Friday, October 31, 2008

It's The Messenger, Stupid

Did that make you chuckle?

I sure did.

However, to a bunch of college students in New Jersey, that cartoon was offensive trash and they are angry at their college newspaper for publishing it. You can read about the kerfuffle, here.

Maybe it's because I was familiar with the work of Keith Knight and knew that he was black, but I didn't find the comic offensive at all. After all, it's based on a real story, and he actually avoided using the entire word "nigger" by cutting it off with the panel. It wasn't a gratuitous use of the word nigger, it was using the word to make a real point about who is supporting Barack Obama.

Damn near everybody is hopping on the Hope bandwagon.

Satire is a dangerous business. We all remember the problems when the New Yorker decided it had the intelligence and gravitas to talk about Michelle and Barack through pictures:

Epic failure.

Why was this New Yorker cover so stupid, while the cartoon above so funny?

The messenger.

The New Yorker is known for its intelligence and long articles. Many well-read and forward-thinking liberals enjoy reading the magazine just to prove they're smart. Comparing the New Yorker's national profile to the national profile of "The K Chronicles" is like comparing the dignity of Michelle Obama to that of Sarah Palin.

No contest.

Yet, I trust Keith Knight and "The K Chronicles" more when it comes to having an honest, intelligent conversation about race in America. Like I said, I tend to give the benefit of the doubt to black people on using the word "nigger," plus I found that Knight's piece did a better job of articulating its point. We see frame-by-frame how the encounter developed, and we're left with the curious fact that somebody who calls black people niggers would still vote for a black man for president.

In the New Yorker cover, we have a bunch of stereotypical images with no other reference. Sure, some people's minds might make the connection that the cover is poking fun at stereotypes, but most folks are just going to see the stereotypes. There are no clues that the cover is laughing at the right wing attacks, unless you're already pre-conditioned to believe that there is no way the New Yorker could ever believe these sort of lies.

Human communication is a mixture verbal cues, non-verbal cues and shared vantage points. Understanding the context of comments is crucial to getting their full meaning. When we lack the proper context, it's much harder to communicate.

Often, racial discussions bog down because it's still quite possible to grow up in America without becoming acquainted with different viewpoints. The probability of that occurring is much higher for white people than minorities because of the power dynamics and demographics of the country. Many of us deal with each other from positions of cultural ignorance.

When dealing with comedy or satire a failure to understand context is fatal. I remember when comedians were complaining that every joke they made about Obama opened them up to an attack. At the time, I opined that they wanted Obama to joke for them so they could feel more comfortable, but I also touched on another issue.

Many white comedians lack the cultural knowledge to joke about black people in an intelligent manner that doesn't rely on stereotypes about rappers, gangstas and baby mommas. The same is true of black comedians who often rely on trite "white people do this, and black people do that" jokes.

Those individuals who seek to traffic in comedy and satire, to become cultural messengers, owe it to themselves and their audiences to become informed about the groups they want to eviscerate. That will not prevent them from offending some people, but it will greatly reduce the number of those offended. More importantly, it will improve our national dialogue because ignorance only breeds conflict.

Let's all become better messengers.



Kit (Keep It Trill) said...

Love that you covered this hot topic. Agree that the cartoon was a riot - and it helped that I had already read that true story. That even was so Americana.

blackgirlinmaine said...

That cartoon was indeed funny and I agree with you that it comes across as honest in a way that New Yorker cover did not.

OG, The Original Glamazon said...

Classic! ANd I think you make some great points about the messenger.


sixfive said...

Also, that supposedly happened to a campaign worker in Ohio (I think it was).

aegil said...

Excellent analysis Big Man. And I laughed at the cartoon too.

Deacon Blue said...

Good cartoon, solid commentary about it.

I hope there's enough of that attitude to overwhelm any McCain-Palin supporters that might swarm from the trailer parks to put the crazies over the edge in votes.

(I know, that was wrong of dad lived in a trailer more than once in his life, and he's solidly Democratic.)

Anonymous said...

How gracious of you to find that a cartoon that insults the racial acceptance of white supporters of President-elect Obama as 'inoffensive' and 'hilarious'.

Of course this cartoon is *hilarious* to anyone who believes that (some?most?all?a few?one?) white people are both bigoted, and stupid, yet are still voting for Obama and his message of hope. Bigoted by using the N-word, and stupid by not being able to remember the name of the person they're going to vote for President.

It may well be based on a true story, and I certainly can't identify with anyone who would say this, either as a prank (ala Ali G, or Borat) or in earnest. However, the cartoon doesn't really provide me with much context for who this couple is supposed to represent. I'm left feeling that it represents a 'generic white couple', of a not-so-politically-inclined nature.

Try for a moment to think about how *most* people who fit that category would feel if this cartoon was used to describe or define them.

Then read what President-elect Obama has actually said about race in this country (again), and try to help him, and yourself, and me. Don't give a pass to Knight, while simultaneously attacking The New Yorker for insensitivity, especially on the grounds of 'trusting the source'.

This is just my opinion, of course, and I do still respect you for yours, even as I encourage you change it.

Best Regards,


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