About a week or so before the election, I decided to pitch a piece to an online publication.
I had an issue with the way the media and my fellow comedians and writers talked about Trump. The entire election season was giving me a bad feeling and it was making me sick, emotionally and physically. I had fights with my partner about Trump. I had fights with myself about why I wasn’t reacting to the situation the way everyone else was. I beat up on myself for not being able to make a joke about the entire situation. Sure, I was emotional, but it still made me wonder if my inability to joke about Trump showed my weakness as a comedian. I couldn’t write about him either. I couldn’t think of anything meaningful to say about him.
All I could think was: This isn’t funny. I don’t know why everyone is laughing. I don’t understand the joke. It was even more frustrating because people who agreed with me on the issues, people on the left, all could see the humor in it. So, I gaslit myself. I convinced myself that I just wasn’t all that funny and if I had a better grasp on humor I could make the jokes too. If I was better at my craft, I could write about Trump as well. If I was just better, more skilled, more normal, more like other people, I could get the joke. The whole thing had me very torn up.
In graduate school when I was going through pain, I would go to my professors. After I had spoken my piece, they would often give me the same advice:
Write through the pain.
So I decided to create a pitch about how I felt that a lot of the snarky humor and Trump jokes from (mostly white) liberals surrounding the election season seemed counterproductive to progressive work.
I’d never done any political writing before, but I thought putting it in the wheelhouse of media criticism would be easier for me. I basically saw it as my way of my being part of the conversation.
I wasn’t very vocal about my feelings much during the entire political race. I never felt informed. And when I did research, it never felt like enough. It didn’t feel like my place to speak on it. I write fiction and tell jokes. Who the fuck am I? But not speaking up made me feel like I had done wrong, and this would be my chance to use my voice and share an opinion on something other than movies. I never expected my piece to be any good and I never expected the publication to answer my pitch.
But they did. Right after the election. Right after Trump won.
And so began my month long journey of trying to get published. From early on, I could tell there was something wrong. I was inexperienced, and I could tell they had no idea what to do with me. I had a lot of thoughts and ideas that I was used to expressing freely in my comedy and scripts and creative nonfiction, but this was different. In the end, after a month of working and hoping and waiting, I finally got the news I had been waiting for since two weeks after I started:
They didn’t want my piece.
The back half of 2016 was an artistic low point for me. I had finished graduate school to no job. I had been rejected from every playwriting fellowship I applied to. I lost my apartment. I had trouble finding a menial job that was okay with me being half blind. Back home in Georgia, my family was falling apart. So everything I pitched, everything I wrote, every little bit of art I created during that time was an act to throw myself a lifesaver. I felt like I was drowning. Drowning in my potential. Drowning in promises. Drowning in thoughts that maybe I was mediocre and that the Inspiring Story Of The Half Blind Black Writer Girl Who Escaped A Scary Childhood And Partner Abuse To Make It in The Big Apple was just that — a story that loved ones constructed for me so that I could cling to it when there was nothing else.
So, needless to say (and with no intention of pointing fingers) I let the dropping of that piece destroy me. It played into the narrative of me being a failure. Around the same time I got rejected by another playwriting fellowship. And this was one where I had made it to the second round, so it hurt twice as hard to lose it. I let the weight of supposed failure lie heavy on me like an ACME anvil. I spent Christmas looking for times to steal away so I could cry and mope in private.
After Christmas, in the time before New Years, I skulked around my hometown in Georgia drinking and looking for answers. I contemplated going home for good, living in my cousin’s basement and going to the local college to get a teaching certification. Every time someone told me I was talented I deflected the compliment, acted shitty and drank more. I provoked conflicts with my partner for no real reason. We always made up, though. So my relationship was one thing I failed at turning sour. It was the one thing I couldn’t be down on myself about, and eventually that truth pulled me out of my despair pit.
And then, the holidays ended. I returned to New York City with my partner and a list of mental resolutions about writing through the pain more. I tried to remind myself that there was a lot of pain to write through, and it’s not my fault that I hadn’t sorted through everything yet. There was old pain that had never healed and new pain on top of it. Knowing how to sift through all that would take time, but I had to do the work. Those rejections hurt so much because I had put my soul into the writing. It was what I cared about, so if I forsook that, what would I be doing? And would I be happy doing it?
For me, the rejection narrative had become a monster in my life. It validated all my feelings of worthlessness and all my guilt for leaving home. It validated the shit I went through in college and graduate school with classmates being shitty to me for being black and feminist and reflecting that in my work and in the way I communicated. It validated the demeaning comments from men I encountered in my life who didn’t think my voice or talent mattered. Everything. Everyone. Anything bad.
So… I decided to go ahead and publish my piece. Or rather, what’s left of it. There was a point when this piece was a bloated, five-page epic. It’s not that anymore. It’s about two pages on Word, and much simpler than it was when I began. I’m adult enough to say that this piece was not in my wheelhouse. I’m even more adult enough to say that if I hadn’t felt so hurt in my heart, maybe it could have been a better piece. I’m sure there’s a real journalist out there who could flesh out these concepts better than me. Preferably a woman of color (but it’s not my place to get picky).
In any case, I want to release the thoughts from this piece out of my head and into the world, so here they are for your reading pleasure.
THE PRIVILEGE OF SNARK
By its very nature, snark relies heavily on condescension and derision. The joke-teller is positioned as superior to the subject of the joke, and the audience is invited to revel in a shared sense of supremacy. Among progressives, snarky humor is a favored way to assert superior intelligence and morality to conservatives.
It’s important to note that many of the progressives who rely on snarky humor do so from a position of class, racial, or gender privilege. But for the marginalized — specifically people of color (POC), queer folk, and trans folk — who are progressive because they have to be, there is nothing to be snarky about. There is no satisfaction in exposing the stupidity of conservatives and their rhetoric, because it is something we already know — and moreover, something we understand the very real dangers of.
For us, it is more effective to reveal the sobering truths of white supremacy that lie behind everything, including pockets of progressive culture.
It’s true that a lot of the humor from comics like Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle and Boondocks creator Aaron McGruder makes fun of white people and conservatives. Their humor, however, is about laughing to deal with the painful truths of oppressive structures, rather than laughing to make fun of a specific individual in order to elevate their own sense of self.
Take a bit from Chris Rock’s 2008 comedy special Kill the Messenger. In it, Chris Rock discusses how hard a black person has to work to gain the kind of wealth white people can get more easily. His most iconic line in this bit is: “The black man has to FLY to get somethin’ the white man just walk to.” It’s a line that’s funny and stings and holds weight, because that’s true to so many black people, and people of color in general. It’s a funny and painful reminder that one cannot simply overcome being marginalized. It reveals racism as a systemic problem, with a purpose that goes well beyond simple shaming.
A comedian’s jokes can only have the full impact when they understand the significance of what they’re joking about. Black comedians like Damon Wayans and Michael Che, for instance, are not the best at addressing issues that affect women, such as rape culture, and have refused to apologize for their harmful comments. Dave Chappelle is not above this, either. Right as he made his triumphant return to the public eye by hosting Saturday Night Live, he also made some troubling comments revealing how little he seems to know or care about intersectionality. “ . . . if you’re putting sexism and homophobia and transphobia in front of racism,” the comic states, “you should be ashamed of yourself.”
This is a comment that disregards the fact that many women, trans folk, and queer folk are also black. However, because Chappelle is a straight black man, he is most effective in commenting on his particular race and gender, and any comments regarding an experience outside of his come off as uninformed and insincere. Chappelle’s lack of knowledge of womanhood and living as a queer or trans person mirrors the way progressives speak on the marginalized with little information on their lived experience.
Snarky humor taps into a rookie mistake a lot of privileged progressives make; they want to align themselves with the oppressed so badly that they forget they also play a role in oppression. I’ve noticed this a lot especially with white progressive friends of mine. They surround themselves with people of color and constantly joke about how awful white people are in a way that distances themselves. They begin to think of themselves as “good white people” and use that status — which they often validate by self-identifying as “woke” — to shield themselves from criticism.
Snarky humor is one way in which they allow themselves to critique oppressive systems without questioning their place within these systems.
This sort of progressivism relies too heavily on people being “good” and “bad.” It has made everything about categorizing people instead of revealing inequalities. It’s about finding out who is racist, who is sexist, who is homophobic, and exposing them and shaming them.
What it isn’t about is teaching people why bigotry is wrong. It isn’t about learning how we perpetuate bigotry, even with the best of intentions. It isn’t about recognizing one’s own privileges. It’s an elitist blame game.
When I originally pitched this piece, I did so with an implicit presumption that Hillary would win. It was supposed to be a finger-wagging at the left for being too confident. In doing so, I realized that I had been too confident as well. Even though I spent the election season being disgusted with my fellow lefties for acting so superior, I thought at the end of the day things would turn out in the way I assumed was most rational. It was going to be a piece with bite, but in a climate that could handle it.
Then I awoke to a starkly different reality. And in the wake of it, I hope progressives can learn to do better by embracing introspection, privilege-checking, and an understanding of the deeper issues at play in the rise of someone like Trump.
But you can’t do this work if you’re relying on snark and sarcasm, because by nature, these forms of humor create distance between yourself and others who are privileged. They shield you from difficult introspection, rather than inviting it.
This is a tough lesson, and I wish we were all learning it under better circumstances. But learn it we all must — especially now.