Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Comedy at its Worst

I chose to study Political Humour and Social Transformation because I truly believe that it can be a space for marginalized people to speak out and that Humour can be an instrument of change. However, like every profession, the comedy industry is not immune to society’s inequities and comedians often have to buy into prejudices or stereotypes about certain groups of people to be successful. An Argentine cartoonist, Daniel Paz told me that in order for a joke to be funny, it must be based on a common social norm or assumption that everybody shares. So if you want to make a joke about your mother-in-law, you have to use all the stereotypes and associations that the public has about the mother-in-law in order for the joke to be funny. Basically, a joke requires that you use notions about gender, race and sexuality so that people can laugh. He told me that a joke is always a result of a cultural, social, and political context as well as the ideological norms of any given society; And the comedian must know this to make people laugh. Comedians themselves are not immune to having racist, sexist or homophobic views of different groups of people. So when Mr Paz told me this, I knew he was right but when I saw Micheal Richards' (Kramer from Seinfeld) racist outburst at a gig at a local comedy club, I thought, geez, did he really have to be that right about it?
Find video below:

Now the question is not whether or not his outburst was racist, I mean that goes without saying right? Like duh! But what is important to consider is that he felt that he could say it. That outburst probably would not have happened had he been performing in front of an all black audience or if the owners of the club were black. Kramer felt that the comedy club as a public space was a white space that belonged to him and other white people. So the intimidation and attack on the black man is not just a personal feud between two individuals at the comedy club, it is the establishment of his authority and control over a public space that must only be accessible to whites. The ‘interruption’ of the black man at the comedy club is more than a distraction in a comedy routine; The black man’s mere presence is an intrusion upon a white hegemonic public space and a public threat to Kramer’s white authority over that space.
Perhaps the most obvious display of white solidarity and privilege is the fact that the owners of the club allowed him to perform the very next day and have not released the official copy of the video showing his entire performance. Had a member of the audience not videotaped and leaked it out, we probably would not have known about it. The comedy club’s position or their failure to publicly take a position on the issue is important because Kramer as a performer is also representing them. A comedy club is a business which has policies about what can and cannot be said at their show so not taking a stance or remaining silent is to endorse his racist behaviour.
However, let us not forget that there were white people who walked out at the performance and who were also disgusted by his behaviour. So it is not that all white people sat there in support or his racism, there were those who allied themselves with the people of colour in that moment.
Lets take a look at his apology:

There are several problems with the ‘apology’: 1. He has not come out to the media himself and apologized. Why is Seinfeld giving him the opportunity to do so? Is it not Michael Richard who should have come forward and done it himself? 2. The terminology of the apology: Who are Afro-Americans? At any rate, African-Americans are not a ‘community’ they are individuals and ought not to be clumped into one group. Also, given that they are citizens like everybody else, he as a public figure with fans etc, owes the Black man and the public an apology for his actions. 3. The ‘I’m Not even a Racist remark.’... I won’t elaborate on this, I think you all get it.
Additionally, given the laughter from the audience and then the thunderous applause after his apology, it is safe to say that his apology is not being taken seriously and has prompted no real discussion about his racism.

But what about what the African Americans had to say:

African American response:

What I think is of most importance, is that a white woman is defending the African Americans in this scenario. This is important because white women have a long history of functioning as/positioning themselves and being positioned by white men as mediators between people of colour and white people. So if you watch a movie like King Kong, which is really a conversation about civilization and barbarianism where civilization- read white, refined city etc- defeats barbarianism- read gorilla/animal with black cannibal natives from the wilderness- you’ll notice that it is a white woman who is kidnapped by the gorilla and who understands him in the end of the movie. A white woman in that movie as mediator and investigator of the ‘unknown’ or ‘incomprehensible’ becomes the site of negotiation between the powerful and powerless who does not have the legitimacy to speak for himself. In this scenario, two black men with a white female lawyer mirrors King Kong to me because she as mediator is speaking for the black man who has no authority to speak for himself. Don’t get me wrong, it is strategic to have a white woman represent the black man because it shows that white people were impacted too and that white people stand in solidarity with people of colour. However, it also falls into an endless cycle where in order for black people to challenge white authority they cannot do it directly, they must be spoken for or represented by a white person. What is a stake is who has the authority and the legitimacy to directly challenge white privilege and in this scenario, blacks do not possess such authority.

I also want to comment on the fact that one of the black guys in his interview on the Today Show referred to Latinos as Mexicans. When are we going to get with the program and realize that all Latinos are NOT from Mexico and should NOT be referred to as Mexicans? They are LATINOS! While it is true that they (the African-Americans)have internalized stereotypes about Latinos, their own prejudices do not have the same systemic impact that white prejudice has because they live in a white dominated society. This doesn’t mean that clumping Latinos is okay, it just means that it does not have the same impact.
Similarly, calling Kramer a ‘cracker’ at the show is not okay either but given the fact that racism as a system that historically and presently privileges white people and oppresses people of colour, black prejudices do not have the same consequences for whites. In other words, blacks also have their own prejudice against white people but do NOT possess the power to enforce that prejudice in a systematic way.

Perhaps the biggest problem with this horrific display of anti-black racism is that no one sees it as the display of a larger problem: systemic and systematic racism. Micheal Richards/Kramer has internalized prejudices against black people but we only acknowledge that racism exists when hate speech occurs. Even though statistically, people of colour do not have equal economic, social and political access we only think America has racism when white people use racial slurs or epithets. So the conversation switches to why all comedians should stop saying 'nigger' and 'bitch' without thinking about how a whole system is set up that privileges whites and disadvantages people of colour. The discussion on hate speech is not about dismantling white privilege in a systematic way, it is about making that privilege less visible. So we end up thinking when hate speech stops then racism no longer exists instead of thinking how can we dismantle the myth of the meritocracy.
©Danielle Roper

All videos coutesy of www.youtube.com

Point of interest:
Check out the latest article about the killing of an unarmed black man by police officers before his wedding: http://la.indymedia.org/news/2006/11/189611.php

Favourite Quotes from Erick and Keya during their stay in Buenos Aires

Erick describing red tango shoes:"Toto we're not in Kansas anymore"

Keya: Dude, Oprah is so unfortunate looking...
Erick, the inside of my nostrils and I describing unfortunate looking:

Erick:Dang, Life is REAL in Injah

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Argentinian hospitality

So when I got to Argentina, I spent the first night with Johanna at her señora's house. So she said to me: Hey do you know that my señora is a painter and wants to give me one of her paintings before I leave"
As she says this I look across the room and see the painting below

Then Johanna goes: I don't think my señora likes me very much
Me:Johanna...she doesn't dislike you..she wants to kill you

An Indian, Jamaican and Gay Cuban watching a man and woman dancing Tango in Argentina

Keya (The Indian): Wow, that woman has such great posture. Tango is such a sensual dance..
-Danielle (the Jamaican): Yeah, it really requires so much grace and practice to do this dance...
-Erick (gay cuban):That guy must use a lot of shampoo!

Jamaican and Indian Response: ??????

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Political Humor definition in Argentina

El humor politico no existe para cambiar la sociedad..es mas bien un compañero durante momentos dificiles

Political Humor does not exist to change society, rather, it is a companion during difficult periods.
Daniel Paz, Argentinian Cartoonist

La Recoleta: Argentina a Friend from the past

Ok so the number one, must see site in Buenos Aires is La Recoleta. It is a cemetery where all the rich upper class people bury their dead and the graves are like apartment buildings. The thing to do is to walk through the cemetery and to find Evita Peron's grave. Now it is indeed a site to see but I have to be honest and tell you that I don't know how I feel about going to see dead people as part of enjoying Argentina. It also weirds me out that Argentines are so proud of it, its like, "Welcome to Argentina, come check out our dead people!" But since thats the thing to do I checked it out and you won't believe whose grave was at the entrance...look for yourself:

Photographer: Danielle Roper

Guess Luz Maria never made it back to Guatemala after all.

(Please read my previous post Guatemalan Hospitality to understand this post)

Protesting in Nicaragua: El Aborto Terapeutico

Two days before leaving Nicaragua I joined the feminist movement in protest against the Parliament’s then pending decision to repeal Penal Code 165 that allows for ‘el aborto terapeútico/therapeutic abortion.” I’m no longer sure how to say El Aborto Terapeútico in English but it is the abortion that they perform when the mother or fetus’ life is in danger so if anyone knows how to say it in English please send me an email or comment on this post. Anyway, Nicaragua is one of the first and few countries in Central America to allow El Aborto Terapeútico and established the law in 1893 as a ‘circumstancial clause’ that protected a woman’s life in the event of a risky pregnancy. Penal Code 165 has also been used in the past for women and little girls who decide not to follow through with pregnancies conceived through rape. Perhaps the most touching story, and where Penal Coded 165 proved to be even more pivotal was when Rosa, a Costa Rican nine year old girl who got pregnant after being raped on her way to school. Given that Costa Rican law disallows abortion irregardless of the circumstances, Rosas’ parent were forced to take her to Nicaragua and have the abortion performed there. So why is it that all of a sudden, the Nicaraguan government and parliament decided to repeal a law that people established 100 years ago to protect a woman’s life?

Answer: Election Time
Last year the FSLN, the ALN and the PLC made a pact to disallow the creation of new parties and to control all legislative and legal institutions in Nicaragua and to keep power among themselves. (please see footnote) Three weeks before the election, they needed the vote of poor people in Nicaragua—most of whom are catholic. Shifting the discourse from saving the life of the woman to killing unborn children and clumping el aborto terapeútico with all forms of abortion is not really about ‘morals’, as much as it is about votes and getting as many of them as possible at election time. So after a night of protest with various feminist organizations in front of the National Assembly, on October 26, 2006, the Nicaraguan government, president Bolaños, the Frente Sandinista de La Liberación Nicaragüense (FSLN) and the catholic church voted to repeal Penal Code 165 and eliminated all forms of abortion in Nicaragua. And of course, on November 5, 2006, the FSLN won the elections and regained power with 35% of the vote.

But what was important for me was to be part of the protest the night before the law was passed. First of all, protests in Nicaragua are nothing like protests in Jamaica where people block the road and go home after the media leaves, a protest in Nicaragua lasts for several days with thousands of people chanting in front of the Assembly “DIPUTADOS, SI NO RESPETAN MI VIDA…NO OBEDEZCO LA LEY!” (DEPUTIES, IF YOU DON’T RESPECT MY LIFE, I WON’T OBBEY THE LAW!)

These people brought food, placards, showed movies about the life of Rosa from Costa Rica and slept outside the Assembly because that is what real protest means. These people were hardcore! I noticed that when the police and soldiers surrounded the protestors, we just gave them food and it kept them quite for the rest of the night. There’s nothing like a ham and cheese sandwich to keep the cops away. I guess they give them snickers to avoid speeding tickets. The Nicaraguan police force I tell you…can’t beat it.

The second point of interest for me was the fact that so many men were at the protest. Men and women were showed up in equal number to fight for women’s rights and to represent feminist movements as well as the Evangelical church who also stood against the repeal of the law.
So many men spoke out at the protest against the government ‘para salvar a la vida de mi hermana, de mi mama, de mi novia, de mi hija (in order to save my sister’s life, my mother’s life, my girlfriend’s life and my daughter’s life). The presence of men who openly and actively identified as feminists at the protest was fascinating to me and important because it debunked all the myths about who a feminist is (i.e a lesbian and not a man) and demonstrated that the whole notion that these issues are only women issues’ who don’t matter to anyone is just not true. Yes, that protest was a lesson to me. Not because I don’t know any feminist men or because I believe that only women can be feminists but because in the past when I saw men at feminist conferences, they were often tokenized. Also, as progressive as I am, I too had internalized the Macho third world latino man image that I used to see on television. So their involvement was an eye-opener for me and I left the protest believing that the Nicaraguan feminist movement may be even more inclusive and diverse than other feminist movements I’ve seen in other parts of the world. Cheers to the face of feminism…because this is what a feminist looks like:

Please read up on the pact: here is the link to an article in English: