Is It Possible To Tell A Good Joke About Race?

A racially charged joke-tweet by Girls writer Lesley Arfin made a lot of people mad. We talked to some commentators about the show’s racial politics, and how jokes about race can, in fact, sometimes be funny.

Girls has come under fire for its all-white cast, punctuated by actors of color in what some say are stereotypical roles. And one of the show’s writers’ recent tweets has only intensified the controversy. Lesley Arfin wrote:

Arfin declined to comment for this story, but it’s reasonable to speculate that the tweet (now deleted) was meant as a joke, a riff on the complaint that Girls contains few representations of non-white people. But the tweet struck some as evidence that Arfin is willfully ignorant about issues of race as they relate to the show.

Jorge Rivas of Colorlines implied that the whiteness of Girls, and the fact that actors of color were relegated to minor roles, could perhaps be chalked up to writer Arfin’s lack of racial sensitivity. He also cited a 2010 blog post in which Arfin called defecating “taking Obama to the White House” (this appears to be a quote from Urban Dictionary).

Rivas told us he thought both the tweet and the post were intended to shock. Asked if the tweet might have been meant as a joke, he said, “I have a good sense of humor, but when you consider that 70% of roles on TV go to white actors and that she’s now part of that industry, it’s not funny to me.”

A still from Girls.

But, he says, it is possible to make a good joke about race — very much so. Race is hard to talk about, he explains, and humor can be a way to do so in a “deeper and more complex” way. The key, he says, is to make a joke that “continues and opens a larger conversation.” Humor that “makes fun of a certain group and ends the conversation,” as he says Arfin’s tweet did, is just inappropriate.

As an example of racial humor that’s funny, he mentioned Issa Rae’s web series Awkward Black Girl, whose title character J has a love interest she calls “white J” and jokes about having “mulatto babies.” Alternet has called the romance between the two Js the “latest progressive portrayal of interracial love.”

Racialicious editor Latoya Peterson also mentions Rae in a piece titled “Girls That Television Will Never Know,” about the writers and actors of color who haven’t gotten the kind of Hollywood acceptance Girls enjoys. When I asked her about racial humor in the context of Arfin’s tweet, she pointed me to an interview with comic Kate Rigg, in which she says she’s only offended “when someone tells a joke about Asian people and there’s no actual joke — the joke is the Asian people.” Peterson explains, “You have to understand how racism works in order to make a good joke about it — and unfortunately, most of the people who try to joke about racism are just replicating stereotypes because they don’t have a clue how this system works.” She puts Arfin in that category.

Peterson says “most of the comics worth a damn” — of any race — can make good jokes about race. She cites Wyatt Cenac’s appearances on The Daily Show and Louis C.K.’s bit on the advantages of being white.

She also notes that some white comics actually respond well to criticism of race jokes. Peterson criticized Eliza Skinner’s bit on roles for white actresses in Tyler Perry movies back in 2010. But, she says, Skinner was “really cool about the conversations” surrounding her piece, and what she was trying to say.

Still, Peterson is bearish about TV’s racial future. She says TV writing about race today is usually reductive because “writers who have never had to think about these issues in any real way are suddenly tasked with creating these scenarios or worlds. So they go to the depths of their experience, not realizing how shallow those pools are.” And it’s unlikely to change because “too many people are investing in upholding the status quo.”

Others are more optimistic. New York Times reporter Jenna Wortham lamented on The Hairpin this week that while Girls “gets So. Many. Things. Right,” it still couldn’t manage meaty roles for women of color. However, she told me she admires the show, and that the controversy around it is actually good news: “It means there’s a ravenous appetite for shows and content about smart, complicated women — so hopefully this will lead to more of it.”

A still from Awkward Black Girl.

And Rivas pointed out that the millennial generation, from which the Girls characters hail, is actually America’s most diverse generation ever — and a generation that passionately believes that “race matters.” He said lots of young people were already having the conversations about race he believes need to be had — they just need to get into positions of power. His hope for the future of racial politics in pop culture: “that Awkward Black Girl gets on HBO.”

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