October 28, 2005

You're Not Rick James

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For a few years now Dave Chappelle’s comedy has been surfing on the ear wax of nearly every college student in the United States. On a platform of non stop racial musings, high lighted by indelible images of Lil’ John and Rick James impressions, Chappelle has been injected into the culture and conversations of college students across the country. Unless you’ve been living under a rock you’ve undoubtedly heard someone exclaim, “Okaaaaaaaaay” or “Whuuuuaaat” a la Lil John, or the classic, “I’m Rick James bitch!” Chapelle is of course to thank for these exclamations being integrated into college students’ cultural vocabulary. However, as those popular phrases have reached near saturation point, it has become evident that the more residual aspect of the Dave Chapelle lexicon is his pervasive use of racial slurs.

Due to comedy’s innate ability to make us laugh, it can serve as an innocuous resource for eye opening material about seriously race related issues. People are more than eager to attach some political significance to Dave Chappelle’s use of outrageous racial caricatures on the grounds he is at some level subverting racism and racial cliches (a black white supremacist or a paradigmatic 1950’s white family bearing the last name Niggar to a name a few). That said, I don’t believe he is subverting racism or cliches at all – he is instead exploiting them.

It is widely assumed that one of the key characteristics of a successful comedy, especially with regards to DVD sales, is being quotable. Examples such as Anchorman, Old School, and Super Troopers abound. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve suggested that my room is “filled with leather bound books and smells of rich mahogany.” Chappelle Show’s success on DVD is no exception. However, the quotable material from his show is anything but benign.

I am not trying to suggest that Dave Chappelle is promoting racism, or isn’t funny. The simple idea of a black man being a white supremacist and not knowing he is black because is blind espouses at least a chuckle. But to the extent his viewers turn around and rattle off quotes from the show, the quotes can become wildly inappropriate when used out of context. Telling a “bitch” that you’re Rick James doesn’t usually come with any mal-intent. However, those seemingly timeless Rick James and Lil’ John quotes have rendered themselves outdated. What’s left behind is a steady dose of racial slurs from the most unlikely of sources.

Chappelle’s audience is definitely not an all-black crowd. Some of his biggest fans live with me, and others frequent my social destinations on the weekend. Additionally, my house is, shall I say, monochromatic, and I have one less minority friend here than I did in high school. Thus, my friends or I using racial slurs is, on all accounts, not okay. With the permeation of Chappelle’s comedic diction into conversation and typical male exchanges over such things as video games or contests of any kind comes a heavy dosage of such slurs emanating from mouths they shouldn’t be.

The point I’m making is not that Dave Chappelle is actively promoting the use of racially derogatory language. He asserts that making light of some of these touchy issues is healthy. If every race and creed could just get together and laugh at the stereotypes and shortcomings of each other, we’d all be better off. I can’t disagree with that statement. However, a more likely scenario in my experience is a group of white guys getting together laughing their asses off, and turning around and repeating some of the hysterical material amongst themselves. But, what may start as harmless rehashing of comedy can quickly manifest itself as comfortably using racially offensive language.

So maybe people should just be more careful with the words they use; maybe Dave Chappelle is not at fault for my being called a racial slur while entrenched in video game warfare. However, because people have sought to attach a political significance to the supposed role of Chappelle’s humor in subverting racism, there a false sense of comfort is reached with the issues at the core of his material. Subsequently, his material is repeated in and out of context with ease. But, while I’ve laughed at Chappelle Show just as hard as anything else I’ve seen, he is not on a noble political agenda subverting racism. He is exploiting it, because as a minority he can approach it with an unfettered cynicism and extremeness that wouldn’t be acceptable for a white person, which is great, I’m glad someone can do it. But, just as everyone would have a problem with a white comedian employing Chappelle’s material, there is a problem with anyone repeating Chappelle’s slur-laden vocabulary, no matter how funny it is.

Archived article by Brad Hill
Sun Contributor