Can White Comedians Make Jokes About Other Races?
Comedian Ralphie May is doing some damage control this morning after a comedy routine featuring offensive jokes about Native Americans and alcoholism pretty much offended a whole bunch of folks, in particular, Native Americans.
According to the website Indian Country Today, the controversy began after snippets of one of May’s comedy routines, which had been used by indigenous rap group Savage Family on their 2007 album entitled Stealing the Sun Back, ended up on YouTube.
The 44-second audio/video, which you can listen to here, features the Last Comic Standing alum saying the following:
F–k a bunch of Indians. I am sick of hearing about it. Are we supposed to boo hoo over goddamn Indians? That sh-t that was 120 years ago. F–king get over it. Nobody 150 years ago is making you drink now. F–king dry up you bunch of f–king alcoholics and go get a real f–king job. Cut that f–king hair! Bon Jovi cut his, you should cut yours. The s–t is done, son! It’s done. F–k you, bunch of Indians. F–k the Indians. I’m sorry. They are a group that has never made it to the bronze age. I’m sorry they never invented the f–king wheel. I’m sorry, boo hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo. Boo-f–king-hoo. Maybe if they had done some of that s–t we wouldn’t have taken their country with three smallpox blankets and a bag of beads. F–k a bunch of Indians. F–k ’em!
That’s pretty bad, right?
According to Indian Country Today, the video was posted by Adrianne Chalepah, who is also a comedienne and a Kiowa/Apache Native American. And as she tells the site about why she felt it was important to dredge up the nine-year-old clip now:
“I posted the video because I saw that Ralphie May was performing in Bemidji soon and that is Indian Country,” Chalepah wrote to ICTMN in an email. “I wanted him to understand that incorporating hate and stereotypes into his jokes about us can have real harm, especially in border towns where racism is felt every day. It’s bad enough that some border towns view our people as lazy drunks who do nothing but feel sorry for ourselves. We see this every day with our high police brutality rates, our high suicide rates, and our high rape rates. We don’t need anyone with a national platform somehow implying we need to ‘get over it.’
I took offense because we Natives don’t have a huge voice in mainstream media or pop culture. How can we counter these attacks on our image? We can continue to push the world to accept us as 21st century indigenous people, and challenge them to leave the stereotypes behind. It’s not that we can’t take a joke. I joke about my ‘drunk auntie’ all the time. I joke about casinos being the only place where you need a ‘hickey policy.’ But the difference is that these are our stories, our voice, our image, and we have the right to tell our stories without mainstream pop culture countering it with one-dimensional stereotypes.”
Naturally, the clip went viral, and naturally, folks were outraged. Like people on Twitter (and Facebook too). Also, like the city of Bemidji, Minnesota, which announced yesterday that it decided to cancel his Saturday show “on the advice of city leaders.”
May responded to the backlash yesterday on Twitter, claiming that his joke had been edited and taken out of context.
More specifically, he wrote in a series of tweets:
“Someone stole my material and edited it. They used it in a hip hop song. The entire portion of the joke that makes it make sense is missing.”
“The whole crux of the joke was the buildup to a ridiculous reason to hate because all hate is stupid – a resounding theme in all my comedy.”
“My words were stolen & used illegally. No context. The threats to me are far more offensive & illegal. I never said I wanted to hurt anyone.”
“Anyone who has ever seen my comedy knows that I exploit all stereotypes. I point them out for all races and show how stupid hate really is.”
“My jokes take a long time to get from beginning to end. I don’t tell one-liners. You hear a 44 sec. clip & miss everything before & after it.”
“Look, if you’re truly offended by a joke that was edited and taken out of context, I am truly sorry.”
“I understand that words hurt, but the punchline of the joke is meant to hurt hateful, spiteful people. Not loving people such as the Natives.”
“You get everything leading up to the punchline which was designed to show how stupid hate, anger and stereotypes are.”
“I make jokes about whites, blacks, Asians, Latinos, Jews, Arabs, gays. None are PC but at the end of it they all show how hatred is stupid.”
May ended his statement with a link to a YouTube video entitled “Ralphie May: Racially Charged, Not Racist.” In the video, May apologized again to the Native American community before asking the city of Bemidji to reconsider allowing him to perform. He also extended an invite to folks who were offended by the audio clip to the show so that they could hear the full routine for themselves. Proceeds from the show, he said, would be donated to charity.
He also said:
I did hurt people’s feelings, and people did take this out of context, and we are all victims in this. My art was stolen for a political statement, taken out of context, and then the people that heard this were hurt and offended. And some felt betrayed by me. I want everyone, whether you love me or hate me, go find comedy, enjoy your life. I love you and you can’t do anything about it.
You can watch the video below:
Honestly, I don’t know.
Getting trashed for snippets of a joke, particularly when your business is comedy, does not seem fair at all. With that said, I haven’t heard the entire “joke” in its context. But this would not be the first time May has made a “racially charged, not racial” joke that has rubbed others, myself included, the wrong way. In fact, here is another YouTube video of May doing a routine in which he talks about why he uses the N-word:
That’s why with or without the added context, I feel like it is generally not a good idea for comedians to make jokes about a culture if they are not a part of the culture they are joking about. And no, having a grandma who was half-Cherokee on your father’s side does not count. Nor does having Black friends.
True, we people of color make jokes about ourselves – including our culture, our religion, and our pathologies – all the time. However, it is also true that we are the only ones who are forced to carry the burden of these identities, including all the bad stereotyping that comes with them. And often, making jokes and laughing at our identities is a coping mechanism meant to shield and protect us from what can be at times some pretty soul-crushing oppression.
Whereas when White comedians appropriate someone else’s identity for “a joke,” it just feels like they are mocking us.
Case in point: May’s defense for his use of the N-word (in spite of criticism and Black people saying he should not use it):
As you can see, he just doesn’t get it.
But if you still want to hear “the context” for yourself, May’s next show will be on April 13 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.