Opinion: Sticks, Stones, And Words Hurt Marginalized People
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is a saying we all heard in our youth. A mantra passed down to teach us to ignore what people say because they have no effect. Like many lessons that adults told us were important to learn, as we grow older we learn that some of those lessons weren’t useful or true. Thoughts turn into words. Words are used to set up jokes. Jokes reinforce beliefs. Beliefs turn into actions. Actions turn into policies. Policies turn into systematic oppression.
In August, Netflix released Dave Chappelle’s comedy special Sticks and Stones, which set fire to the Internet. As a fan of Chappelle, and a Black trans woman, I found myself pulled into a conflicted space between an outraged LGBTQ+ community and the right-wing adjacent straight people calling him a genius. I call them right-wing adjacent because a large portion of the Black cisgender heterosexual community aligns politically with the right-wing on most social issues except racial politics.
I watched and enjoyed Chapelle’s show, in the same way, I twerk and get hype to songs that degrade and objectify Black women. This is a contradictory space that Black women growing up in the hip hop era are accustomed to being in. Like music and other forms of art, comedy has always been a force in the domino effect culture has on sociopolitical change. A perfect example is the queer pioneer of comedienne: Loretta Mary Aiken aka Moms Mabley, who was the first successful Black female comic. We would not have a Whoopi, Monique or a Tiffany Haddish without her. She inspired male greats like Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx. She strategically took transgressive comedy to the mainstream by ingeniously packaging taboo social commentary about gender, sex, and age in a toothless homely character garbed in a bedraggled duster and bonnet.
Moms Mabley, being born in 1894, didn’t give her the luxury of making fun of the less privileged. The stakes were too high. Her use of her platform changed the landscape of entertainment and the national discourse around those topics for the betterment of the people who share her identities and struggles. That’s what comedic genius looks like when used for good. It’s not some rich man punching down with “jokes” reinforcing conservative rhetoric that leads to the death of people on the margins of this society. It’s not just joking from a platform as big as Chappelle’s. If a comedian jokes about the issues of climate change, does it cause climate change? No, it does not. But if you joke about climate change, in a way to reinforce that climate change doesn’t exist on a big enough platform, you can affect how people vote or treat people who are trying to stop it.
It is no coincidence that Breitbart featured this Chappelle special on their site and no other one. These “jokes” incite rape, discrimination, violence, and deaths of women and LGBTQ+ around the country particularly Black trans women. That statement is not a hyperbole.
Tyra Hunter was in a car accident in 1995. When the emergency medical technicians came to rescue her and the other passenger, according to the bystanders upon cutting off Tyra’s clothes, they discovered she was transgender. They made the same “it’s a man” jokes and audaciously utter derogatory epithets. They stopped doing their job which consequently leads to her death. Normalizing these mindsets and jokes leads to incidents like these.
Muhlaysia Booker was violently mobbed by a group of men for a small fender bender in a viral video. Throughout the video, the men and bystanders are yelling homophobic slurs that Chappelle is trying to normalize by race-baiting us with jokes comparing homophobic slurs with racial slurs. So far this year, 18 Black trans women have been killed. Is Dave specifically responsible for their deaths? No, but he does add fuel to fire instigating transphobic conversations in communities around the country.
Do I want Chappelle to be canceled? No. Trans people do not have the power to cancel someone so powerful in this social climate around our existence, but gone are the days where celebrity comics won’t get called out for these socially irresponsible tactics just for a cheap laugh. Marginalized people are not overly sensitive snowflakes forcing everyone to be silent or politically correct. We are shining the light on the weakness of your so-called genius if you cant do comedy in a better way.
Chappelle and people like him are having to lament the idea that it’s not ok to make us the butt of your jokes anymore. It is no longer comfortable to stand proud in bigotry, racism, and female oppression as it once was. We are just asking celebrities to be socially conscious for the people your voice and entertainment affect. We are people on the margin trying to survive and jokes make that harder in life or death. I just ask that people acknowledge that their words have an impact on the people.