Laughing to End White Supremacy

“Uh, no one wanted to do this. So, of course, it lands in the hand of an immigrant.” —Hasan Minhaj, 2017 White House Correspondents’ Dinner

Pop Cultural

There’s nothing funny about the white supremacist march in Charlottesville. Three people are dead—two of them police officers—and 35 others were injured. Peaceful protestors were run over with a car. America showed that white supremacy still has a firm grip on the nation’s consciousness, and that when those who nurse it are emboldened, the results are devastating.

But maybe someday, when the wounds are not so fresh, there’ll be a joke to be made about tiki torches and the ridiculousness of chants like “you will not replace us.” Joking about white supremacy might be the way we begin to dismantle it.

As a country, we’re faced with the enormous task of tackling white supremacy in all its forms. For Americans who’ve convinced themselves that white people are superior to all other races, our strategy is clear cut. Convict them when they commit hate crimes. Unequivocally make it clear that their rhetoric will not be tolerated. Take a stronger stance than the current “leader” of the free world has.

Americans with good intentions—but who continue to uphold white supremacy—are trickier. White fragility is real, which causes many white people to, as one Vox piece put it, “respond to even the slightest suggestion of racism...with immediate vitriol, disdain, or dismissal.” Those who might identify as allies, or consider themselves the furthest thing from racist, are prone to this fragility. Candid discussions about race are criticized as “militant” and off-putting. Explaining our lived realities, frankly and sugarcoat-free, can be polarizing.

If we want to address all levels of white supremacy, some activists have to cater to white fragility, as unjust as that might feel. The fight then becomes a matter of messaging, one that stand-up comedians of color seem to have perfected.

Ali Wong’s “Baby Cobra” is a knock-out comedy special, so much so that tickets to her live shows now sell out in minutes. It’s hilarious, but it’s also incredibly progressive. The New Yorker fittingly calls her comedy “radical raunch.” Many of her unapologetic jokes criticize white supremacy, but do so in a way that allow white audiences to (perhaps uncomfortably) laugh along.

When talking about receiving oral sex from white men, she says that she feels “like I’m absorbing all of that privilege and all of that entitlement.” In reference to Whole Foods, she writes about how she strives to have enough money to be “eating mango that was sliced by a dude named Noah.” Throughout the show, she’s seven months pregnant but talks very candidly about her sex life, essentially subverting notions of Asian American women’s submissiveness that are rooted in white supremacy. Through her comedy, she addresses the very real effects of white supremacy but does so in a way that does not threaten white fragility.

Hasan Minhaj, in “Homecoming King,” relies heavily on an Indian American immigrant narrative, which the majority of his stand-up centers around. He presents racism bluntly and “isn’t afraid to enter dark territory where even a full minute goes by without a single joke.” In a particularly memorable bit, he explains how a girl he was planning on taking to the prom doesn’t end up going with him because her parents don’t want pictures of them together to get to their relatives in Nebraska.

Minhaj’s stand-up routine shows how white supremacy strips the American Dream from too many Americans of color, but laughter serves to soften the discomfort that reality brings. Stand-up comedy can help us achieve social equity by presenting the injustice of our racialized lives in a way that will ease whitelash.

We cannot detach the repulsive showing of white supremacy in Virginia from the thousands of casual, racially insensitive remarks made daily. It’s overt in the men who carry Nazi flags and scream “Heil Trump” in the streets of Charlottesville. But it also plays a role when men don’t hire a black woman because they think her natural hair was unprofessional or when loans are denied to Latinx patrons because the neighborhood they want to move into is primarily white. If we want to fight literal white supremacists, we also have to address those who won’t wear the title boldly. At times, we’ll have to speak to them in ways they’ll understand, including through comedy.

We still need activists who speak radically, whose words are demonized for their directedness, and who will not cater to white fragility. But if we intend to address the multiple levels on which white supremacy functions, less threatening messaging—like comedy—is critical. There is no one-stop solution to breaking down the insidiousness of social systems that hold whiteness as a gold standard.

Ruben E. Reyes Jr. ’19, a Crimson Editorial Chair, is a History and Literature concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on Mondays.

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