Allow me to confess something here. You know that slightly worthy friend who is always telling you why the term you just used is inappropriate or a slur? I am that friend. I guess what I’m saying is I’m a really good person who’s fun to be around.
I’m perhaps being a little facetious there. This is because I can simultaneously concern myself with people’s wellbeing and make lighthearted comments. And now I have proven myself a ‘Good Person’ am I allowed to play around with slurs, stereotypes and, hey why not, a little racism? Well, maybe we should consider the following:
1. is it to make an interesting point that will prompt others to reconsider any ill behaviour?
2. will it be pants-wettingly hilarious?
And lastly but probably most importantly: 3. do I really need to?
The answer is… no. Of course not. Certainly not right now, while it would still not take too much scrolling to find a black square and hashtag on most white people’s Instagram accounts. Hence the recent scrabble to withdraw various classic comedy episodes that range from RACIST to iffy. Only it seems it’s hard to decide what’s racist, what’s iffy and what’s some old ladies wearing mud masks.
Which should not be that surprising, looking though history (though for obvious reasons we are keeping to comedy here) white people have struggled to spot and deal with racism. Up until now, racism in comedy classics was explained away with the flimsy excuse of ‘oh, it was different back then’. What’s interesting now is that for me at least, that excuse is referring to a period of time that spans from the birth of film and TV to hm, maybe the 80s. The efforts to try and correct our patchy past has revealed we need to start stretching the old ‘oh, it was different back then’ to yesterday. To today. To tomorrow.
Only, uh-oh, I don’t think that’s going to wash. So we need to ask ourselves as audience, as industry, just as people who like to think they’re Good People… how did this happen? I am not asking how racism happened, rather how has our comedy content continued to contain racist tropes and material? Aren’t we all woke now? Don’t we all share terrible news stories with the caption “it’s 2020!” all shocked and appalled such atrocities still happen.
Because we don’t have the excuse we allow previous generations, which let’s face it, is bizarre to allow at all. No one can say they didn’t get the memo. I’m going to call it and say we all know the memo had gone round the office by the 1980s. In fact I fear we sometimes think Alternative Comedy got the job done and letting Lenny Henry on TV symbolised the eradication of racism from comedy.
So by the 1990s I guess we felt like we needed a break from all that. We got the memo, we were now post-modern, post-feminist, post-memo ergo post-racism, surely? We were educated now, things could only get better, we could laugh at all that now. Breathe out. Phew. So glad we can black up again. Relax, it’s fine because it’s ironic. If anybody knows what they’re doing, it’s Sasha Baron Cohen.
As Jason Osamede Okundaye wrote in the Guardian last week, citing a brilliant video by comedian Gina Yashere: “Actors and comedians performing racist tropes from a “liberal” perspective seemed more problematic than ever, and the idea that a creator cannot be racist if their work is made ironically, is naive at best and dangerous at worst.”
Somehow because we white people were more aware of racism, we believed we had license to play with it. A little education had proven to be dangerous, we thought we knew better. We thought we could pull this crap in the 2000s, and we did! From Little Britain to 30 Rock we bravely refused to err on the side of caution or cast black people.
No wonder, no wonder, we apparently honestly can’t tell what is blackface, what is facepaint and what’s a facemask in comedy shows. We’re too busy complaining about a sledgehammer approach to taking shows off the air and crying censorship forgetting, as Jason Osamede Okundaye, this was never a request from BLM. In fact, when we white people try to be politically correct we can often get it wrong, as pointed out in this article, it’s not the mud masks that are the problem in this episode of The Golden Girls.
We can’t erase the unfortunate and recent history of racism in comedy. We can’t excuse it either. The best thing we can do is ensure the future of comedy won’t be racist. Instead of believing any amount of education (which I encourage) means we get a pass, we must do this by populating all tiers of comedy with a diverse array of talented people. Only then can we all have the last laugh.