“A white woman standing on a stage and insinuating that Mexicans or other men of color are rapists, given our history, given that historically when white women made claims, most of the times they were false about black men raping them, somebody ended up hanging from a tree. ” — Dr. Stacey Patton, author of The Washington Post, Op-Ed.
The Washington Post, one of our nation’s most venerable guardians of free speech took a step in a surprising direction earlier this week, publishing an article by Dr. Stacey Patton and David Leonard that called out comedian Amy Schumer as a racist.
The article likened Schumer’s comedy to Donald Trump’s politics and accused Schumer of using “dehumanizing language that gives life to an ecosystem of racial fear and violence.” The article also accuses Schumer of suggesting “that Mexicans, or other men of color, are natural-born rapists,” and says that “while black families are burying their dead, churches are burning, black women church pastors are receiving death threats and the KKK is planning rallies in South Carolina, Schumer is ‘playing’ with race…and only white people are laughing.”
There are some powerful accusations in play here, and the masthead of The Washington Post carries considerable weight. With so many worthy targets creating genuine oppression to choose from, we couldn’t help but wonder why the Post would aim its rather sizeable artillery at this particular target, at this particular time? Why comedy and why Schumer?
It was only a few short months ago when the world, and The Washington Post clamored to support the victims at French satire newspaper Charlie Hebdo after their offices were attacked leaving 12 dead. The Washington Post stood up for free expression, publishing a highly controversial and polarizing cover. An editorial by Charles Lane, published by the Post in January said, “it is vitally important that the United States and all other Western democracies rally to their unequivocal defense. If freedom means anything, it means freedom of expression — to include expression that some might find irresponsible, offensive or even blasphemous. In the realm of art and ideas, pretty much nothing is, or should be, sacred, lest we head down the slippery slope to censorship, or self-censorship.”
But Amy Schumer’s comedic, and even satirical expression isn’t being considered important in Patton and Leonard’s piece. And the thrust of their article is that there are indeed topics that are sacred and even unacceptable in comedy.
I spoke with The Washington Post‘s Outlook Deputy Editor Mike Madden about the seeming contradiction. “This is not the opinion of The Washington Post,” Madden told me, “this is the opinion of a couple of contributors to The Washington Post.” Of course both articles are editorials and newspapers print conflicting editorials all the time. But even op-ed pieces are edited and selected and subject to internal guidelines and even op-ed pieces enjoy the weight of The Washington Post banner– one which has a history of protecting journalistic expression feverishly.
I asked Madden if he knew why the article’s author, Dr. Stacey Patton had chosen Amy Schumer as the topic for her article. “I think she pitched this piece because Schumer was in the news, at least in some circles in the news. Probably because of that Guardian piece,” he said, and suggested that I talk directly with Dr. Patton. I did.
Dr. Patton said a few things that surprised me. For starters, she said she’s not a specialist on comedy or humor. While she does enjoy comedy (she likes George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Martin Lawrence, the Queens of Comedy, and Bill Maher among others), she told me that watching comedy isn’t something she gets to do often. In fact, before the ‘Schumer issue’ came up, she had never seen Amy Schumer perform stand up, and she had never seen Schumer’s Comedy Central television show. Even more surprising, she said she didn’t watch any of Amy’s performances or shows while writing the article, not even as background for the piece. Her judgement was based on what she read, presumably in The Guardian, which had just published an article accusing Schumer of “having a blind spot for race.”
The Interrobang; Have you ever watched Amy’s television show… in preparation for the article?
Stacey Patton: Nope. Not at all.
The Interrobang: Her stand up set[s]? have you ever watched any of them?
Stacey Patton: Nope. None of them.
Despite seeing the quotes out of context, and without the benefit of knowing anything about Amy’s comedy, she was comfortable making judgements about whether Schumer’s comedy was or wasn’t racist. She also was comfortable deciding whether Schumer’s audience was or wasn’t racially diverse (she characterizes Amy’s following as predominately white), and she was comfortable to conclude that Schumer’s comedy breeds racism in others.
I was also surprised to learn that Dr. Patton hadn’t “pitched” the article to The Washington Post. She said it wasn’t her idea at all, and in fact she initially turned down the story, because, she thought there wasn’t much there. Patton said:
“The Outlook editor actually wrote to me last week and asked if I’d be willing to write about this. And I hadn’t actually heard about the incident. And you know, I’m not a fan or foe of Amy Schumer. Hadn’t really paid attention to her. She’s not a comedian whose work I follow so I was not really that familiar with her. And I was still quite frankly reeling from Charleston. Because I was in Charleston three days before the shooting and I was staying two blocks away from the church so, yeah, I was still dealing with a lot of the backlash from my Washington Post piece on that. And so when I kind of looked at some of the coverage on Schumer, I initially thought meh. This woman is joking. You know, myself and a lot of people are still grieving the lives of those people in Charleston.
“But then I thought about Donald Trump’s remarks and then the fact that a few days later Dylann Roof stands up in a church and before shooting nine people says, “taking over my country you’re raping our women” despite the fact that most of his victims were black women. And then it was Schumer’s comments about Mexican men and rapists. And I thought, see, that’s when I had to say something.”
Patton explained to me that one of her primary concerns here is context. She explained.
“A white woman standing on a stage and insinuating that Mexicans or any other men of color are rapists, is racist. Given our history, given that historically when white women made claims, most of the times they were false about black men raping them, somebody ended up hanging from a tree. We are living in a climate where there is still that very potent fear about interracial sex. So I think context is really important.”
Context was a theme that she’d return to again and again throughout our conversation.
I don’t doubt that Dr. Patton means well. She’s a well respected journalist, and from what I gathered in our conversation, very intelligent. She is concerned about very serious problems faced by people of color in America and the world today, and those problems are real and in need of redress. And without the important context of understanding performed comedy, Schumer’s act, and her persona, it might be hard to distinguish Schumer’s point of view from a completely different kind of joke– one that is harmful, and derogatory, and holds no benefit to the community at large. Patton described to me concerns about the type of people who “back during the Jim Crow period, while nearly 4,000 black people were lynched in this country, [were] making jokes; they were singing minstrel songs, putting on black face, telling chicken and watermelon and pickaninny jokes.” Those types of harmful, racially motivated jokes of course still exist today, and are just as rooted in hate as they ever were. And perhaps Patton is correct that the people who laugh at those types of jokes add to what she calls “this ecosystem of nasty rhetoric.”
But that argument ignores that performed comedy that integrates and confronts, and yes even “plays with” race and bias, is not the same as a “chicken and watermelon and pickaninny joke.” There is nuance and skill that a performer uses to communicate that they are not advocating racism and intolerance– on the contrary, they believe in inclusion and tolerance. Laughing at our own shortcomings, biases and history of intolerance can advance harmony in a way that lecturing, and even legislating cannot. When we, as an audience can laugh at stereotypes… we don’t reinforce them, we expose them. And it’s all to the benefit of society.
Patton has made presumptions regarding the racial composition of Schumer’s audience, and she has also made presumptions about the effect Schumer’s comedy has on her audience. Those presumptions are made without any real information, and seem to be based on nothing more than speculation and her own social media following.
“Based on the images that I’ve seen, photos of her– again, I have not watched any of her videos but if I look and I see a predominantly white audience that tells me something right there. And based on what I’m seeing on social media– and I have a huge social media audience myself, most of the black people that are commenting– actually all of them that I’m seeing– have been reacting very negatively to her. So that tells me that she’s not very popular among people of color. The vast majority of people of color who watch comedy don’t watch her. They watch the Queens of Comedy or the Kings of Comedy. The reality is that the comedy world is segregated. Period. Yes you have a few comics who might cross over a little bit, but it’s largely segregated. Most black people that I know who watch comedy don’t watch Amy Schumer. Go up and down my time line and time lines of other friends. They’re like, never heard of her.”
But all you would need to do is attend any of Schumer’s performances in New York City to see otherwise, or browse social media while her show is airing on Comedy Central. You will find a multitude of cultures, colors, languages, genders and countries represented. And by and large, they “get the joke” and they know the difference between harmful jokes and comedy.
I asked Dr. Patton how she would feel to find out that people of color laugh at these jokes. She told me that there have always been all kinds of black people, including those who are self hating, or disagree with affirmative action, or were overseers on the plantations. She added, “people of color are not monolithic folks. We have people who are raised in different kinds of families and communities and have different political persuasions and tastes when it comes to humor. So of course you’re going to find people of color who think that’s funny. And generally the vast majority of black folks, when we come across people like that we call em out, and say ‘okay you know, whats wrong with you? ‘ So we know that there are those among us who don’t have the same kind of sensitivity when it comes to issues of race.” Perhaps Dr. Patton doesn’t trust that there are audiences who understand subtlety and satire, and can differentiate between hateful speech and comedy. But to do that she would first need to listen to more than just a quote, or a clip. Schumer’s comedy is full of instances where she’s pushing social boundaries in the best possible directions. You can read dozens of articles talking about the gender biases she exposes through her comedy, and taking on issues of body image, rape culture, sexual identity, and other societal issues that matter.
So why Amy, why now? It’s certainly not because Schumer has gone too far over the line as compared to other performers. She’s not known for racial sets. It seems that Schumer was targeted because she’s getting a lot of press with the release of her upcoming movie Trainwreck, and people are interested in her, so generating controversy is profitable. Perhaps she just seemed like an easy target, as a woman. Or maybe there are those who are uncomfortable with the gender boundaries she addresses and the abundance of press and praise she has received in the last two months.
But The Washington Post name carries weight, certainly far more weight than Amy Schumer, who is just beginning to see her career grow. To suggest that Schumer needs to be more responsible with her comedy with one hand, while casually branding a young artist with powerful words like Racism with the other, seems to have its own irresponsibility not only toward Schumer, but toward other young artists trying to decide what they can and cannot talk about. And to tie an artist– particularly an artist who is herself breaking down long standing barriers– in with murder, the Klan and the burning of black churches is something that should not be done lightly. There are serious consequences to such statements.
The Post article cautions against using the “its just a joke” mentality, as do we, because it’s not “just a joke.” Comedy is a socially and culturally important art form. Comedy is an important form of communication that at its highest level is as critical to our social progression as journalism, and while it may be understandable that Dr. Patton and her writing partner might not appreciate that, it’s startling to see that The Washington Post would be as cavalier. Dr. Patton states in her article that “motivation is not the issue. what matters is the cost/consequence of these jokes.” But what is the cost and consequence of accusing someone of racism without context, background, or any real information?