Challenging the Narrative- Offensive or Hysterical?

A white waiter approaches a black customer and says: “So you’ll be having the fried chicken today right?” The customer responds saying yes and asks, how did you know? The white waiter chuckles and replies “Everybody knew as soon as you walked through that door, you were gonna get some chicken. It’s no secret down here, that blacks and chickens are quite fond of one another.” — Dave Chappelle

It’s difficult to look at race and comedy and not reflect on the work of Dave Chappelle. For a very long time, I’ve struggled with understanding whether comedy could be a useful tool to communicate the ever-changing and complex identities of today. As an individual comes to accept his or her own identity, instantaneously they have to be held accountable for another society-imposed identity. Not only may one feel the need to adjust his or her’s values or behavior, that individual now has to take on the stereotypes associated with that newly assigned identity.

Responsibility

Whether it is though film, music, radio, or television, Broadcast Media remains one of the most influential tools for communication. Having a large audience base, each media outlet commands the attention of its viewers. With this kind of power, comes great responsibility. Regularly the messages that are communicated are perceived as fact and are rarely questioned.

ABC Network has chosen to take on this responsibility in two of their most recent line up of shows Fresh Off the Boat and Blackish; in a family orientated setting, both shows attempt to communicate a message that is often lost among viewers. Addressing stereotypes Unfortunately, whether ABC has successful invited their viewers to question their messages is a far more difficult question, with a complicated answer.

The first approach ABC tries to communicate a message is through the title, Fresh Off the Boat and Blackish. Specifically referring to the Asian community with the phrase, Fresh of the Boat, is a derogatory term that highlights the dissimilarities between newly arrived immigrants and the general population. Comparably, Blackish, as used in this programming, highlights the separation between individuals society would deem black enough from those who are merely passing. Identity discussed on television programming can have a positive effect, but only if it’ done correctly.

A Few ways of Perceiving

Below are a few of my observations from watching the promotional videos for both shows.

0:04 Challenge the idea that the only white people can join a country club

0:09- Reinforces the idea that joining a country club is a white activity

0:18- Reinforcing the idea that “joining a country club” is white behavior

0:30- Challenges the idea that all Asians speak Chinese

  • 0:03- A particular behavior is expected of one of the characters i.e. playing basketball
  • 0:06- That expectation is then challenged, by the son wanting to play field hockey
  • 0:28- The idea that there aren’t any black successful individuals is challenged
  • 0:28- Reinforces the idea that there can’t be more than one black successful family, they’re the exception

* Note the way the tour guide describes the family as mythical and mystic, somewhat an oddity, possibly in a zoo-like manner

  • 0:40- One of the characters changes his name to sound more approachable i.e. Andre → Andy
  • 1:00- One character who doesn’t identify as a practicing Jew wants to have a Bar mitzvah, and changes his name
  • 1:25- “African Right of Passage Ceremony”, this may be creating a stereotype
  • 1:43- Promotes a particular kind of black female body type
  • 1:54-The main character challenges expectations, by allowing his son to have a Bar Mitzvah

Reception

Up until the end of high school, I was the individual who didn’t understand satirical writing. Saying something like “I don’t get it” about satire on a college campus often warrants some laughter. Unfortunately, the reality is that we live in a world where people sometime act like the characters of South Park or Family Guy. So is understanding satirical writing enough to not feel offended or hesitant to laugh at a “comedic” piece?

To an extent, broadcasting channels like ABC can predict whether the public response will be positive or negative based on their experiences in the content they’ve produce. Sadly, their predictions fail to consider the reasons why an individual may or may not like a show, or specific episode. For instance, there is a difference between an individual who enjoys watching Blackish because they understand the satire versus someone who enjoys it because they view the stereotypes as true. Companies like ABC, see people as way to increase their social network presence and improve their weekly neilsen ratings. If one factors in the identity of the individual, that can be a reason why an individual may or may not want to accept satire.

Taking into account the length of the video and my familiarity with black stereotypes, I was able to draw more conclusions for Blackish. Jw in his Medium article highlights the opinion of Berry Deutsch and Peggy McIntosh to discuss the need for intersectionality and underrepresented narratives. He discusses the social expectations that comes from a particular identity and the different levels of privilege that comes from all groups depending on the circumstances they’re in. Adding the identity of the individual enjoying the show may dictate whether he or she will laugh based off of the privileges attached to their identity.

Would You Still like the Fried Chicken?

Today, Dave Chappelle’s no longer has his own show, largely because he recognized that his audience wasn’t laughing with understanding, but laughing because they viewed the stereotypes he portrayed as fact. My concern for using comedy as a tool for identity education, specifically with race, stems from the way it is received by viewers. The television station or movie production, has absolutely no control on how they’re content will be consumed. There are far too many opportunities for the audience to miss the message, especially if the message is being delivered by a person who personally identifies with the particular group being discussed.

So I ask…

Q: Is calling it satire enough?

A: Maybe.

Q: Is using comedic television shows to communicate messages about identity offensive or simply hysterical?

A: It all depends.

Also see: https://medium.com/@cainejw/intersectionality-and-narrative-why-the-privilege-knapsack-must-change-e24faafdd6b0

Jw. “Intersectionality and Narrative: Why the Privilege Knapsack Must Change.” Medium.06 Dec. 2014. Web. 19 Sept. 2015.

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