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Unfunny = Racist

August 10th, 2009 · 22 Comments

David Boaz thinks it’s “ridiculous” to see racism in the Obama-as-Heath-Ledger’s-Joker posters that have appeared recently. I have no idea what the creator’s actual intent was, but I certainly raised an eyebrow and wondered what was going on there—and not because I’m disposed to see all criticism of Barack Obama as inherently racist.  I think a big part of the reason is precisely that, as Boaz notes, the image doesn’t really make sense on its own terms. If Ledger’s Joker has an ideology, it’s a kind of individualist anarchism—with his own professed motivation being to expose the shallowness of our social mores and the folly of our faith in authorities and central planning. And it’s precisely because the link to the film character doesn’t work—or at best seems incredibly lame, just asserting that Obama is a “joker”—that you end up thinking: “Ok, so what is the artist trying to do here? What’s the message conveyed by slathering whiteface on the black president?”  Suppose the artist had gone with a more obvious—and I think effective—reference by morphing Obama into Andre the Giant with a big “OBEY” caption, riffing on Shepard Fairey’s famous image. Even if Obama were shown with Andre’s skin tone (admittedly still not quite as aggressively suggestive as the literal mask of whiteness in the Joker poster) everyone would just get the surface message in a way that made it less natural or urgent to look for some racial subtext.

I think a similar effect may have been at work in the reaction to the now-infamous New York Post “monkey cartoon.” Again, I don’t know what the cartoonist intended—if it wasn’t meant to be racist, then it was sure phenomenally easy to misread that way, but it also seems weird that the Post would deliberately invite the kind of shitstorm that ensued.  I do think two things contributed to the racist reading, though. First, the cartoon turned on a somewhat obscure reference to a regional news story about an escaped monkey being shot—a reference someone outside the NY Metro area probably wouldn’t pick up. Second, even if you got that part, it was a really stupid joke: “Ho ho, the stimulus bill’s so bad it must have been written by monkeys!” It’s so lame that you tend to think something else must be the real punchline.

Something similar may explain why some progressives find it so easy to ascribe opposition to Obama to racism—a move conservatives tend to see as an exercise in bad-faith demonization of dissent. Partly, of course, it’s that there are some loud and angry critics who clearly do have some ugly racial issues, and if you’re not yourself a non-racist Obama critic, it’s easy (if lazy) to suppose that they’re just being a little more obvious about what all conservatives are really thinking.  But also, if you’re a progressive who finds most of Obama’s agenda pretty timid, and if you regard most of the conservative criticisms you see as stupid and unconvincing—whether because you’re generally  unsympathetic to conservative arguments, or because anything you hear a talking head spout on TV is, at best, a dumbed-down version of a smarter argument you’d only encounter if you habitually read conservative publications—then as with the cartoons, you’re going to start wondering what’s really going on.

Media fragmentation probably contributes to this, because more and more conservative argument is turned inward—base-rallying stuff pitched through conservative venues, rather than aimed at a general audience with the goal of convincing someone who might not have a strong opinion either way. The more rhetoric is internally directed—just pointing out the obvious to the faithful—the less it’s likely to seem persuasive, or even reasonable, to an outsider. Whatever rational grounds for opposition may exist start seeming less intelligible, and therefore more pretextual, to outsiders. That, in turn, makes it easier to see opponents driven by malice rather than some kind of reasonable disagreement or understandable error.

Update: I should add, the particular argument Boaz is responding to, where the Joker is a representative of urban chaos, and therefore of blackness—or something—really is ridiculous. That said, some people profess to be weirdly clueless about symbols that have widely understood shared meanings in our culture, to the point where I’m deeply curious about how they made it through high school English. In case you had somehow missed this: the default meaning of blackface (and by extension whiteface) in our culture is that the wearer is doing an exaggerated and comical imitation of a member of another race. The default meaning can be overridden by an alternative one—like the Joker reference—but the override is likely to misfire if it doesn’t actually make sense. You do not have to be on the prowl for racism to then see the default meaning; you just need to be a competent and properly socialized participant in American culture.

Tags: Journalism & the Media · Sociology



22 responses so far ↓

  • 1 squirrel // Aug 10, 2009 at 5:11 pm

    I get your point, but the potential racial subtext in this context is no more obvious than any other interpretation of the artist’s intent. The Boaz article quotes Philip Kennicott as saying that Obama in Joker makeup must be some subtle reference to inner city crime… apparently because Obama is black and Gotham is a city. What?

    Has Kennicott ever actually read a Batman comic? Every major villain Batman fights is white. If anything, the Batman comics bend over backwards to dodge the image of lily-white Bruce Wayne facing down scary inner-city black men. And then there’s really ridiculous part – the inference that Heath Ledger’s Joker is somehow “blacker” than Jack Nicholson’s Joker – that I don’t even know how to respond to. Just… what??

    So in general I dig your points, but in this specific case I think that Philip Kennicott really is being a overly sensitive douche. Racism is real and does need to be rooted out but jumping at every shadow and crying “racism!” is just as bad as pretending that it doesn’t exist.

  • 2 jre // Aug 10, 2009 at 5:30 pm

    I think conservatives are also in a double bind when it comes to the within-group and external expression of views related to race. Those of us who believe that racism is a pervasive evil try very hard to avoid the appearance of bias, and are mocked for our political correctness.
    Those who believe that racism will wither away (if it hasn’t already) with the coming of the color-blind society want just as passionately to avoid seeming politically correct among their own. As a result, conservatives say some amazingly insensitive things. Insensitivity is the whole point, after all. When it gets ugly enough, someone from the outside will notice. At that point, there is really nothing for it but to complain bitterly that there’s not a racist hair on your head, and nobody would complain if the analogous thing were said by a black man, yada yada all the way through the wash and spin cycles until your sheets are clean.

  • 3 southpaw // Aug 10, 2009 at 6:00 pm

    I think a lot of us are also inclined to see conservative agitprop, conservative rhetoric and the conservative movement generally in their historical context, rather than confining ourselves to looking within the four corners of the image.

    Taken out of context, I’m sure I’d probably agree that the Joker poster’s racial edge is debatable at best.

    Considered in the context of a decades-old political movement built on elaborate racial signaling, imputing racism to the poster is far less controversial.

    Remember what Lee Atwater said about the conservative movement,

    “You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.

    And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.””

    Or you can consider what Pat Buchanan wrote in his infamous memo to Richard Nixon:

    “Bumper stickers calling for black Presidential and especially Vice-Presidential candidates should be spread out in the ghettoes of the country,” Buchanan wrote. “We should do what is within our power to have a black nominated for Number Two, at least at the Democratic National Convention.” Such gambits, he added, could “cut the Democratic Party and country in half; my view is that we would have far the larger half.”

    But maybe you’re right; maybe it’s just a bad joke and all this race stuff is in liberals’ silly heads.

  • 4 the teeth // Aug 10, 2009 at 6:12 pm

    You’re on to something here, but you neglect to explicitly spell out one fact central to making this reading work: within certain right-wing circles, some pretty incontrovertibly (well, to my eyes) racist expressions (watermelons on the white house lawn, barack the magic negro) are commonplace. If people are over-quick to misinterpret incoherent/confusing/stupid arguments as racist, it’s at least in part because others, with shared views re Obama’s policies, have previously expressed plenty of less-obfuscated racism.

    Also, not that what I think matters or means much here, but my first response to the monkey cartoon (and this is coming from NYC, where the relevant stories all played widely) was: either baldly racist or bafflingly clueless. Whereas race-conscious (never mind racist) interpretations of the joker image strike me as at least as stretched and awkward and nonsensical as any other interpretation I’ve heard. It’s a striking image which appears at first glance to make some sort of bold statement, but doesn’t.

  • 5 southpaw // Aug 10, 2009 at 6:12 pm

    And to clarify, what I wrote above isn’t intended as a diagnosis of the individual artist’s intentions, but rather as my understanding of why the poster has such resonance within the conservative movement.

  • 6 adam // Aug 10, 2009 at 6:40 pm

    fwiw, I was clueless about what blackface and whiteface meant until I was basically halfway through college (a few years ago). I grew up in a pretty white city and it just never came up. Where would blackface come up? I never saw it in movies, in TV, or discussed in English class (in what context? what book?). And I’m _still_ coming upon racial stereotypes that I’d never known existed, or heard of. I guess I don’t encounter enough racists in my life?

    In the context of this, I agree that I don’t see a racist interpretation being anymore likely than a nonracist one; I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what it meant. I thought it was just trying to make Obama look creepy, like the joker.

    I don’t see it as a political statement, really, but just a contrast to the “hope” image. Just an image, not a well-thought-out statement. But who knows?

  • 7 adam // Aug 10, 2009 at 6:42 pm

    Looking at it again, I forgot that it had the “socialism” tag at the bottom. I still don’t think it makes any sense, though I guess whoever made it tried to make a political point? Very poorly?

    Still think it was just trying to make Obama look creepy. Not everything has a deeper meaning.

  • 8 Julian Sanchez // Aug 10, 2009 at 7:04 pm

    So, you were unaware of it as a child, but encountered the idea in the process of becoming an educated adult—probably like Casablanca and Elvis and the Lone Ranger and beat poets and a bazillion other fragments of cultural knowledge that are part of our common mental furniture, whether or not they’re formally taught in a class, covered on the news, or normal topics of day-to-day conversation. I have no idea where they come up, they just seem to for most educated people by the time they reach adulthood.

  • 9 squirrel // Aug 10, 2009 at 8:30 pm

    Come on, blackface has a very specific history of white men who performed in black makeup to racist white audiences. Their performances weren’t just exaggerated and comical, the stereotypes they played up were outright poison.

    There isn’t a cultural legacy of black men in white makeup that even remotely compares. The image of a black man in whiteface is practically non-existent in American culture. The connection to blackface is neither instant nor obvious.

    Anyway, what is the image of Obama in whiteface supposed to mean? Is Obama making fun of white people? Is Obama trying to be white? The point of racism is to burden a specific person with unflattering stereotypes about their race. How on earth does this picture accomplish that?

    Not every Obama bash that strays from the realm of strict factual argument is really some Navajo code-talk for keeping the black man down. It doesn’t make sense and it only distracts everybody from important things that do make sense.

  • 10 Anonymo // Aug 10, 2009 at 9:04 pm

    I’ll confess when I first saw the image I didn’t see “whiteface”, I saw “Joker makeup” — and I won’t hesitate to say that large portions of the right’s Obama criticisms are obviously driven by latent or explicit racial animus. I just think that given the much more recent (and in today’s culture, far more widely understood) cultural reference the image is invoking, I might agree that there’s a reasonable doubt that the Joker image itself is intended to reference racist imagery from the past, even covertly. I must admit that I’m not terribly familiar with the use of “whiteface” in racist stuff, whereas the meaning of blackface is obvious to me. Is this just a blind spot in my cultural education?

  • 11 Joe Strummer // Aug 10, 2009 at 11:49 pm

    David Boaz finds it ridiculous because David Boaz agrees with the general thrust of the “argument”
    which is that Obama is bad. David Boaz does not know why Obama is bad other than David Boaz is right wing, and Obama is not. Thus, David Boaz must oppose Obama because that’s what the Cato Institute does. This is tiresome and so is he.

    Onward and upward with vouchers, social security “privatization” and tort “reform”. Also Roger Pilon says Sonia Sotomayor suxors.

  • 12 Joe Strummer // Aug 10, 2009 at 11:53 pm

    And I’m _still_ coming upon racial stereotypes that I’d never known existed, or heard of. I guess I don’t encounter enough racists in my life?

    consider yourself informed. In the future, might I suggest using google to figure out this shit before advertising your precious ignorance.

  • 13 Gil // Aug 10, 2009 at 11:57 pm

    Julian is right that there are good reasons why racism would cross someone’s mind.

    But, it should keep on crossing.

    It’s not a very good theory of the intent, and culturally literate people asserting that it is reveals either political bigotry or an intentional playing of the race card to avoid the need to make an argument.

    Either way, I think Boaz is right to characterize it as contemptible.

  • 14 Barry // Aug 11, 2009 at 8:25 am

    “Also, not that what I think matters or means much here, but my first response to the monkey cartoon (and this is coming from NYC, where the relevant stories all played widely) was: either baldly racist or bafflingly clueless. ”

    Not just bafflingly clueless, but beyond that. It’d be like the police officer was saying ‘now *that’s* a cheeseburger!’. One would assume that a phrase from another cartoon was mistakenly put in.

    Gil: “It’s not a very good theory of the intent, and culturally literate people asserting that it is reveals either political bigotry or an intentional playing of the race card to avoid the need to make an argument.”

    After a posting and several comments which laid out the background and evidence for the intent, a simple counter-assertion with no evidence is sorta thin.

  • 15 stephen // Aug 11, 2009 at 9:25 am

    1) Conservatives are going to continue to say things in which racism is contained in the set of all possible explanations.

    2) Liberals are going to claim racism a large percentage of the time.

    3) Conservatives are going to claim bad faith a large percentage of the time.

    4) The original topic gets dropped. Debate about racism in U S of A proceeds.

    5) No one convinces anyone form the other side %100 of the time.

    6) Eyes begin to roll.

    7) Wash, rinse, repeat.

    This, folks, is a very stable equilibrium.

  • 16 the teeth // Aug 11, 2009 at 10:35 am

    Re: the ‘default meaning’ update —

    I’m not sure I buy this. Any educated member of the U.S. public is going to be very aware of the history and different meanings of blackface, and pretty much any application of dark make-up will evoke these associations. Similar associations with ‘whiteface’ are not nearly so immediate, particularly because white makeup is routinely and widely applied in circumstances entirely innocent of connections to minstrelsy. Circus clowns, Kabuki performers, singers in many recent productions of western operas, Heath Ledger in a recent esoteric superhero movie — many, many instances of entirely unobjectionable ‘whiteface’ are part of our shared cultural environment. Put Obama (or anyone) in blackface, and there’s clearly something racially noxious going on. Put him in dark-knight-joker makeup, and if somebody sees something racist here, it’s largely (nearly solely) because critics have previously employed nastily racist imagery, and, as you say, there’s no clear alternative meaning. Certainly someone could in good faith view it this way. But it’s a long way from something like the monkey cartoon, where, regardless of ‘intent’, any educated person will immediately see something at minimum quite racially charged and ugly.

  • 17 adam // Aug 11, 2009 at 12:07 pm

    Whoa Joe Strummer, steady on there cowboy. Y’know, I was just trying to point out that even though racial stereotypes are pervasive, it is possible to miss them, even as an educated adult.

    Am I saying they don’t exist? No. Am I saying they’re ridiculous? No. So why the hostility?

    And Julian – yes, a lot of this has to do growing up, being educated, etc. But as I said before, I’m still (apparently) not aware of a lot of stereotypes that are out there! I don’t know that that’s really a gap in my education I want to fill? It seems like a fairly pernicious form of knowledge.

    For instance, I’m now living in a fairly asian community and am learning a lot about asian stereotypes (especially ones they have of each other). I’m not sure (a) how I would have gained this knowledge in everyday life otherwise and (b) whether I want those things to ever pop into my head, even in a stray thought, when I encounter a group.

    Basically, just saying it really isn’t too surprising that people are unaware of stereotypes you’re aware of.

  • 18 Todd Seavey // Aug 11, 2009 at 10:55 pm

    I know that even the black (and libertarian/conservative) columnist Robert A. George at the NYPost did not at first guess why the monkey cartoon had angered people, when he heard it was getting negative responses but hadn’t yet heard people were reading racism into it. That seems to suggest how easily the racial interpretation could have been overlooked on that one.

    By contrast, the TV news producer I know (also libertarian) who shall remain nameless, who thought I was some sort of perv imagining things for detecting lesbian overtones in the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle, is just clueless.

    But the fact that you can be that heavy-handed and still not have some of the normals notice what’s up is probably a good indicator of why ads, horror movies, and rock songs — not to mention political slogans — have to be as unsubtle as they are. A lot of people don’t do nuance.

  • 19 Barry // Aug 12, 2009 at 10:43 am

    Todd Seavey

    “I know that even the black (and libertarian/conservative) columnist Robert A. George at the NYPost did not at first guess why the monkey cartoon had angered people,…”

    I have a question – just WTF did he think that the cartoon was about? If the monkey doesn’t stand for Obama, the joke doesn’t make much sense.

    And the NY Post is a rather right-wing rag; a columnist there claiming not to see something like that lends itself to other explanations.

  • 20 Julian Sanchez // Aug 12, 2009 at 12:48 pm

    Well, for one thing, knowing about those stereotypes may help one avoid inadvertently offending people who haven’t had the luxury of not encountering them. It can also be useful background context for interpreting art and–sometimes, though it’s surely easy to overdo it–political rhetoric. If you read “The Merchant of Venice” and don’t get that Shylock is a depiction of a *type*, not just a greedy individual who happens to be Jewish, you’re missing something pretty huge about the play. Ditto for understanding the way someone like George Soros serves as a kind of bogeyman for a lot of propagandists in the Middle East and certain segments of the American Right. I mean, I agree it’s important to resist efforts to paint any criticism of Obama as a function of racism, but it also seems dangerous to be so innocent of this stuff that you’re incapable of detecting any form of racism more subtle than a white hood and a burning cross.

  • 21 adam // Aug 12, 2009 at 6:21 pm

    Yeah, I agree with pretty much all of that. I guess my, “not sure why I would want to know that ” was more of a “ignorance is bliss” type of thing.

    My main point is that it’s fully possible to be fairly culturally aware and *still* miss the import of some of this stuff. For example, the only reason I happened to learn about blackface was because I wandered through the room when my mom was watching an old movie in which it appeared. I had never seen it before! And it certainly was never explained to me in school (and I went to one of the better public schools in the city). I can totally imagine a broad swath of the population missing this type of experience or not fully understanding it.

    Is that bad? Yeah, probably. If you’re commenting on politics, then you definitely SHOULD be aware of it; but that doesn’t make it surprising.

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