We all have an uncle who says embarrassing things merely because he’s old and he can. You know Old Unc. Y’all might not exactly be kin, but he’s always around. At times he says things that might make you cringe. At other times he’s just plain hurtful. And even when it hurts, that uncle resists change because he’s paid his dues and he’s old enough to say whatever it is he wants to say.
“You can’t say that no more, Unc. That ain’t right. The correct word is…”
“Look here,” Old Unc interrupts. “I’m old and I’ve earned the right to say what I please when I feel like it. Plus, nigga, you know what I mean.”
Black gay comedian Sampson McCormick describes Dave Chappelle as Old Unc at the family reunion. In a recent video from Comedy Hype, Sampson says Chappelle’s latest comedy special is just Old Unc Chappelle. Ignorant, but “you know he loves you.” Sampson says he gets what Chappelle is trying to say: “Gay white racism is real.”
We should, as Chappelle might put it, know what he means.
However, Dave Chappelle isn’t just an old uncle. He’s the biggest, most liked comedian in the world, who just announced a 10-city tour to show a documentary about last year (although he was supposedly canceled). So to Chappelle, a comedian who employs observational humor to make an exceptional living, I must ask Old Unc:
Are you using your jokes to make life better for your folks or are you using the lives of your folks to sell your jokes?
“The Closer” is Dave Chappelle’s sixth stand-up comedy special for Netflix in which he attempts to both respond to critics and illuminate the unfairness in how Black folks in the United States are treated compared to other groups. During this concert, he argues his brand of comedy is intentionally irreverent, offensive to many groups, and its content shouldn’t be taken for more than what is: just jokes.
Chappelle sees his job as a comedian to make fun of everyone, but he’s fed up with the backlash to his trans jokes. At the root of his annoyance, he says, is that he’s made clear his problem has “always been with white people.” He sees the backlash as an organized, racist response to having “them on the ropes.”
“I’m a girl now, nigger. You must treat me as such.”
This approach is seductive. It’s rooted in the reality that equality and inclusion are elusive for Black people in the United States. That no matter how we contort ourselves to fit into the dominant society, there’s always a loophole that excludes us. We are sympathetic to explanations of phenomena that seem to help us reclaim our humanity, which is why Chappelle focuses on feelings––his feelings, LGBTQ feelings, and Black folks’ feelings.
Black folks know the feeling of being silenced, erased, or even canceled. We don’t want to live in that world where anybody feels those things, believing if it happened to them, it could happen to us. With this knowledge, Chappelle attempts to lure people in with stories of “cancel culture” on a rampage to prevent us from experiencing all the art we love including comedy, specifically his comedy. To do so, he paints opposition to his jokes as reactionary violence. Literal violence.
This approach is seductive, but it’s missing a few major points. Black people identify and experience life across all spectrums of gender and sexuality. The violence that Black trans people face is real and is not a joke. Oppression isn’t a game of spades at the family reunion. There is no us versus them. What happens to queer Black people affects all Black people.
If Black people are to be free, we cannot afford to be entitled to ignorance like Old Unc.
In Chappelle’s public appearances over the last few years, he’s intimated that “cancel culture” has gotten out of control, particularly along racial lines. “In our country, you can shoot and kill a nigga, but you better not hurt a gay person’s feelings. And this is precisely the disparity I wish to discuss.”
In “The Closer,” Chappelle awkwardly laments the (self-inflicted) downfall of DaBaby, a rapper who Chappelle says did what nobody is allowed to do which is punch “the LBGTQ community right in the AIDS.” The aporia in this punchline is hard to ignore. Besides the fact that AIDS jokes are tired and cliché, this is a missed opportunity to illuminate how this racist, sexist society tends to ignore the Black people’s pain. The Centers for Disease Control reports that Black folks made up 42 percent of new HIV cases in 2018 (compared to 13 percent of the entire population). Structural barriers to proper employment, housing, and healthcare interrupt the HIV Care Continuum, especially for Black people. Among Black women, 92 percent of new cases came from heterosexual contact. Even if you were to accept it as just a joke, I’ve never heard Chappelle making a joke about “punching women in the breast cancer.”
“Yo Unc, this hurts.”
Chappelle makes it clear that he believes the real problem in society is “cancel culture.” Throughout, Chappelle mentions the criticism that rich and famous people have received from their offensive statements, but never quite explains how they’ve been canceled––which may explain why he thought the not-really-canceled DaBaby was a useful device.
Chappelle references Kevin Hart (for the second straight special), who stepped down from hosting the 2019 Oscars when the academy demanded Hart apologize for his past homophobic remarks. A few months later, Hart starred alongside Dwayne Johnson in “Jumanji: The Next Level,” which earned more than $800 million at the box office. Chappelle also defended J.K. Rowling, author and creator of the Harry Potter franchise, who Chappelle echoes by saying “gender is a fact.” Rowling’s net worth is between $650 million and $1.2 billion. Chappelle, rumored to have been paid $24.1 million for “The Closer,” appears to be leveraging the controversy for another large payday. He released an Instagram video claiming that his forthcoming documentary was turned away by distributors as punishment for his latest special, yet in the same video he announced ticket sales to his 10-city documentary premiere tour.
If that’s being canceled, put me on the docket.
The unintentional irony of Chappelle clowning transness is the Black trans experience could be said to be the epitome of the distinct contradictions of life under a hetero-patriarchal capitalist system.
He was seemingly unaware that contemporary understandings of gender roles and gender performance originate in chattel slavery, continue through industrialization, and remain today because our outdated economic and cultural arrangements require men to perform gender one way and women to perform in another, and shun those who reject a gender binary.
To be clear, there is no such thing as a race vs. gender/sexuality binary. Black folks can be all the above. As C. Riley Snorton writes in “Black on Both Sides”, “there is no absolute distinction between black lives mattering and trans lives mattering within the rubrics of racialized gender.”
In “The Closer”, Chappelle spends a good portion of the film self-validating as a feminist as defined by Webster––which is quite like white people using the dictionary to define a racist––and, in all magnanimous chauvinism, is protecting those who were assigned girl at birth from those who only claim they are a woman.
He goes on to emphasize the racism in historical feminist movements. To be fair to Chappelle, the Women’s March on Washington was pretty white. Alyssa Milano lifted #MeToo from Tarana Burke, a Black woman who began using the phrase (long before hashtags) with a purpose to empower common women through empathy.
Even then, Chappelle’s objection focused on women “going about it the wrong way.” As a new feminist, Old Unc should know that he probably shouldn’t be going around telling women they didn’t do something right. He should know how that feels. He was called crazy for walking away from $50 million while The Chappelle Show was at its height.
His account of Sojourner Truth’s speech, popularly known as “Ain’t I a Woman”–– in which she never mentions those words –– is another unforced error. The simple genius in Sojourner Truth’s delivery is that her economic designation to a slave class meant that she fit outside of categories of race and gender. Truth’s contention is Black women of her time didn’t fit neatly into the heteropatriarchal definition of woman that was and still is drawn around the economic exploitation of specific people, most specifically those who are Black.
In Chappelle’s speech accepting Harvard’s 2018 W.E.B. Du Bois Award, he named James Baldwin as one of his favorite writers because he said Baldwin “managed to tell white people what they feel like to be around.” You would think he could also appreciate the responses he’s received intended to tell heteronormative society how it feels to live in a transphobic and homophobic world.
Since Old Unc has read Baldwin, he knows that LGBTQ and Black are not mutually exclusive identities. It’s likely one finds it as difficult to pin down the “LGBTQ community” as there is some elusive Black community.
Chappelle squandered precious airtime that could’ve been used to discuss how feminists are not a monolithic group. There is a large contingent of lesbian feminists, including Chappelle’s bestie J.K., who believe transgender activism results in “lesbian erasure.” They are called trans exclusionary radical feminists, or TERFs.
Journalist Julie Compton outlines the complex nature of lumping identities. “The letters LGBTQ often appear together, but the people the letters represent are not always as united. And now, decades-old animosity between transgender activists and ‘radical’ lesbian feminists — who have conflicting views on gender — has reached a boiling point on social media and in real life.”
I have no idea how Old Unc or anyone else can declare “I’m #TeamTERF” then turn to Black trans folks and say, “I still love you, though.” If, like Chappelle, one is to say that trans women are performing a gendered version of Blackface, effectively “doing an impression” of real women, they are explicitly saying that Black trans women are not women.
The most alarming thing about this special is that every one of his stories about trans people was centered along the textbook lines of transphobia, rife with violence and deceit. He’s literally making jokes about the scenarios in which Black trans people are killed.
Chappelle claims, “These niggas want me dead.”
“No Unc. These people don’t want to die.”
Fear met with violence is something that should concern all Black people. Mariame Kaba’s essay, “Free Marissa and All Black People,” clarifies this. “The twist,” she says, “is that Black people have always been considered dangerous along with our disposability.
He reduces the reactions to talking points, but Old Unc’s jokes are the same lazy, tired ones that must have come from one of those joke jukebox machines in “Fahrenheit 451.”
In the time of chattel slavery, Black people were not just expendable workers in a capitalist economy but were the actual commodity: bought, sold, traded, and insured like livestock or a cash crop. Racist, sexist, and/or transphobic content is the cash crop these days. Opponents to “cancel culture” are cashing in.
Ragging on “cancel culture” works for people all over the political spectrum. Matt Gaetz, Donald Trump, and Joe Rogan have used this as a strategy to boost ratings, sell tickets and whip votes, resulting in sightings of strange bedfellows such as Gloria Steinem, Margaret Atwood, Barry Weiss and Chappelle himself.
Chappelle has been in the daily news cycle for nearly a month since his special first aired Oct. 5 on Netflix. Yet, this run is not just a product of Chappelle’s might and strength.
We must each consider how we contribute to the perpetuation of these ideas.
No comedian, no artist, is entitled to a certain audience, profits, or subject matter.
People’s tastes and preferences change over time. What is socially acceptable is in constant flux, as well as what offends the sensibilities of various groups and individuals. When audiences evolve in a different direction, that doesn’t mean that an artist has been canceled. That simply means there is less demand for that type of product. Nothing is new about that.
Chappelle revealed that he was first called “transphobic” in a reply to a stand-up set 16 years ago. In his 2019 Netflix special “Sticks and Stones,” he admitted he “can’t stop telling jokes about these (trans) niggas,” which indicates Chappelle’s feelings of entitlement towards jokes involving trans people.
Do Black people owe him laughs? Do trans people owe him a pass?
I wanted to know what Wise Unc had to say about all this.
Comedy legend Katt Williams, Wise Unc, –– almost in direct conversation with Old Unc –– addressed limitations for contemporary artists on The Joe Budden Podcast this summer.
“Nobody likes the out of bounds, but the out of bounds gotta be there or you’ll run up in the stands, right?”
That’s an important point, distinguishing the pros from the fans. Many of the jokes in “The Closer” did give schoolboy lunch table vibes.
Wise Unc continued, “I don’t know what people we think got canceled that we wished we had back. Who are they? If all that’s going to happen is that we have to be more sensitive in the way that we talk, isn’t that what we want anyway? I’m saying your job as a comedian is to please the most people with your art. So if you want to offend somebody, nobody took those words away from you.”
To add to that point, Chappelle making this about feelings is weird. He knows what it’s like first-hand to be used as the subject of content for someone else’s profit. In 2020, Netflix removed “The Chappelle Show” from its streaming platform because, as Chappelle says, it made him “feel bad” for a company to be making money off him without his consent or his cut. Very few Black people have that power. In fact, Netflix fired the Black trans employee who organized the walkout protesting trans intolerance.
It’s simply not true that Chappelle’s words have no weight. Each of us should be mindful of the things we say and who we say them to, even online.
Chappelle insinuated that his friend and fellow comedian Daphne Dorman was driven to take her own life after being harangued by Twitter’s “cancel culture” for defending a transphobic bit by Chappelle. Sadly, Chappelle doesn’t recognize how toxic social media is for Black trans people.
Twitter kills, but his jokes are just jokes.
Chappelle admits he “is invested in the gender construct,” but he fails to disclose he’s also invested in the construct of wealth. His wealth. He needs you to laugh at these jokes. He needs you to believe he’s at risk. He needs you to believe that we don’t have to change. He needs you to believe that we can fight racism without challenging transphobia.
Do you still need to believe?
This isn’t about Old Unc’s right to express himself. This is about all Black people’s right to humanity.
As Katt Williams said, any comedian can still say what they want. Chappelle simply feels entitled to his opinion, entitled to your praise. Entitled to using issues of race as backdrop, and camouflage, and flak jacket. Old Unc feels entitled to say whatever he wants without consequence.
Any comedian can still say what they want, and so can the rest of us. And anytime we hold on to and repeat harmful words and beliefs we are showing that we, too, are entitled. Entitled to ignorance.
A race-first argument would necessarily include support for the entire “race,” including Black trans people. Are you going to stand with Old Unc, or will you press forward for the sake of us all?
Consider these words from Wise Unc: “Growth is part of being an adult. It’s the ability that I used to think this way, but then I got more information so now I adjusted my thinking to this…”
J. Ezra McCoy is a writer and photographer based in East Point, Georgia. His work examines structures and status quo aiming to find the seams and bare the threads.
Twitter: @joshuaemccoy Instagram: @joshuaemccoy
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/jezramccoy/