Humor has become a popular tool in mainstream media. It seems that many serious topics gain widespread attention with the use of humor. Race is a social construct that relies on dichotomies, including sweeping labels that tend to produce categories of us and them. Does humor help challenge social constructs of race? Does it demystify “race” and help bring social justice issues to the forefront? Or does it produce narrow channels of exchange that reinforce established stereotypes?
In the clip below Dave Chappelle explores racism through humor and highlights the hierarchal nature of “race” as a social construct. In the hierarchy of “race”, “white” is the reference point against which everyone else is measured against. In this construct, “white” is “normal” “valued”, “desirable” and “superior”. When Dave says that “Terrorist” will not take “Black people” as hostages because they are bad bargaining chips, he is saying that “race” as a social construct and its hierarchy produce a diminished value of “black lives”.
When you remove the use of humor around the issue of “race” as a social construct it becomes far more difficult to discuss—perhaps even painful. Furthermore, you lose a significant platform. People like Dave Chappelle and Russell Peters have earned fame and fortune as comedians by exploring and some might argue exploiting the social constructs of “race” and “racism”. Without comedians, the platform for “discussing” and or “exploring” social constructs of “race” and “racism” may be relegated to academia and social organizations.
Although “race” is a social construct, it has serious and real consequences both at the micro level and at the macro level. At the macro level, “your” “racial” identity is imposed on you through various constructs that are mediated through complex channels; and as difficult as it is to accept, as a (negatively) racialized individual, you are constantly negotiating your identity with individuals and with institutions, sometimes with what feels like little agency. As Desmond Cole pointed out in his article, The Skin I’m In, There is sometimes a complete disconnect between one’s identity, one’s self-imagery and self-perception and the identity that individuals and institutions impose on them. So when someone literally runs away from you because of the colour of your skin, as someone did run away from Desmond, you do not have the agency to negotiate the contents of your character. Interestingly, they are not running away from “you” but the social construct of “you”—yet they are literally running away from you.
Consider the clip below. Many (negatively) racialized children have difficulty identifying with and having a positive image of their “ethnicity”. Understandably, these children want to identify with the “normal”, the “valued” the “desirable”. From my experiences, children at a very young age observe and identify visible differences and there is nothing wrong with that. The problem occurs with the value hierarchy that is attached to those differences.
When my son was young we used to take a lot of taxis. Coincidentally, all of the taxi drivers happen to be Sikh men wearing turbans. One day, on a walk back from the park we were playing I spy. My son said, I spy with my little eye a taxi. I look around and couldn’t find a taxi. My son insisted that he spotted a taxi. I replied that I would not continue to play if he did not play fairly. Upset, he pointed at a Sikh man walking across the street; for my four-year-old son, a taxi and a Sikh man wearing a turban were synonymous—interchangeable. That stopped me dead in my tracks. I didn’t even wait to get home. I explained to my son that the individual walking across the street was a person, a human being, not a taxi. I explained to him that there are different people who look different that drive taxis and that it was a mere coincidence that he had not seen them. It was and is important for me to ensure that my son develop and maintain respect and appreciation for differences. I did not want to dismiss any perceived differences. I wanted to acknowledge, discuss and value them.