Walk the line: comedy and racial stereotypes

Representations of race in the media often consist of the same sort of rigid stereotypes that constitute gender portrayal. While gender is considered a touchy subject in the media it seems that the stereotyping of race can be even more harmful. In countries like Australia a wide demographic of the population bases their views and opinions of different ethnic groups from the medias representations. Racial stereotypes are often based on social myths that are perpetuated generationally from parents to their children. So for some, the media provides the only alternative set of cultural depictions. If these media depictions of ethnicity are riddled with narrow and unchallenged prejudices both children and adults are going to hold these stereotypes true.

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The need for a more accurate portrayal of racial diversity should be a priority for political agendas, however as always changes can often take a great deal of time to filter down through the media. Many TV programmes and films depict lazy racial stereotypes. Some are criticised and some are overtly accepted usually by the dominant race, which when discussing prominent media (sorry to generalise) is usually Caucasian Westerners. For the media, discussing race can be like walking on eggshells, but for comedians (especially when discussing their own race) there seems to be a greater acceptance for light-hearted discussion. Could comedy be a great way to bring important issues regarding race into the public sphere of discussion? Or are the jokes still just playing off and perpetuating racial prejudices?

Stand-up comedy can be a great way to have an extended and direct conversation with an audience. Good comics can employ laughter to survive and understand pain, to explore obscenity, taboos and stereotypes. However when discussing issues like race and ethnicity there is a fine line between making fun of stereotypes and perpetuating them. Dave Chappelle’s comedy is almost centrally based around the discussion of black stereotypes in the U.S and the irrational fears that drive the willingness to believe such stereotypes. Dave Chappelle cleverly illustrates the relationship between black racial stereotypes and the people that believe and conceive them. This is a tough line to walk, for all comedians. Chappelle himself began to wonder wether his audiences were laughing at him rather than with him, and wether they were missing the larger points of his comedy, which he expressed when he walked off stage at one of his shows.

So if it’s all in good fun, what’s the big deal? Perhaps part of the problem comes from the creators? Assuming we live in a post-racial society where these stereotypes no longer have power. Or maybe the issue is with audiences? Their inability to separate between what is comedy and where there is perhaps a greater meaning… a greater discussion to be had. Maybe as audiences we need to ask a little more of mainstream entertainment… should we expect our humourists to challenge conventional ideas? Should we just expect offence as a by-product? Comedians have the means to challenge us, to make us think a little more about nonsense we willingly believe. I believe comedy has an important role to play in breaking down racial stereotypes, but it represents only a smaller part of the solution to disintegrate these perpetuated prejudices all too common in our society.

 

Duabe, M 2011 ‘Laughter in revolt: Race, ethnicity, and identity in the construction of stand-up comedy’ Udini, accessed May 8 2014 – http://udini.proquest.com/view/laughter-in-revolt-race-ethnicity-goid:305230275/

Levine, A 2012 ‘Racial Comedy and Dave Chappelle’ accessed May 6 2014 – http://predoc.org/docs/index-144688.html

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