As every social satirist knows, comedy is a double-edged sword. It both soothes and rankles people, while revealing their deepest prejudices.
And, as organizers of Lehigh’s “Why is everyone laughing?” event realize, comedy is also a vehicle for deeper discussions on race and stereotypes.
The interactive event—which was filled with clips from the Dave Chapelle Show
, Mind of Mencia
, Blue Collar Comedy
and other shows—engaged more than 75 students, staff and faculty in a discussion of race-based comedies, how they exploit race, perpetuate stereotypes, and potentially influence thoughts and actions.
“Stereotypes are prevalent in this type comedy,” says Ty Crisman, a community development educator at New York University. “What we hope to do tonight is to raise your awareness and consciousness of stereotypes.”
Conducted more than 35 times at college campuses across the country, Crisman and fellow presenters Thomm Bell, a residence hall director at the University of Vermont and Brandon Ice, a residence coordinator at the University of Miami (Fla.), first created this program while pursuing their graduate degrees at Colorado State University.
“During our first semester of grad school, the three of us noticed in different ways the popularity of the Dave Chapelle Show,” says Crisman. “Even during the show’s hiatus, students were repeating it, talking about it, laughing about it, and enjoying it. We thought this would be an avenue to engage students in discussions about race so we sat down and created this program.”
Crisman says that comedy was an ideal vehicle to use with college students because “comedy breaks down barriers and inhibitions. We love to laugh and comedy makes you feel more comfortable as an audience.”
Says Ice: “We also get nothing done if students are on the defensive. We open up and tell them that we may or may not necessarily be a fan of what we show but we hope to create a mechanism to get students to talk.”
Race, he says, is such a touchy subject and is tough to broach. “We use comedians because of the stereotypes and the impact of edifying into real life these stereotypes.”
Ice hopes that their presentation “deconstructs those stereotypes so that students can better ascertain what is truth versus what is not.”
Comedy, says Bell, is also a cloaking mechanism. “Comedians are modern-day philosophers and they are the ones that point out what is happening in society. Comedy is an act of social aggression that is sometimes positive and sometimes negative.”
“A window to view someone’s perception”
What Crisman, Bell and Ice want students to think about is what they are hearing and understand that there is a purpose behind it and to be critical of it.
“Comedy,” says Bell, “is a window to view someone’s perception.”
The best thing students can do, says Bell, is to become a change agent. “If you know why someone is telling a joke, if you can understand the purpose behind it, or if you can begin to understand why you’re laughing,” he says, “you can begin to deconstruct the stereotypes and understand them a little bit more.”
More importantly, says Bell, when it comes to race, students need to understand where they are coming from and why they laugh.
But all three men recognize that while their presentation sparks discussions, it only scratches the surface. “Our only hope,” says Crisman, “is that when we leave the campuses we present at that some sort of conversation will happen.
“And it’s beautiful that the Conversations on Race series happens for the next six weeks where there is an actual structured way for that to happen.”
Lehigh’s Conversations on Race series, which begins on October 16, 2006, is a six-week series which provides an environment for students to have an open, honest discussion about issues of race and culture in America and at Lehigh.
“I enjoyed tonight’s program,” says Amanda Millard ’08, an English major, who is planning on double majoring in Africana Studies. “There has been a lot of talk about providing opportunities for students to get involved in to discuss race and tonight’s event provided a more open forum for people to get involved in the discussion. I just signed up for the Conversations on Race program.”
Alta Thornton, assistant dean of multicultural affairs, says that the “Why is everyone laughing” program achieved its goal. “We did what we told students what we would do,” she says. “We showed them clips of shows they were already watching, let them laugh, talk about the nature of the laugh and what it means.”
What presenters didn’t do, says Thornton, was to try and teach students whether or not it was appropriate to laugh or not. “We let them find their own voice and left a lot of questions open ended,” she says. “We pushed students to make meaning for themselves.”
To learn more about the Conversations on Race program or to sign up by the Oct.13 deadline, contact the Office of Multicultural Affairs at (610) 758-5973 or visit the CoR web site