Christopher Hitchens has a new piece up complaining that Wanda Sykes' routine didn't poke enough fun at the president--a criticism that I'm sympathetic to--but then he comes up with this:
There used to be a mildly racist comedian in England named Les Dawson who thought it amusing to ask what West Indians said to themselves while using the black-and-white strips of the pedestrian crossing. ("Now you see me, now you don't; now you see me, now you don't.") In order for this to be funny in the least—and I frankly despaired of it ever achieving that critical mass so essential to the life and definition of a comedian—it would have to be just as funny if a "white" person was traversing the road in the same way.
Not laughing yet? Me neither. Well, then, why is it so "edgy" for Wanda Sykes to say that Obama gets lots of praise now, but that if he messes up, it'll be, "What's up with the half-white guy?" This can be remotely hilarious only if said by somebody nonwhite, but almost every paleface in the audience seemed to feel it their duty to rock back and forth with complicit mirth.
I thought this joke was hilarious, I thought it was hilarious partially because I am mixed, and I'm going to ruin the joke by explaining it.
Black people are constantly being judged as a whole by the successes or failures of individuals--when one of us becomes famous or infamous, white folks who have little experience with black folks in real life come to conclusions based on what they see or hear. As a result, we're incredibly self-conscious about how we're perceived in the public eye--so much so that a black person that achieves a measure of success, no matter how light skinded or how much you deny your heritage--you can be Anatole Broyard, Jean Toomer, or Tiger Woods, we'll still claim you as reflective of what we, as a people, are capable of. At the same time, we feel pressure to disassociate from those who meet harmful the kind of harmful stereotypes that remain pervasive.
The joke is funny because it reveals the irony of a miserable social dynamic--despite what he's already achieved, the success or failure of Obama's presidency will ultimately reflect on the black community as a whole, not just on the United States. At the same time, we spent several months of the past year debating whether Obama was actually black--when we all really know the answer. Like so much good black humor, it squeezes a laugh from something that should bring us to tears. It's also not so complicated that it should be beyond a white audience with some cursory knowledge of black history.
Hitchens, for some reason, hears "white" and thinks the joke is on him. He's so used to being perceived as brilliant--and so sensitive to the idea that he, as a white man, is being slighted--that he doesn't even consider that he just didn't get the joke. The example from the racist comedian makes this plain--the simple punchline of that joke is "black people are ugly and different." Hitchens' column doesn't just betray a lack of sophistication in not getting Sykes' joke--it betrays a lack of intellectual curiosity. He didn't even think there was something there not to get, and so he didn't bother to ask anyone.
-- A. Serwer