Blackface and ethnic jokes have and do offend, but where do we draw the line between free expression and racism? The Minor Program in Canadian Ethnic and Racial Studies in conjunction with the UN Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination presents a panel discussion on March 28 that will debate the issues that arise when walking that fine line between funny and racist.
Franco Taddeo, a professional Montreal-based comedian, will showcase some of his ethnic comedy and then join an esteemed panel of experts moderated by the Chair in Canadian Ethnic Studies, Morton Weinfeld. The panel participants include Julius Grey, a prominent civil libertarian and human rights advocate, Anthony Morgan, a McGill Law graduate and regular contributor to The Huffington Post, Charmaine Nelson, Associate Professor in Art History and Communications with specialization in race and representation, and Fo Niemi, Executive Director of the Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR).
Funny or Racist? Blackface, Ethnic Comedy, and the Tension between Free Expression and Racism. Thursday, March 28, at 3 p.m. in Maxwell Cohen Moot Court (New Chancellor Day Hall, 3644 Peel Street). Admission is free and open to the public.
What kind of value does “ethnic comedy” have in society? What are the potential drawbacks?
I believe funny is funny but if we are going to define something as ethnic comedy then its value is that it represents and imposes people of certain background onto the Canadian cultural landscape – a place where they are not overly present. Also, in the cases where “ethnic” comedians are making the jokes, it allows them to be the protagonists in the material and not the sidekick. The perspective is first person writer and conveyor. We own the representation.
The drawbacks come with the inherent responsibility of owning the representation. If we are going to make the statements and they are overly simplistic, one-dimensional or not a springboard for deeper delving into the stereotype, then we are accountable and must defend the statement, the perspective and/or the community targeted.
Do you feel as a professional comedian that you have more (or less) flexibility in terms of making ethnic jokes than people who are not professionals?
I believe creatively I have much more flexibility but also less leeway socially. An off-hand, off-colour (pun-intended) joke told privately between friends or acquaintances while not any more acceptable certainly does not carry the same social resonance as a joke told for public consumption to a paying audience.
If one makes a living just being racist or ethnically insensitive I would be uncomfortable with that and certainly do not advocate it. I prefer being racially and/or culturally perceptive and using a generalized reality to evoke laughter especially when that reality is twisted to show the absurdity of our perception.
Are ethnic jokes more acceptable when made by people who identify with that ethnic community? Or are there communities that are more “open” to being the brunt of jokes than others? What makes this the case?
Yes, when you reference your own you have more leeway. The key to good comedy is being able to laugh at yourself before others, and that includes your own culture. If you are part of the ethnicity you are skewering, it just buys you a level of tolerance afforded to the insider.
Ideally, in my view at least, comedy is a tool to ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.’ As such, if I attack the host culture – be it white or English or French – that majority will be more amenable to the chiding than if we gang up on a minority.
But nothing or no one is off-limits if you approach it with humility, a quest to understand, a gentle prod and the understanding that the comedy is a shared collective experience where we let down our hair and sometimes cross lines within a context that allows it.
Comedy is a popular and populist art form. It is not an academic seminar or the Bolshoi Ballet. As such, it will sometimes push the boundaries and be raw, uncouth or disturbing because of its immediate, visceral and populist nature.
If you smile, control the stage and demonstrate vulnerability the audience will afford you latitude, any audience irrespective of race, colour or creed.
The title of the panel that you will be participating in is called “Funny or Racist?” Can you tell us about a time in which someone thought your comedy was racist, rather than funny?
It rarely happens for two major reasons:
1- Human nature. Unless you are truly offensive and also not funny most audiences will not call you out. People do not enjoy confrontation especially versus someone in a position of ‘power’ (ie: standing and holding an instrument that amplifies our voice while the audience is seated.). It is a power position but that power and credibility dissipates shockingly quickly when the comic is not funny. It is a humbling phenomenon to watch.
2- Maybe I am not sensitive enough or not brave enough to admit it, but it has never happened to me in my 15 years doing this. I have received some “groans” without a doubt for certain jokes on occasions but never anger. Only once in Toronto when I was doing a bit about Jesus:
“If you break it down he was not the ideal role model ie: nomadic, 30’s unattached; given to disappearances and hallucinations. What we have here is the CV of an addict more than a Savior of Man-Kind”
I had three or four Rastafarian young men upset with me, as they said: “Why you be disrespecting da lord, man.”
I have one joke, not actually a joke as much as an angle with audience interaction, that I rarely do, and which I think is slightly offensive but definitely based on a Eurocentric model that I was raised on by my mom. It gets a laugh from the majority of any audience but I feel it singles out a minority.
I will ask if there are any Spanish speaking individuals and ask if they are Latino or from Spain when an individual answers. Sometimes the individual will say”What’s the difference?” I will point out, Spanish and Latino are quite different. If I meet a Spanish girl I CAN take her home to my mom, the suggestion being Latino is not good enough. Not European enough.
I have done shows with comics that have been booed for certain comments and most times, I agree with the audience.
Racism is easy but funny is hard; straddling that line is a rare skill.
Do you ever censor yourself? Why?
Always, the audience is my client. I want to provoke and make them think. But first and foremost I want to entertain them. I am a comic and I have been given the privilege of access to paying customers. It is not a soapbox but an opportunity to inform and entertain.
I customize my set depending on the venue, nature and themes of shows. As a comic in Canada you must have an array of jokes to succeed. I would never do the same jokes for a corporate show; an ethnic show; a televised show; a gala fundraiser for a disease; a show in a house of worship; or a Nasty Show. All venues that I have performed in, I am myself always but the material is contextualized given the setting, just like society.