Dave Chappelle. Photo credit: Wikimedia/Commons. Gabbo T
Whenever I watch/read/create things, I think: does this contribute to healing or suffering? Does it raise consciousness or sustain the status quo?
I finally had the time to watch Dave Chappelle’s latest stand-up, “The Closer.”
The thing about caste systems, is they encourage you to only respect humanity or value things to a certain point, depending on where you stand. We live in a caste system in this country, founded on race, fueled by racism, as well as sexism and sexual suppression. And the most insidious function of a caste system is, even if you have felt the pain and exclusion of the bottom, and know the system is abusive, many find safety and ego in clinging to whatever they can that identifies with a higher caste. And often time folks will take the opportunity to assert their entitlements and willingness to marginalize others.
Chappelle’s stand-up is irresponsible and disingenuous in many ways. And I know many people are championing the through-line of “you can say anything you want about Black people, but you can’t say anything about trans or queer folks.” But this is such a narrow declaration and not nuanced. As I speak of often, the caste system is a thing. This is a society that was founded on the ownership and abuse of Black folks, who were later Jim-Crowed and segregated, so yes, racism is in every aspect of life. There are books upon books and scholarship that provide insight into just how intricate the system of racism has corrupted every institution and community in this country. That racist model worked very well. And most folks were willing to follow that ideology of othering, marginalizing, and abusing people that you don’t deem to be of value or significant caste. And it gets used in many other ways, with other tactics, to serve the same system.
This is not to say I am comparing the experience and lasting legacy of the institution of chattel slavey to anything else, because there is no comparison. What I am saying is that folks took notes. Everyone from Hitler to Homophobes.
So yes, when Dave talks about “can queer folks be racist?”—of course. And there is racism within the queer community. Can a white queer person use their whiteness to evoke a position of power? Yes. But just because racism exists, doesn’t mean, there isn’t power and protection in being heteronormative and cisgendered. Even if you are a racial minority, participating in and co-signing with behaviors/narratives that put other vulnerable communities at risk is damaging. These two things can be happening at the same time. But it is the caste system that tells you, you should only care if it hurts you. And that’s the big lie.
My greatest issue with Dave’s stand-up is that he perceives queerness, especially trans-ness as a white thing. Which is false. Black folks are queer and trans, and have been. I won’t isolate or erase my queer and trans brothers and sisters. Especially when Black trans folks are the most likely to be abused and murdered. I won’t co-sign to rhetoric that contributes to their suffering and dehumanization.
His most contextual criticism was of the women’s movement, that if you really ‘bout that life, white women, are you willing to give something up, compromise your position? He says he did; he walked away from $50 million. And what’s so interesting about that is, Dave stepped away when he felt like he was being laughed at, not laughed with. When his integrity was threatened. And literally now that trans folks are saying you are laughing at us, not with us, and it’s damaging, why can’t Dave, or anyone else, honor that truth?
Because whether you want to acknowledge it or not, queer and trans people are a vulnerable community. Queer and trans people are in every ethnicity, and every ethnicity thinks it’s ok to ostracize and abuse them. In large part because it is learned that being queer/trans is lowering your-self in the caste system, they are not to be taken seriously, valued, or even allowed to exist. And many ethnicities, especially the Brown and Black ones, will follow the norms of homophobia and trans-phobia, because it is seen as having one less strike against you.
Which is why it’s so troubling how often Dave is fixated on trans bodies. It’s this obsession with folks thinking they are entitled to dissect and govern genitalia, that keeps trans folks at risk and under the gaze of people who want them ostracized. It completely takes away their humanity. Like they are nothing more than a body, not a person.
Dave is misleading when discussing the Da Baby shooting. Da Baby acted in self-defense, he didn’t just kill a Black man in cold-blood and folks were like “oh well”. To compare that to his disparaging comments about AIDs is a conflation and it’s manipulative.
And in his discussion of the trans-woman he befriended, it’s low-key; like when a white person tells you they have a Black friend so they can’t be racist. And I get it, they were friends and both comedians and that trans-woman was cool with Dave’s comedy. But what’s interesting about that is, there was a power dynamic there. She is a struggling comedian, who obviously idolized Dave, who is THE COMEDIAN of a generation, and was happy to be brought into his fold. Many folks do think that celebrity talent is bigger than harmful behavior. That is not to say they weren’t actually friends, I believe they were. But I believe Dave certainly had more of an influence on her than she did on him, because his discussion of trans folks is still wack.
No one is saying that Dave isn’t a craftsman of comedy. And to be clear, Dave has never been making fun of Black people. He has always been showing how absurd it is for Black people to navigate racism. He doesn’t know what it means to navigate being trans, but what he does know is that he’s going to double down on binaries and paradigms that are made up and harmful. And to down-play the danger in mocking a group of people that are already hated, where is the humor in that?
If we are gonna talk about some stuff, we have to talk about it in totality. If you wanna be like yo, it’s just comedy, but to what avail? For me, I know, understand, and experience racism and sexism, so it’s pretty easy to see when folks are using hierarchies in other ways. And we do live in a homophobic and transphobic society. So, yes, it’s problematic when this is your contribution.
Dave is very much lamenting that it seems the queer movement has usurped the Black movement or is moving faster. But the real issue is that we have been taught to believe that these issues wouldn’t intersect at some point. The issue is the system has taught us all how to mimic behaviors of oppressors and use those behaviors when we have the advantage. That the model of racism proved that you can get folks to draw lines in the sand with each other if you create the right narratives, and dole out privileges and punishments.
The caste system will sustain itself as longs no one really gets free. All you gotta do is make folks insecure, encourage violence, fight for crumbs, pick an enemy, and let them laugh about it from time to time.