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Don’t Cancel Chappelle. Put Him in the Spotlight.

Don’t Cancel Chappelle.  Put Him in the Spotlight.

image by Allec Gomes

Spotlights are a funny thing. They illuminate everything they touch, often in disturbingly sharp relief. But try to examine the spotlight itself and its brilliance will blind you.

I have long admired Dave Chappelle as a spotlight for racial injustice. His ability to cut through the fog of political correctness to shed light deep within our national psyche has few parallels. My first reaction to Dave is almost always a gut-busting laugh. But, for weeks after, I find myself sifting through a residue of vague and troubling emotions. I credit Chappelle with pressing the reset button for a lot of people where race is concerned.

Not so with gender. This is a case where society (and Dave, I think) will learn more by examining the spotlight than by looking where it points.

I watched Chappelle’s latest show at the request of a friend. She texted me, “Let me know what you think”. I could tell that something was up. She seemed nervous. She is a black, cis-woman. I am a white transgender woman. It sounded like I wasn’t going to like what Chappelle said.

Nonetheless, when I hit the play button, I was rooting for Dave. I wanted to hear him say things about gender that were funny but discomforting and thought-provoking. All through his monologue, I kept one eye on Dave and the other on my emotions, as though watching a presidential debate mood meter.

Dave scored a few good hits. I loved, for example, his account of a transgender comedian’s demand that she just wanted him to respect that "I am having a human experience". When all is said and done, what we all want is to be esteemed as fellow humans. 

But Dave did not deliver on her demand. His most horrific moment came when he compared being transgender to wearing blackface. To my knowledge, blackface comedians do not spend their lives contemplating suicide. Transgender people – whether you like them or not – are not attempting to mimic someone else. They are trying to express their truest selves.

To even mention these two words in the same vicinity is to reveal a profound ignorance of the transgender experience. Dave Chappelle is a qualified spokesperson for the black male experience. He proved himself thoroughly unqualified to shed any light whatsoever on the transgender community. (I found it telling, and a bit sad, that he went to such lengths to tell us that some of his best friends are transgender.)

But Chappelle isn’t simply unqualified. He revealed himself to be part of the problem. This is where the spotlight analogy becomes so important. Chappelle’s monologue should not be examined in light of what it did or did not reveal about transgender people. It should be examined in light of what it revealed about Dave Chappelle and the common companions to white privilege: toxic masculinity and male privilege.

Personally, I wasn’t that offended by Chappelle’s jokes because I didn’t identify with them. Almost all of the punches he threw drew on three memes: whiteness, vulvas, and knuckles. If you are white, have big knuckles, and don’t have a birth-giving vulva, you’d better be careful around Dave (though, according to his monologue, he might be interested if you are on the other side of a glory hole). Actually, if you don’t have these three features, you may want to be careful around Dave, too. To hear him talk, women are little more than sex objects. His humor never moved beyond this.

I found it particularly revealing that Chapelle grounded his statement, “I am a TERF”, in his late-night experiences with transgender women’s genitalia. I don’t agree with TERFs. But at least I respect that their concerns run to something much deeper than six inches. To be honest, Chappelle’s declaration of his feminist credentials rang as off-key for me as when Trump bragged to the world that “the Blacks all love me”.

Dave Chappelle has served society well with his caustic critique of white privilege. Many people, when they enter life’s third act, begin to shift their focus towards introspection. I don’t want to cancel Chappelle. Rather, I hope that he finds the wisdom and maturity to turn his spotlight on himself and his male confreres. I would love to see him take aim at the masculine conventions that generate so much grief in our society – for men as much as anyone else.

Toxic masculinity impacts a lot more than those white transgender people like me that Chappelle caught in his spotlight. It affects everyone who is transgender or gender non-conforming. It affects all the women in the world. It affects all the men who feel pressured to conform to its dicta.

Chappelle closed his show saying that he was done with transgenders until our communities could laugh together again. I would love to laugh with Dave, but only when he learns to laugh at some of his own BS.

About The Author

Tina White

Tina White is an activist, author, and public speaker. In addition to her role in The Asheville View, she is the Executive Director of the Blue Ridge Pride Center and a member of the board of directors of the Human Rights Campaign. She is learning how to be a community activist and public servant. She speaks and writes on issues of social justice, community, and personal identity. In 2015, she published Between Shadow & Sun: A Husband‘s Journey Through Gender – A Wife’s Labor of Love.

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