In his 2017 Netflix special Equanimity, Dave Chappelle wanted us to know a few things.
First and foremost, he wanted us to know that he’s hilarious. I never questioned his talent. At least not until his opening bit in Equanimity, in which the “and then I kicked her in the pussy” punchline turned him into a weird parody of himself.
The second thing he wanted us to know is that he has nothing against trans or gay people, he just really enjoys making fun of them.
Since his highly publicized comeback, Chappelle made numerous jokes about transgender people where the punchline was that he doesn’t really understand what being transgender means. He deadnames and misgenders Caitlyn Jenner, uses slurs and claims that trans people haven’t faced the same kind of violence as Black people, completely erasing the very visible existence of Black trans folks. Equanimity is no different, and it’s an urgent reminder that we must stop laughing at ignorance.
Even after admitting to feeling guilty about making his trans and gay fans feel bad about themselves, Chappelle refused to do himself the favor of getting educated about what transgender people actually experience. I’m unsure about whether it’s the fetishism of controversy or just flaccid sincerity that makes him content in his own ignorance, but he specifically prefaces jokes with things like: “I have no problem with transgender people,” before saying something transphobic; “not to victim blame,” before saying that the 14-year-old actor assaulted by Kevin Spacey turned out to be gay anyway, as if that at all lessens the trauma.
When Kevin Hart’s response to being held accountable for his past homophobia was to say he “is in a different place” since making those jokes, without actually apologizing for remarks about taking violent preventative methods to ensure his son doesn’t become gay, he didn’t only miss the point of the criticism he was facing, he showed a deep lack of understanding of the contextual experience of queer people. When he was tweeting about threatening violence if his son was gay in 2011, it was still illegal for gay people to get married in this country.
Comedy that concerns itself with punching down is a mode of cultural commentary. Not only does it target people with already limited rights, but it also contributes to their oppression. Just because Hart feels he’s grown as a person and he’s focused on positivity or whatever other nonsense he tricked himself into believing to be true doesn’t mean the actual tangible effects of the homophobia he perpetuates cease to exist. You don’t get to decide what I need or deserve after you’ve actively contributed to my pain.
Michael Che’s subsequent defense of Hart on SNL, where he claimed that if Hart isn’t clean enough to host the Oscars then no Black comic is, brought back my long discarded disappointment in Dave Chappelle and Black comics who separate queerness and Blackness in order to more ardently use the former as a punchline. If you’re going to turn people’s lives into trivial jokes, the least you could do is stop willfully misunderstanding them. The distillation of people’s identities shows a level of privilege straight Black comics aren’t even remotely willing to acknowledge.
But it can’t work like that. You can’t bluntly accuse white people of being privileged and refuse to assess your own cisgender and heterosexual privilege. It’s not enough to say “I understand what you’re going through because of 400 years of oppression but also just wait your turn,” as if queer bodies don’t also bear those wounds.
Black lesbian comics are not an especially large demographic. Wanda Sykes, who I consider to be one of the funniest people alive, is the only person I’ve seen find a way to synthesize my experience so cohesively.
In its 43-year history, SNL only just recently hired its first Black lesbian writer, Sam Jay. That Che, as a head writer on SNL, couldn’t be bothered to check in with someone who experiences the duality of these identities before dismissing Hart’s homophobia is the same level of self-righteousness that made Hart refuse to apologize in the first place.
The biggest dilemma in criticizing a marginalized community that you’re a part of is the fear of giving oppressors ammunition with which to further vilify you. It’s true that I experience racism in the queer community as well as homophobia in the Black community, and the burden of pretending I don’t is one I refuse to bear. Black comics aren’t inherently more homophobic than white comics, but watching Black men actively fighting for their right to be homophobic or transphobic because white comics get to do it without accountability makes all their pleas for racial equality moot. It makes their concern about the vilification of Black men (while dismissing that of queer people) hypocritical.
As a Black lesbian and a comedian, it’s hard for me to outright dismiss certain straight Black comics who have a history of homophobia, because they make me feel seen. They vocalize the internal criticism of my own Blackness so poignantly, yet they’re also a reminder that I have to constantly choose which part of myself I’m willing to sacrifice to feel like a whole person. If I choose to be Black, I can enjoy their comedy without a second thought and brush my feelings as a queer woman aside. But frankly, I’m just not sure compartmentalizing myself is worth feeling seen by an hour-long Netflix special from someone who views violent threats to my queer existence as nothing more than a punchline.