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February 18, 2004

Gawker, Wonkette, and What Makes a Joke Racist

Our friends at American Black agree with John Lee that Gawker and Wonkette are unfunny. We can agree to disagree on that, cuz obviously humor is totally subjective. But the thing is, John didn't just accuse them of being unfunny, he accused them of being racist, and the "proof" he offered did nothing whatsoever to support his charge.

Humor should never be judged only by which topic it addresses, but on how it approaches that topic. If someone makes a joke about race, or refers to a racism in a joke, the first question you need to ask is "from what does the humor derive here? Are they invoking this racism to endorse it or to ridicule it? Does the humor rely on an assumption that the racist attitude is valid, or an assumption that it is bankrupt?" In each of the jokes highlighted by John Lee in his africana.com essay, I'd argue that racism is being skewered, not supported. I'll go through them one by one:

First Lee offers a quote from this Gawker post, made on MLK day, right before the pivotal Iowa Caucus:

Evidently there's some sort of national holiday today? Also some election thing is going on in Nebraska or Iowa or some flat state. I didn't really catch it.

Lee takes this remark at face value, interprets it as belittling MLK day and "denying the holiday even exists." But is that really what the joke is about? Gawker (AKA Choire Sicha) refers to the Iowa caucus, by far the most prominent news event of the week, and feigns total ignorance of it. The premise of the joke is that Gawker makes himself sound like an ignoramus. And by placing MLK day alongside the Iowa Caucus and feigning similar ignorance, Gawker implies that only an ignoramus would be oblivious to MLK day. He's not belittling the holiday, he is belittling those who don't respect it. It's an anti-racist joke.

Next Lee offers this Wonkette post, about a "strategy session" for celebrity Democrats where Russell Simmons raised a stink:

Russell Simmons: Bothering the White Folks Again Lloyd Grove reports on Wednesday night's Victory Campaign 2004: A bunch of liberal celebrities got together to bash Bush and showed PowerPoint presentations. Is there anything more politically inspiring? Way to excite the base, guys. Then hip-hop entrepreneur Russell Simmons harshed everyone's mellow, saying "The shit y'all doing is corny!" and "We are not included!" That's no way to get invited to the after-party, Russell. Can someone give him some "bling-bling" or whatever those people call it and tell him to be quiet?

Lee takes this as making fun of Russell, but it seemed obvious to me she was not speaking in her own voice in that last part, but mockingly adopting the voice of clueless white Democrats who have no idea how to relate to Russell. And sure enough, in Wonkette's post she offered this explanation:

UPDATE: A few readers have written to object to our use of the phrase "those people" as a way of alluding to young African-Americans. We would like to clarify: We intended that line to reflect the dubious nature of white liberals' knowledge of black culture. (Some people call this kind of thing a "joke," or perhaps "satire.") Had we been representing our own view, we would have said "uppity negroes." Now we've got to run or we'll be late for the cross burning.

We're kidding again. (Really!) But we worry about appearing racist. Maybe we should get feedback from a black friend... Will you be the one?

Now first of all, if that addendum was already in the post when John Lee wrote about it, he was dishonest not to include it. But even if it wasn't, it goes to show that his whole case is based on misinterpreting the humor. Once again he's using anti-racist jokes as evidence of racism.

Lee's final example is from a Gawker post surveying media coverage of Blacks in the early days of Black History Month:

Hey! It's Black History Month! And it's leap year, too, so we get a special extra day of blackness in the media. Here's an in-depth report that I like to call "Black History Month: What's Up With Black People These Days?"

[he cites a NY Times piece on trends in hip-hop fashion, and an item on the Russell Simmons incident]

...Well, looks like those are all the black people in the news today -- one presentation of a marketing scheme in the paper of record and one gossip item painting an incredibly successful (if highly annoying) businessman as a buffoon. Okay, we'll look for more black people tomorrow! Maybe Nicole Richie will slice someone up at fashion week.

So what is it that Lee was offended by here? He doesn't bother to tell us, and I'll be damned if I can figure it out. Gawker's point here, clearly, is that even in the middle of Black history Month mainstream news outlets don't cover many stories that relate to Black people, and the ones they do cover serve to trivialize or belittle their Black subjects.

Seems to me this evidence is about as convincing as Colin Powell's proof of WMDs last year. But Lee not only uses it to accuse Gawker and Wonkette of "casual racism", he has the nerve to equate them with the white supremacist National Vanguard, whose racism is far from casual. This comparison is patently ridiculous, and it was irresponsible for Africana.com to even publish it. They both owe Choire Sicha and Ana Marie Cox an apology.

With his complaints that Gawker and Wonkette "continually joke about non-whites as marginalized second-class citizens," Lee is branding them as racist simply because they persistently acknowledge that racism exists. I guess he'd prefer to see white folks stick with the age-old "color-blind" approach, pretending the elephant is not in the room?

Personally I've seen more than enough of that color-blindness, and it always seemed like plain old blindness to me. Call me crazy, but I think it's a good thing when white folks are aware of racism, and aren't afraid to speak about it, frankly and frequently.

Posted by jsmooth995 at February 18, 2004 5:59 PM

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