On Using Humor to Critique Appropriation

Sometimes the best way to point out that there is a serious problem with certain actions is to parody them – to pretend like they are legitimate and let the viewer come to their own conclusions about the absurdity of the situation. Often this type of humor can take away the argumentative tone that a lot of conversations about crossing racial lines and cultural appropriation can take on. This does not mean that it is not legitimate to press a well constructed argument about race, the world needs that as well, but in talking about the role of humor in discussing the concept of race in class, we talked about the idea that not everyone wants to discuss hard issues as a serious topic, and that irony and parody might be a good way to get the point across effectively without smacking people in the face with it.

Buzzfeed recently posted an article parodying a number of white stars that have worn black hairstyles by pretending that they had legitimate ties to the culture and history behind those styles, posting pictures with captions like this:

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One good thing about this kind of parody is that, contrary to the vast majority of racial humor, it actually doesn’t matter what the author looks like. It would be absurd and unacceptable for a white stand up comedian to get on stage and start talking about what black families are like. In many cases it might be a bit awkward or questionable if a white audience member laughed at a black comedian making the same style of joke. However, the medium of a written article, as well as the particular brand of humor used in it allows everyone that reads it to share in the ridiculous nature of the subject without reservation or concern for how their own racial identity meshes with or fails to identify with that of the authors. This is in part due to the fact that it is not targeting a shared experience. It is not funny because any viewers are likely to identify with the situation, it is funny because very few of them are, and for once in the world of discussion and humor about race, that puts people of wildly differing skin colors on something like the same side of the joke.

There is also reason for criticism of the brand of humor used here. Even though everyone can share in the absurdity of the article, it only references the life experiences of one group of people. The argument could be made that this inherently divides the audience in a way that cannot be repaired, or that it is simply not funny to joke about years of pain and oppression regardless of who the humor is directed at, and it is definitely true that it is not possible to fully understand the experience of having another skin color and as such that some humor may simply not mean the same thing to different groups. However, I still think that condemning racial appropriation through humor may be a useful way to condemn such actions in a way that resonates with a large audience, which is something that is needed in any discussion about race and cultural appropriation.


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