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I critiqued Dave Chappelle and his fans questioned my Blackness

Dave Chappelle delivers his monologue on <em>Saturday Night Live</em> last week.
Will Heath/NBC
Dave Chappelle delivers his monologue on Saturday Night Live last week.

It may have been the GIF of a chattering raccoon.

Or the cropped photo of me standing with a student and teacher after speaking at a high school, claiming I had professed my love for the "ugliest white woman [I] could find." Or the message insisting I "have to keep my white wife happy," though my marriage ended in 2015.

These messages, delivered to my virtual doorstep via Twitter after I dared to write a column criticizing comic Dave Chappelle's recent Saturday Night Live monologue, were part of a punishing deluge of responses on social media aimed at attacking me as a Black man. According to these diatribes, I was a traitor to my race, a biscuit-eating sellout, a coonish, Uncle Tom/Sambo who allowed his Jewish paymasters to dictate his writing.

All for having the gall to say I was disappointed in Chappelle's latest performance.

Of course, it's difficult to tell which of these accounts might have been bots or malicious hackers more interested in sowing division and hate than any logical argument. But some of the arguments raised in these spaces nevertheless echoed justifications and defenses I'd seen delivered by actual people – inadvertently embodying my concerns about Chappelle's original comments encouraging those who believed terrible stereotypes about Jewish people.

And, as always, it was discouraging that we seem to be having the same discussions about stereotyping and fairness which once seemed resolved years ago – reignited by a performer whose oblique and provocative comedy touches nerves without really offering any resolution.

A genius standup comic

Chappelle's superpower as a performer – something he's bragged about in the past – is his ability to control an audience, bringing laughs when he wants, stunned silence in other moments. Indeed, his SNL monologue is a masterclass in saying just enough so that fans can defend his words, while sidestepping their more provocative implications.

At issue – for me, at least – was whether Chappelle was minimizing and providing tacit cover for the antisemitic actions of Kanye West and Kyrie Irving. Chappelle dances around the issue in his monologue, noting how many Jewish people there are working in Hollywood and then saying, "you might go out to Hollywood, you might start connecting some kind of lines, and you could maybe adopt the delusion that the Jews run show business." Use of the word "delusion" in that sentence sounds appropriate.

But the next moment, he says, "It's not a crazy thing to think. But it's a crazy thing to say out loud in a climate like this." Which raises the question: When is it ever a good climate to regurgitate the old prejudice that Jewish people are colluding to run major institutions in lockstep – a prejudice that has been used to justify all kinds of oppression, including the Holocaust?

Fans online insisted I wasn't being fair, noting Chappelle also joked, "There's a lot of Black people in Ferguson, Missouri. It doesn't mean we run the place." But I also paid attention to his very last joke, where he noted how difficult it is to talk about controversial subjects, adding slyly, "I hope they don't take anything away from me. Whoever they are."

Given that there was only one group of people he had been talking about who may or may not run show business, it was tough to imagine Chappelle's "they" referred to anyone else.

The monologue drew criticism from Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, whotweeted that Chappelle had normalized and popularized antisemitism, asking, "Why does our trauma trigger applause?" That's a good question; certainly, Chappelle drew an audience, attracting the biggest ratings of the season, with nearly 5 million viewers.

But Chappelle also has a well-known defender: former Daily Show host and longtime friend Jon Stewart. Appearing on Stephen Colbert's The Late Show, Stewart, who jokes often about his own Jewish heritage, pushed back against the idea that Chappelle normalized antisemitism and seemed to criticize efforts aimed at marginalizing West and Irving.

"I don't believe that censorship and penalties are the way to end antisemitism or to gain understanding," he said. A little later, Stewart added, "Penalizing somebody for having a thought — I don't think is the way to change their minds or gain understanding."

Defenses that miss the mark

In the aftermath of my column, some classic defenses cropped up.

He's a comedian, not a journalist, some said (which I noted in my column.) But those of us who have been doing this awhile know that humor rooted in unfair and inaccurate stereotypes can become ideas that the people who are the subject of those prejudices have to live with for a very long time.

Some fans insisted that observing how many Jewish people work in show business is just stating a fact. But of course, the point of such observations is often to provide evidence of a darker conclusion: that Jewish people control show business to make it a dangerous taboo for others to criticize them.

The odd thing about this perspective, is that I have heard similar sentiments from some white people who feel there are taboos when it comes to discussing how Black people talk about racism.

In my 2012 book Race-Baiter, I describe a commentaryby former Fox News Channel anchor Bill O'Reilly, who blamed civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, the liberal watchdog group Media Matters — and, um, me — for creating a climate where accusations of racism mean "millions of white Americans will no longer even think about discussing race with blacks." He called me "one of the biggest race-baiters in the country." Talk about creating a climate for constructive dialogue.

The fact is, our modern media argument culture doesn't allow a lot of space for nuanced discussion. Bringing the issue back to Chappelle, however, I thought my comments were pretty measured.

I didn't call him an antisemite. I didn't even say he wasn't funny. I did fault him for obscuring "an issue which should be cut and dried." And for that, one fan insisted I was "spewing venom," another accused me of "attacking another Black person" and a third insisted I had "Black skin and a white mind."

(There were also a few posters who seemed to use my column to unfairly paint all or most black people as antisemitic — yet another perversion of my words to serve a terrible prejudice.)

The hypocrisy is astounding. Chappelle himself said, "It shouldn't be this scary to talk about anything." But some who claim to be his fans are determined to make it scary for anyone to disagree with him. Because if you dare to go there, you must not be Black enough.

This idea can be so pervasive that the last time I wrote a major column critical of Chappelle, Bill Maher commented on it with a joke on his HBO show Real Time that left me convinced he thought a white person had written my words. (Maher talked about a "kink" he suspected some white people have for wanting to criticize themselves harshly, which he dubbed "white loathing.")

Needless to say, I disagree. Black folks, we know this: When bigotry rears its ugly visage, the last thing we need in the public space is ambiguity and both-siderism.

When police brutality against Black people rises, we must state unequivocally that Black Lives Matter. And when antisemitism emerges, even from some of the best-known Black performers in music and sports, we should denounce it without reservation.

Of course, there are tensions between Black people and Jewish people over access to white privilege, differences in oppression and a host of other issues. There is justified anger among Black folks when some people use white privilege to escape the oppression we face. But, as I pointed out in my column last year about Chappelle; just because some members of a group use their privilege in terrible ways, that's not a green light to visit unfair prejudices on everyone in that group.

These tensions are best resolved in an environment which rejects false assumptions and prejudice unambiguously on all sides. And insisting on that isn't a betrayal of anyone's race — it's just what we should expect in a free and fair society.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.