*.
Privilege is not analogous to being racist. Kimmel was not, via the spoof, suggesting that somehow the opinion of a black male is akin to that of a child, but merely making a statement about West’s ego. His ignorance of the larger, historical implications was most likely because the thought simply never occurred to him.
To show an example from the other side, SNL freshman Leslie Jones did a bit on the “Weekend Update” segment in which she makes jokes about forced breeding during slavery in early America. Unlike Kimmel’s bit, Jones’s monologue was done will full knowledge of the historical implications, something that she exploited brilliantly. Yet, she was criticized for it.
The example of Privilege here is in the idea that (mostly white) people are offended by the way Jones has chosen to mine horrific things done to people in the past who looked like she does for humorous commentary about a (mostly white) society “embracing black beauty” by naming an actress for a tabloid beauty award and congratulating themselves on how far they’ve come.
Both Jones and Kimmel delivered on (what I assume was) their primary goals: to write and perform something funny. Beyond that the two bits couldn’t be more dissimilar. Kimmel was poking fun at celebrity ego and accidentally played into a hurtful, generations-old stereotype. Jones, on the other hand, was deliberately exploiting America’s awful racial history for her art.
What makes these great examples, however, is what has happened afterwards. Kimmel has continued to take comedic chances and continues to draw humor from offense. Jones responded to her critics on Twitter, suggesting she’s going to go “even harder and deeper” with her future work. “Check your privilege,” truly asks that you simply do just that, through self-awareness realize that the world is much larger than one person’s point-of-view.
Photo via NBC Video screengrab