Recently the actor/comedian Katt Williams came under fire for dressing down a Mexican American heckler during a performance in Phoenix Arizona.
Williams' uber-patriotic, mean and visceral tirade against the heckler went viral and was immediately compared to Michael Richards – Kramer from Seinfeld –- and his N-word barrage against an African-American heckler during a show a few years back.
My issue with the Katt Williams and Michael Richards incidents is not that they used hateful language or pushed racial buttons, but that they weren't funny.
Differences among and between people are a corners
tone of humor: girls are like this, guys are like this, white people dance like this, Puerto Ricans don't have jobs. It's a powerful device which I think helps draw us together into a community of people who all have mock able traits. The catch is that you have to be FUNNY. Otherwise, you're just being racist.
When Katt Williams says "You remember when people used to tell us 'go back to Africa' and we had to tell em 'we don't WANT to," that is a poignant insight in my mind. And it made me laugh.
The experience of black people in America is different from the Mexican immigrant experience, but they find themselves sharing communities across the country. That dynamic is ripe for humorous exploration. Katt's problem was that his routine quickly unraveled into a bizarre, unscripted, vengeful tirade more concerned with shaming his Mexican heckler than making people laugh.
There's a phenomenon called 'the narcissism of small differences, it's the reason French people mock the Belgians, Americans tease Canadians and salvys clown hondos. We are so similar in so many ways that we have to highlight and ridicule our differences to differentiate us from one aanother. A lot of the time, these jokes reveal fears and social issues.
One of my favorite racial jokes is a very simple one: "What's long and hard on a black man?" And the answer is "First grade." When you hear that, you cringe. It's awful. But if you dig a little, we can learn a lot about a person who might tell or appreciate that joke. For one, it reveals a white fear of black masculinity and sexuality: the mythical (or not so mythical) Big Black Dick. That fear has driven a LOT of subjugation of African people throughout history.
The joke turns it on its head, however, by revealing a social ill. Young black men, by numbers, struggle in early education when compared to their white, Asian and Latino classmates. Why is this? Schools in black communities are under funded, compulsory education in America was built around a Western European experience, etc. But that two line joke explores two powerful themes: fear and social injustice. Fear and social injustice, incidentally, are the two things which consistently hamper progress in race relations. Also, the joke is hilarious. But it's hilarious because it's uncomfortable.
In closing, I'll throw in an Irish joke and a Mexican joke just so that my own people have been adequately ridiculed.
"What's the difference between an Irish wedding and an Irish funeral?
"One less drunk."
It's true. We're alcoholics and we especially like to be drunk at moments of passage, to the point where you can't tell the difference between a birthday party and the last rights of a dying man. We're drunk in church.
"How is Jesus not like a Mexican? Jesus would never get a tattoo of himself."
It's funny because Mexicans DO be gettin tats of Jesus. And naming their kids Jesus (my grandfather's name). And put stickers of the Messiah on their cars.
I just wanted to chime in before we try to impose a ban on racial humor. Don't scream "Nigger!" over and over at a black person. Don't make an entire audience of people chant "USA! USA!" at a proud (obviously sensitive) Mexican American. That's just scary and uncomfortable. What I will fight for, though, is the right to tell this joke: "Do you know why there are no Puerto Ricans on Star Trek? . . . They don't plan on working in the future, either." I'm out.