Guest writer, Anthony Lorenzo, follows up on Jon B’s piece on the Rebel Wilson furore earlier this week by explaining, from the perspective of a person of colour, why her words about Idris Elba were, in fact, offensive.
Jon Bon wrote an excellent piece on The Queerness on the responses to Rebel Wilson’s terrible joke at the BAFTAs. Actually, that should be plural; Rebel Wilson’s litany of terrible jokes at the BAFTAs. She said that she hadn’t been invited to the “Oscars before” because they were racist, that she’d been practising her “transgender face”, that Idris Elba made her “nervous”, and told Elba (and everyone watching) that she’d been “sociologically programmed to like chocolate on Valentine’s Day.”
She said other things, things that actually were quite funny, even if it’s more about her delivery. We laugh at her because of her expressions and patronisingly, because she looks comical. She trades off it well, and it works. That doesn’t mean everything she says is funny, or that because she’s funny she’s rendered herself immune from criticism if she’s said something offensive.
Not one to “look for offence” (as though it’s hard to find), it’s plain that decontextualised, her jokes are starkly crass, and that to be fair, context should be added. When she called the Oscars racist, she was referring to the awards industry’s tendency to overlook achievements in film by anyone who isn’t white. But she’s white herself, and the ‘joke’ is her claiming racist victimhood, while really it’s because the films she does are not generally Oscar fare. She self-deprecatingly jokes about her very presence at such ceremonies, but she could have done that without implying that awards ceremonies being racist is used as an untrue excuse for a lack of diversity.
We laugh at her because of her expressions and patronisingly, because she looks comical.
Wilson was not making reference to safety when she said Elba made her nervous, and it’s clear that the sexual allusions were in the vein of all the jokes that get told about hot stars. Stephen Fry’s whole speech was another version of Wilson’s. There is no need to delve into what white women being nervous around black men conjures up in the minds of those who have to think about such things, and if she was consciously alluding to that cesspit, she’s warped in an incomprehensible way.
Jon explored why it was ridiculous to joke about a ‘transgender face’, and many of the reasons are applicable when discussing offense caused by racism too. I saw white cis men defending Wilson’s ‘chocolate’ comment on the grounds that it was funny, not meant harmfully, that because chocolate was ‘a nice thing’, it was a compliment, that because Elba laughed along it couldn’t be offensive, and the nadir, ‘What About White Chicks‘?
Of course, something can be funny and offensive, or neither, depending on who hears it. I’m baffled on why people declare something untouchably funny, or untouchably benign. Idris Elba laughed along, and this was taken as the bottom line on whether it was offensive, as though his newly-burgeoning ascent to the stratosphere of Hollywood doesn’t depend on supreme affability as well as talent. Why one black person finding something funny means others can’t be offended by it escapes me.
I saw white cis men defending Wilson’s ‘chocolate’ comment on the grounds that it was funny, not meant harmfully, that because chocolate was ‘a nice thing’, it was a compliment.
Chocolate is indeed a nice thing. Is it flattering to be compared to it? Isn’t the notion of being regularly compared to different foodstuffs based on your approximate colour to it a bit weird? Wouldn’t being called a prawn, or mayonnaise, or beige, get annoying? Or even ‘Hey, white chocolate’? It just doesn’t compute properly, does it? In any case, something being almost universally liked is not reason enough to find being compared to it flattering, or calling someone a whale would be complimentary.
Some white people think that White Chicks isn’t offensive to them because impersonating someone of a different colour isn’t an offensive thing to do, and won’t countenance that the reason they aren’t offended is because they’ve not been systematically oppressed, ridiculed, stereotyped and stripped of dignity over centuries, meaning that the odd person mocking whiteness can be taken on the chin. I don’t know what trick of the mind is required to get someone who thinks the former to realise the latter, but hopefully words on a page help.
Isn’t the notion of being regularly compared to different foodstuffs based on your approximate colour to it a bit weird?
Of course, once you’ve not found something funny, or horror, even been offended by it (it seems now that the taking of offence is a moral failure), you’re diagnosed as either having a Munchausen-esque desire to look for it, or you’re humourless. Why would anyone sit watching Rebel Wilson in the hope they’d end up being angry at what she’d said? Why are such strange motivating factors ascribed to people, oblique twists of the mind that end up being far more complicated than the simple truth that we’re pissed off because someone said something offensive that pissed us off?
Rebel Wilson used the #OscarsSoWhite controversy for her own ends, to make jokes about herself, and to assert that she’s ‘not like them’ because she fancies Idris Elba. I’m not going pretend she’s free from criticism because she has the funny bone. While chocolate is delicious; you might want to think twice before comparing a black person to it. Just ask Naomi Campbell.
Follow Anthony on Twitter (@ringolorenzo)