Just Kidding: Racial Comedy and What it Means for Democracy
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Racial comedy can be used to both offend and empower. Comedians like Dave Chappelle and Richard Pryor are known for their on-stage interrogations of multiethnic issues in America. Within the broader genre of comedy, stand-up comedians, talk show hosts and variety show entertainers employ a type of performative rhetoric that I argue is inextricably linked to issues of race, ethnicity, and the production of identity. The inherent relationship between comedy and racial awareness in America’s unique cultural landscape leads me to believe both the notions of offense and censorship push comedy in the direction of social justice. Public arguments about “political correctness” hit a point of contention over how we define what is racist and offensive. However, because these terms are ever fluctuating, comedy functions as a useful platform for creative retorts and political dissent to tackle sensitive topics like race. Comedy can be a democratic style of rhetoric with a highly sensitive relationship between comedian and audience- jokes can alienate audience members, challenge their worldviews and reinforce existing prejudices. When racial comedy strikes the right level of social commentary and satire, audience members are challenged to reexamine their notions of race and make responsible judgments on racial justice. As the ultimate form of free speech, comedy can help audiences navigate the complexities and uncertainties of race in public culture without detracting from its importance.