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Discussion addresses racial jokes

Janice Flynn | Tuesday, November 29, 2005

In the same room where, more than a month ago, two student stand-up comedians performed acts with racial references that provoked criticism and an impassioned letter-writing exchange, students gathered for a more direct conversation Monday.

The roundtable discussion on the place of racial language in comedy – and more broadly, in society – was held at Legends, where an Oct. 27 student comedy show featured jokes about race and segregation that provoked laughs among some audience members but offended others.

While the participating students were frank, passionate and, at times, frustrated, Director of Multi-Cultural Student Services and discussion facilitator Iris Outlaw advised them to appreciate the educational opportunity at hand.

Controversy centered around an Oct. 27 routine by senior Brian Berry on the prevalence of derogatory words in today’s society and the ridiculousness of their overuse. It culminated with “for Christmas, my grandma sent me this sweater she knitted me. On the front it said ‘My Nigga.'”

Berry reiterated that he had set up the punch line three times during the 40-second act to avoid misinterpretation. He said he never meant to imply that the word has lost its derogatory meaning, but quite the opposite – that such careless use of words would have long-term damaging effects.

Another controversial joke, made by senior Will Seath, involved a reference to the recently deceased Civil Rights icon Rosa Parks and segregation on Notre Dame’s campus. Seath had previously apologized for the insensitivity of his remarks in a Nov. 1 letter to the editor printed in The Observer, which he read Monday, saying his intention was to promote discussion.

The comedians repeatedly stressed their belief that comedy could serve as a medium for social commentary. Seath referred to comedic art as “saying what you mean while not meaning what you say,” and Berry concurred.

“My personal belief as a comedian is that when it comes to satire, nothing is off-limits and it’s a matter of how you structure the framework of what you are saying,” Berry said. “My personal belief is that even if there is a topic that’s serious, it can be satirized and be a success.”

Other students took a different perspective. Members of the Notre Dame Chapter of the NAACP and the Black Cultural Arts Council (BCAC) voiced concerns over the word’s use, arguing that it had strong connotations for a people with a history of violence and degradation, especially in an era not far removed from the Civil Rights Movement.

“I’m aware the black comedians will make jokes about white people,” said Lauren Prease, Vice President of the Notre Dame Chapter of the NAACP. “But the type of hurt that would come with it is a lot different than the hurt that would be associated with having to hear insults about black people from someone who isn’t black… It can bring us back to the time when they weren’t just jokes, people really meant it.

“It’s still fresh in our history, it’s still fresh in my family, to hear words like that,” Prease added. “Even though you said clearly, this is a derogatory word… I don’t want to hear the word.”

As the discussion circled through and around issues of race, participants constantly called on the group to redefine their focus:

Was the objection to the use of the derogatory word under any circumstance, or was to the use of comedy as a forum to introduce such issues?

Must a word retain its historical power, or can society take away that power?

Would an educated person forgo such a joke, or can an educated person make such a joke?

Should comedy be allowed to “push the envelope,” or should comedians consider the negative implications of their comedy?

Comedy can take an unexpected, yet negative turn, said Leah McGee, co-President of the BCAC, citing Archie Bunker, an exaggerated persona of a bigot who was taken as a hero by some.

But Seath countered that for every person who may have idolized the “All in the Family” character, there could have well been others who recognized their prejudices in the hyperbole and sought to curtail them.

Junior Bill Bullock, a friend of Seath’s and Berry’s, encouraged the discussion to take that direction.

“I think the reason that we’re having this conversation is because we are missing the point of the larger problems, and that the fact of the matter is, is that they were pointing out the larger problem in the context that may have seemed like they weren’t,” Bullock said. “Notice what’s behind what they’re saying.”

College Libertarians came to support the comedians and oppose censorship. The comedians have been banned for the next two stand-up comedy performances.

The group called for more transparency and greater individual responsibility, yet several participants emphasized the pervasive nature of racial perceptions in society, which holds the individual responsible yet goes beyond.

“Making light of race is never done on an individual basis,” BCAC co-president Joyce Randall said. “It’s not just in our hearts and minds, it’s actually entrenched in our societal structures. It’s something more complex.”

The discussion reluctantly concluded with an affirmation to further education, classroom and otherwise, and to continue conversation in both existing and new forums.