Breaking Down Racism in Amy Schumer’s Comedy

Fair warning: this is a somewhat lengthy post.  In my view there is much more poor analysis than useful discussion about comedy, so I am using this instance to speak broadly to that issue.

People have been calling out racism in Amy Schumer‘s work (e.g., The Daily Dot and WaPo), and I find some of the discussion poor enough to write about it.  To tip my hat, I agree that Schumer’s comedy has been tone deaf to intersectionality, and that she thus works well as a poster child for that critique of white feminists.  That critique, though, misses an important thing she has done well: create characters who help white people see the racism in American society.

Amy Schumer's Dumb White Girl (Photo by John Shearer/Invision/AP)

Amy Schumer’s Dumb White Girl
(Photo by John Shearer/Invision/AP)

To criticize her failure without recognizing her success vis-a-vis discussions of race is an important error of omission.

Audience, Audience, Audience

First, let’s review the charges.  Anne Thériault writes:

Take, for example, a bit where she says, “I used to date Hispanic guys, but now I prefer consensual!” No matter how you parse this joke, it’s racist and awful. It’s not a smart critique of rape culture. It’s a white woman blithely saying that all Latino men are rapists.

Thériault is correct that it is not a smart critique of rape culture.  She is also correct that Schumer’s character is a white woman blithely saying that all Latino men are rapists.  rest assured, in this taped show Schumer is on her game.  She has worked that material dozens (perhaps scores) of times (this point will become important below).  And it is false that no matter how one parses it the joke is “racist and awful.”  Indeed, what is remarkable is that Thériault doesn’t get it!  And, yes, I know those are “fighting words.”  So let me explain.

To accept Thériault’s argument we must believe that art is not read: that there is a single, true reading of art.  I assume you, dear reader, do not take such an assumption seriously.  Yet, I am just one of these apologists for racist (rape) jokes, right?  Nope.  Bear with me.

Thériault’s assessment ignores the first rule of comedy (indeed, all communication): audience, audience, audience.  If you accept this rule, then there is no one reading.  The reading is a function of both the speaker and the person/people in the audience.  Stand-up comics get this.  They don’t always succeed observing it (as we’ll soon see).  But they all get it.

To appreciate the importance of this foundational rule, let me illustrate with a fictitious example.

Imagine that a group of Ku Klux Klan members are gathered in a field, and a man wearing bed sheets calls the others to attention and begins the rally with a joke talking about a cop who pulls over a “darkie” and shouts:

Get out of the car!  There was a robbery and the nigger looked just like you!  Allright, put your hands up, pull your pants down and spread your cheeks!

No matter how one parses it, that joke is “racist and awful,” right?

If you are familiar with Richard Pryor’s 1974 record That Nigger’s Crazy you might recognize it as a line from track 10, “Niggers v Police” (listen here).  The joke brings the house down at a show that was recorded at Don CorneliusSoul Train nightclub.  The routine works for a black comic working a predominantly black audience.  Take a moment to listen to the clip.[1]

The very same words, then, given different speakers and different audiences, can work as the punchline to a racist joke shared among white supremacists and a not racist joke that plays on the shared pain of African Americans in a racist society.  The speaker and the audience, and their shared experiences, matter.  Any assessment of a joke must take into account this interplay.

Recognizing audience, audience, audience does not mean we must embrace “one person’s joke is another’s insult” platitudes that imply analysis is infeasible.  Rather it permits analysis, and unfortunately some of what is being leveled at Schumer fails to engage it.

To return to Thériault’s critique of the Hispanic/consensual joke, Schumer is playing a character who helps white folks laugh at (recognize) racism in America.  The joke works because (1) Schumer’s audience is overwhelmingly white and (2) she is playing an asshat of a woman who says racist shit, thus pointing out the racism white Americans exhibit and condone.

To fully understand this, we need to explore a second rule of comedy.

Breaking Tension

One of the best sources of human laughter is broken tension.  Many stand-up comics trade on this by showing us unflattering sides of ourselves and permitting us to laugh at it, thus making it OK to recognize.  Schumer’s jokes work in that audience because they are of the “I can’t believe she said that!” variety.

Now, racist jokes among white supremacists also work via this principle.  If an Aryan Nation leader says something outrageously insulting about members of a despised minority group, his flunkies laugh because (1) it is an outrageous statement of a shared understanding and (2) it is an act of power that recreates norms of dominance.

Schumer’s joke, however, does precisely the opposite.  The white members of her audience are confronted with uncomfortably outrageous statements that they know some of their co-ethnics believe/say, and they know that they tend to stand idly by in such circumstances and not call out their co-worker, neighbor, Uncle, etc.  That is the source of the tension, and Schumer has honed her craft such that she can deliver the line in an appropriate audience, and it works.

When we remove the line from the context of its audience, pay attention only to the race of the comedian and scrutinize the line we are at risk to making Thériault’s error.  And make no mistake.  Thériault is flat out wrong about this joke.

The same is true of the “Jungle Fever” bit that WaPo criticizes (watch the video).  She is playing the same character, at a different show, that again played to an overwhelmingly white audience.

That said, Schumer inexplicably trotted that character out at a recent MTV Movie Awards show, and has been quite properly criticized for it.  Here is Thériault’s account:

she said, “Gone Girl, how good was Gone Girl? Such a good movie. If you didn’t see it, it’s the story of what one crazed white woman, or all Latinas do, if you cheat on them. That’s a fact.” Yes, that’s right — a woman being hailed as a feminist icon made a joke about how Latinas are crazy.

The. Joke. Bombed.

It is a horrifying misstep, and a great example of the fundamental importance of the first principle.  The audience at the MTV Movie Awards is not overwhlemingly white, and as a result, there is no joke to work: too many people in the audience have no tension to break wrt their failure to speak up when their co-ethnics engage in blatantly racist behavior.  If you watch the clip, Jennifer Lopez in particular appears confused and to be thinking “WTF?!?”

The key point is that the joke would have worked in front of the audiences she taped her two shows for.  That she could fail to appreciate the MTV Movie Awards was not that audience is a disappointing surprise (to me).

Today Colorlines quoted Thériault when discussing another sketch.

“Amy Schumer frequently makes jokes that perpetuate stereotypes rather than dismantle them … It’s hard not to feel like Schumer is only here for women who look like her.”

An oft-cited example of this is her video “Milk Milk Lemonade.” In it, she raps about the function of women’s body parts, while using the twerking, Lycra-clad bodies of black and brown women as props.

It seems to me that there is room for reasonable people to disagree about this video.  I, quite possibly mistakenly, viewed it as a satire of both white artists like Miley Cyrus who cluelessly appropriate black culture and male objectification of female body parts.

I may be giving Schumer too much credit.  The sketch is definitely the latter, and it is possible she is as clueless as Cyrus.  I sincerely hope not.  And I assume that folks aren’t naive enough to believe that white folks can’t lampoon their brethren’s clueless appropriation/consumption of black culture.

Though I’m not the first king of controversy
I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley,
To do Black Music so selfishly and use it to get myself wealthy

Eminem, Without Me

That said, Thériault is quite correct criticizing Schumer for being there only for women who look like her.  That is a reasonable critique.  Yet it sets aside the valuable aspect of Schumer’s use of race.

Conversations Within and Across Races

For decades I have been bothered by my white brothers and sisters ability to see race and racism, and thus to discuss it (see here and here).  If you want to make white folks uncomfortable, bring up race/racism, especially in a group that includes people of color.  As such, I appreciate that aspect of Schumer’s race jokes.

I don't even see race.

In a recent post Steve Saideman observed that fear limits white folks’ comfort discussing race:

people are careful about talking about race because they don’t want to offend anyone and don’t want to be accused of being racist.  Whether it is something being taken out of context, like Obama’s mention of the n-word (notice that I don’t spell it out) in the Marc Maron interview, or just musing aloud might lead to something that one might regret saying, fear matters a great deal in how/whether people talk about this stuff.

Schumer has used her character to help white audiences laugh at themselves and their co-ethnics (among many other things), and in the process developed a successful career.  These critiques miss that point completely.  And that’s a shame.

To return to my opening point, Schumer has done nothing of which I am aware to advance dialogue across races, and her performance at the recent MTV Movie Awards suggest that she is not, at present, well suited to that task.  So if one wishes to criticize Schumer for her failures to engage and embrace intersectionality, I am on board.

But to only criticize her as a racist is an incomplete analysis, and to suggest that she and Donald Trump are birds of a feather, as WaPo did, is facile and does not survive scrutiny.

Colorlines noted that Schumer initially reacted defensively to such charges, but this week offered an apology and explained that she “is evolving as an artist.”  Here is Schumer on 28 June:

Stick with me and trust me that I am joking. I go in and out of playing an irreverent idiot. That includes making dumb jokes involving race …You can call it a ‘blind spot for racism’ or ‘lazy’ but you are wrong. It is a joke and it is funny. I know that because people laugh at it. Even if you personally did not. I am not going to start joking about safe material…. Trust me. I am not racist.

It is an explanation, and it is dismissive.  But it is correct.  Like Colorlines, I am pleased to see her drop the dismissiveness.  Click here to read her tweet today.

In my opinion, despite the positive shift, she doesn’t yet get it.  She falls back on the tired “that was two years ago” and then says “now that I have a larger audience, and more influence” I’m not doing those jokes anymore.  That’s kinda sorta on target, but also misses the point.  In the crucible, with her first movie opening in 10 days, she cannot figure out how to point out the strength of the work, while noting its weakness.  That she flubbed so badly this spring at the MTV Awards makes matters worse.

Going Viral & Public Shaming

All of this permits me to close with some reflections of some of the poor analysis of the public shaming that happens in response to racist or sexist comments gone viral.[2]  Some people, including comics like Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld, are pedaling the idea that it has become too risky to speak publicly.[3]  At one level that’s nonsense, but on another level, it’s true.

The truth stems from the potential cost involved: people have had their careers upended by a single tweet, FB post, and so on.  This is new, and Monica Lewinsky’s Ted Talk is pretty interesting.

The part that is nonsense stems from the notion that these events occur at random.  They do not.  They occur when someone fails to understand the audience, audience, audience principle.  Social media and blogs have produced an unprecedented change in the audience with which we interact.  It literally becomes anyone with access to the Internet.  And few of us are trained to consider the  audience, audience, audience principle.  Phil Schrodt has a useful discussion on this point.

That even a successful comedian like Amy Schumer can struggle so with  audience, audience, audience is notice that engaging the global commons is non-trivial.  But do not blame the technology, or “random forces” out there.  When someone shoots themselves in the foot, they are at fault.  They failed to recognize that their ideas would be poorly received in the global commons, thinking instead that they were communicating only with a smaller group of folks where experience had taught them the ideas were likely to be well received.  With luck this scrutiny of Schumer can help some of us better understand.


[1]As Pryor notes in his later shows, early in his career he attracted overwhelmingly black audiences, such as this night.  As an aside, check out this interactive site on Richard Pryor’s life. His work has profoundly influenced me.  And if you are unfamiliar with his standup comedy, please check it out.  There are some great boxed sets out there.  I could go on, and on…

[2] I am confounding two distinguishable conversations: social media and public shaming as well as the chill on speech on college campuses in the US.  These overlap, yet are distinct, and in the interest of brevity(!) I am ignoring the distinctions.

[3] I am distinguishing this from the uncoordinated attacks of the MRA movement, which are a distinct phenomenon, despite there being some of the same broad processes at work.

About Will H. Moore

I am a political science professor who also contributes to Political Violence @ a Glance and sometimes to Mobilizing Ideas . Twitter: @WilHMoo
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1 Response to Breaking Down Racism in Amy Schumer’s Comedy

  1. amyschumerracistpig says:

    Bullshit. Amy Schumer is a white privileged racist. She is deliberately being openly racist and hiding behing the usual defense of “satire” to justify it. We know exactly what you white people are doing. White comedians can’t be “edgy” without doing race jokes because their audience are racists, and their stand up routines are the one time when white people can openly laugh at alracist jokes in public. It’s funny how white people decide what is and is not racist or sexist based on their lily white cushy life white privileged standards, and defend it to the death when you get called out on it

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