Sunday, March 02, 2008

Race, privilege, and humor

On the one hand, there's something kind of precious (in the bad way) about the self-conscious, self-congratulatory way that members of a privileged group can enjoy humor at their own expense: think Eddie Murphy's "White Like Me," or Martin Mull's book- and video-series "A History of White People in America Today, or the newcomer to the genre, the "Stuff White People Like" blog. Being able to chuckle at that kind of thing seems to show some self-awareness about one's privileged position ("it sure is telling how much comedy value there is in racializing whiteness!") but it also confirms it.

On the other hand, well, all three of those examples are pretty funny; and it's probably better to have that bit of self-consciousness about privilege than not to have it, right? And, after all, the #1 thing the blog says white people like is hardly something I can argue about.

(It's not quite clear to me whether "Stuff White People Like" was ever really being written primarily for an Asian audience's amusement, but by now, I think it's pretty clearly being written to prompt self-bemusement from a white audience.)

Compare also: any humor for a mostly-straight audience about straight men's poor fashion sense and inability to dance (Queer Eye undoubtedly counts), or for that matter any humor for a mostly-white audience about white people's inability to dance. For that matter, I kind of think that the classic sitcom bumbling paterfamilias is an example. Of course, the genre is old-- the class-inversion humor of the servant who's more clever than the master was a staple of the commedia dell'arte tradition as well as Shakespeare, and was meant in large part to amuse the masters who could afford to laugh at themselves.

Update: Ah. Not sure where I'd gotten the impression that SWPL's author was Asian-American, but he's not-- he's white. The site is self-conscious self-mockery a la Martin Mull.