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You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

So, while folks were being all contemplatey here at ABW for Black History Month, the stupid was still out in force elsewhere. Like, Colorado. This got noted at Alas, A Blog and on some other anti-racist sites, but it was just so special I wanted to note it here too. A U. of Colorado editor wrote an “opinion” article including this choice tidbit:

I’m such a fool for not realizing it sooner. I can’t tell you how many times the Asians have treated me like a retarded weasel and I’ve forgiven them. But now I know that Asians are not just “a product of their environment,” and their rudeness is not a “cultural misunderstanding.”

They hate us all.

And I say it’s time we started hating them back. That’s right-no more “tolerance.” No more “cultural sensitivity.” No more “Mr. Pretend-I’m-Not-Racist.”

It’s time for war.

The newspaper has since issued the usual belated, milquetoast apology (I love how it’s always, “We’re sorry you were offended,” and never “We’re sorry we were offensive“), with the usual excuse that it was satire. I imagine the next paper will be full of letters from Colorado students infuriated that “political correctness” forced the newspaper to attempt to appear to consider being vaguely contrite, and others who lament that our society “can’t take a joke”, yatta yatta yatta. We’ve seen all this behavior before. Racism: the Passive-Aggressive Edition.

Others are, justifiably and very well, savaging the content of the editorial and the paper’s decision to run it. I want to focus some attention in a slightly different direction — on people who actually think something like this could be satirical.

But first, a digression. Met up with ABW this week at a writers’ event recently and she gave me a book called A Practical Guide to Racism, by C. H. Dalton. Now, she did warn me, when I asked what it was about: “Just another stupid-ass book from yet another stupid-ass person who thinks racism is the funniest shit since sliced bread.” But I tried to give the book a chance, reading through its intro and the first chapter, on Hispanics. I had to stop at that point — not because it was offensive, but because it was boring. The whole book pretty much consisted of reciting a bunch of stereotypes about a group of people in a snarky, vaguely academic way. But they were stereotypes we’ve all heard before, and aside from the “shock value” of hearing them stated bluntly — something most of us in the PoC end of the spectrum really don’t have much trouble getting on a regular basis — I couldn’t see what, if anything, was supposed to be so hilarious. The only people who could find this kind of crap funny are those who’ve never heard the same things said with utter, vicious, hate-filled seriousness.

Now, I could go through the usual pseudointellectual exercise of finding a bunch of definitions on some online dictionaries and parse the “satire” statements against them — but that’s a waste of energy. We all know what satire is. Among other things, it’s supposed to address a very real, sometimes very charged or painful topic through the judicious application of humor. I get the value of satire, really I do. When satire’s done well, I love it.

The thing I don’t get is this — humor is a key part of satire. But the group of people that gets to hear this stuff said in earnest isn’t going to find it all that funny; that’s pretty much a given. And frankly, I’m not sure why any of us would find such simplistic humor funny, because we’ve heard all this crap before a million times. (That’s why they’re stereotypes.) So that’s part of the problem here; this kind of humor is boring, at least in and of itself.

And a more important point about satire was made by commenter “ding” in the in the Alas thread:

satire is a punch in the eye of Power. satire’s anger, its needle, is directed upward – never downward. if it is, then it ceases to be satire and it’s just another way for those in power to bully the powerless or to scream to the public that you’re just another tool of the status quo.

Yeah. So. Anybody think this Colorado guy is really concerned that Asians are going to supplant white people in the racial hierarchy of the country? Anybody think he was trying to “stick it to the (Asian) man” in protest of some unfair advantage that has systematically and globally harmed white people in the US? Anybody think there was anything to this except some idiot venting his racist fantasies in public and using “satire” as a cloak-and-hood to protect himself?

Well. This is a notice to everyone — well, OK, everyone white — who thinks it’s just high-larious to make a joke that pretty much amounts to “Stereotype! Heh heh heh”, or who wonders why comedians of color are lauded for doing the same thing while the Michael Richardses of the world are maligned for it. Consider the power differential, and direction. If your satire is directed from an oppressed group towards a group in power, you might have a satire on your hands. If your satire contains a subversive attack on the existing, status-quo power structure, you might have a satire on your hands. If the subject of your satire would find your comments funny, and not merely (yet another) a slap in the face, you might have a satire on your hands.

If your “satire” fits none of the above conditions, you don’t have satire. You’ve got shit. Your hands are covered in it. Your mouth is crammed with it. So’s your mind.

And since you’re full of shit, you should probably go do something about that.

20 thoughts on “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

  1. Roov says:


  2. Deborah says:

    Great post. As kind of an aside, have you ever read Laughter out of Place by Donna Goldstein? It’s a really interesting exploration of the difference between humor as a subversive act and humor as an oppressive act. It’s about race and class in Brazil, but I think a lot of it can be applied here, too.

    Again, thanks for the excellent post.

  3. therealpotato says:

    Great post. The editors of the Washington Post should try reading it.

  4. actualvampire says:

    I agree completely, but I think you should give A Practical Guide to Racism another chance — it’s a satire *about* racists and their screwed up logic. I think it’s supposed to be a response to the “stereotype! heh heh heh” trend in humor these days, not an example of it.

    Here’s an interview with the author where he talks about it:

  5. nojojojo says:


    I think the author failed. And in the interview you just pointed out, he fails again — he says he did this because PoC comedians like Carlos Mencia have made jokes about race. He characterizes this as racist, and his effort as something different — thus showing no comprehension whatsoever about how the power differential between white men and Latino men might add a completely different dimension to his stuff versus Mencia’s.

    The key questions to think about are this: who is APGtR’s satire directed towards? Who’s it most likely to hurt, and who does it help? What power structure is he attempting to subvert — and by restating and exaggerating all the usual stereotypes directed at PoC, is he really subverting it?

    I think APGtR’s satire is directed from a white guy towards other white people. It’s full of this jokey, we’re-all-in-the-same-boat tone, and the language all seems to assume that the reader is not a member of any one of the target groups. The book is probably intended to make fun of white people’s racist atttitudes, but what it really does is give them license to laugh at such attitudes by making them so absurd and so blatant and so patently silly that only a hardcore Klan-type wouldn’t laugh. But as most of us here know, in reality racism is far, far more subtle than the crap in this book. I suspect a lot of its white readers — not the Klan types, but the “normal” people who exist in blithe ignorance and/or denial of their racial privilege — will laugh at the gross racism here, feel relieved that they can laugh at it and thus be reassured that they’re not really racist, and then go on about their blithely unaware, privileged business. Perpetuating subtle, systemic racism all over the place.

    In fact, the author does this himself. For example, along with chapters on Hispanics, Blacks, Asians, etc., there is a chapter on Merpeople. Clearly silly, and clearly meant to point out how silly it is to hate people based on an artificial classification. But again this fails, because he’s not comparing black people, Latina/os, etc. to other people, but to fictional nonhumans. In the process of trying to make a statement against racism, he perpetuated a common racist act, which is to dehumanize/diminish people of color, make them seem a bit more like animals.

    Soooo not funny.

  6. Katie says:

    did you see The Onion last week? they did the same damn thing. there was an editorial with some white dude titled something like “in a china-town.” it was written in old-timey english and had sentences like “i heard them babbling in a foreign tongue,” and BS like that. yeah, incredibly hilarious. we get it. white people find asians and asian american enclaves to be foreign. or wait – old-timey white guys writing in faux-explorerspeak would think that, not you. heh.

  7. Diane J Standiford says:

    Dress them up however you want, a racist is a racist is racist—funny, huh?

  8. Pingback: links for 2008-03-05 at Racialicious - the intersection of race and pop culture
  9. Trackback: links for 2008-03-05 at Racialicious - the intersection of race and pop culture
  10. china blue says:

    Excellent post – agree with the definition of what satire is/isn’t. Couldn’t have put it better myself.

  11. adrian says:

    love the ending, so right on.

  12. Aaminah says:

    I am constantly amazed at people who will say “but why did you think it was funny when Mencia said it but it’s not okay for me to say it – that’s racist!”. Duh, it’s the POWER issue – I’m so glad you discuss this and what makes satire satire.

    At the same time (and not trying to derail your excellent analysis) some of us do find people like Mencia very not funny. Some people have better skills at satire than others. We can argue all day over who we like and don’t like, so I’m not trying to hurt anyone’s feelings, just giving personal opinion. Dave Chapelle – VERY FUNNY, very skilled at satire. Carlos Mencia – not so funny, not good at satire, low quality humor. And he doesn’t stick to just mocking “his own” but trashes all other PoC which essentially makes him not better than any other racist. The power issue isn’t there, but it’s still morally wrong, you know?

  13. Sylvie says:

    Your post is the best response I’ve read to that editorial.

    And props for the Princess Bride reference.

  14. daisydeadhead says:

    Katie, you are the first person I’ve read who thought the same thing I did about the Onion piece, so thanks for the validation.

  15. bellatrys says:

    The Onion piece might be funny, would be satirical if they went into a white yuppie neighborhood and described it in faux-anthropologist pith-helmety tones so that it all looked more alien than 19th-c Timbuktu – an activity I sometimes do sotto voce at the mall, frex, because I do find my own culture and our norms to be surreal. But as it is, it’s like the Abercrombie & Fitch shits – shirts, I mean. Same Old, Same Old is neither ironic nor subversive – nor, usually, even at all funny.

    (I know way too many white guys who do think they’re oppressed by not being “allowed” to make fun of women/other ethnic groups/GLBT people – not all of them conservative Republicans, either, unfortunately.)

  16. Vincent says:

    just found your site. great blog.

  17. Michelle says:

    Yes yes yes…*this* is why “Family Guy” is not satire, no matter how often the white boy creators and white boy fans insist it is.

  18. Roddikinsathome says:

    And just for more pilin’ on, Mr. Mencia just
    ain’t funny. He’s getting paid (G_ddess knows
    why), but he ain’t funny. So the authour of
    yonder field guide to race-isms ALSO has no
    taste. By the way, N. either we’re related, or
    I’m falling hard for ya.
    “Gravity sucks, but not as hard as Pat Boone.”

  19. Tina says:

    Loved the piece. The ending was great. But, I’m definitely on the outskirts of the Mencia fan wagon. Katt Williams, Monique, and especially Mencia are not what I would call satirists. More like absolutely serious versions of bamboozled characters- the kind of people who wake up and go to sleep never knowing they’re playing that role. Has anyone ever really listened to Carlos Mencia? That man would hold a bleaching cream party for his children just to make sure they couldn’t be mistaken for black folks..He’d sell his mother to hold a blonde’s hand..Whereas Katt thinks the essence of being black is violence and pimping. And, Monique thinks she is supposed to obese, crude, and materialistic, because she is a black woman. There are black comedians who do an wonderful job of mixing satire intelligence and still don’t end up looking like shufflin’ human beings. Another blog commentary could address the reasons why like publishers, source like Comedy central, also filter through POC comedy.. only allowing the door open for certain folks.

  20. Fighting Evan Mulvihill's racist speech says:

    Love the blog! Keep up the good fight!

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