Thinking about diversity in the aftermath of Michael Richards

A lot has been said about Michael Richards’ (AKA “Kramer”) meltdown in which he used the “N-word” and suggested that lynching was an appropriate response for hecklers in his audience. (For those who missed out, you can watch the meltdown on Google Video.) The most anthropological response I’ve seen was by Six Apart’s Anil Dash who argues that the incident was partially about the “mismatch between white and black culture in regard to social standards in public settings”:

Put more succinctly, Michael Richards lost his shit for the same reason white people always get mad when black people talk at the movies. It’s about control, and who sets the standards, and clearly Richards is someone who gets filled with rage when he’s not in control.

… there’s a significant tradition in many African American communities to see entertainment venues as a forum for interaction, as a place for dialogue and conversation inspired by, or even directly in response to the performance. Whether it’s call-and-response in church or at a hip hop show, it’s not merely acceptable to be talking or reacing, it’s expected. Would showtime at the Apollo be as fraught without that expectation?

Conversely, a lot of white culture places an expectation on respect for the performance. There’s a standard of reverence for the person on stage, or the film being screened. And there’s an underlying sense of value: Hey, we all paid to be here, so be quiet!

It is an important insight because I think a lot of liberals think that a genuinely inclusive society will be the same as what we have today, just with more colorful faces; but that can’t be the case. As one of my college professors put it: “Some people think that diversity just means inviting more African Americans into their houses. They don’t anticipate that these African Americans might want to rearrange the furniture.” Many Americans seem to feel that while Richards’ outburst was unfortunately worded, he was in his right to defend himself against audience hecklers. This position ignores the way in which those very social norms are themselves racialized.

18 thoughts on “Thinking about diversity in the aftermath of Michael Richards

  1. Insightful. Anthropologists and others fall into this behavior when wanting to “help” native people and finding their good intentions unappreciated. Sometimes people just don’t accept being stereotyped as someone needing help from the honkies, and those with good intentions don’t perceive that those stereotypes are embedded in their ‘benevolent’ attitude. It’s easy to accept ‘domesticated’ diversity, it’s the wild stuff that is hard to take.

  2. I don’t think that heckling from an audience in a comedy stand up performance falls into this framework suggested here about white respect versus black talk back. I can remember a variety of venues that heckling came from just about anybody, male and female, and whatever ethnicity was present.

    Some people have also pointed out that Richards used that sort of rage in his comedy and was trying to free associate something funny. So I think it not quite right to say Richards clearly rages when he lacks control. I think Richards actually felt the rage was comedic in an over all sense. But clearly Richards harbors a racist view in his feelings.

  3. Hmmm…. I wonder how well other explanations of this difference would work out. Could this be a class thing rather than a race thing, or a regional (northern vs southern) thing?

  4. This post is listed under “North America , Race, Genetics[?]”
    And Anil Dash sounds like a self consciously liberal VS Naipaul explaining negroes to white people. That’s fucked. No other word to use.
    Much worse than the spiel was the ritual of forgiveness and therapy Richard’s felt he had to go through. That was truly pathetic.
    Racism is a fact of life. It’s the hypocrisy that should make people cringe: racism as disease. “I need… help”

    If Richards had any guts he’d find a black comic to work with and push it.

  5. Rex,

    We could look at AAVE – there are some regional features in common with Southern English, but there are strong affinities across urban areas even on opposite coasts, and there are many features which are not reducible to region. I don\’t know if that is the case here, but I would not be surprised.

    Obviously class is important, but it would be hard to say how it is important. There is obviously strong pressure to conform as one moves up the socio-economic ladder. But there is also a fair amount of code-switching that goes on. One would have to see if the same behavior was exhibited in different neighborhoods.

    From personal experience in NY it is very much about neighborhood. Before Times Square was turned into Disney World I used to watch movies there with a predominantly black audience. It was a very different experience than watching movies in other neighborhoods. In Robo Cop 2, when they were standing around in a circle shooting him, everyone was screaming \”Oh shit!\” and the like. When his body stopped twitching the theater fell silent, until one person said \”Is he dead?\” Everyone laughed, and then one women yelled \”Yeah, they killed the mutherfucker!!!\”

    Now, most theaters in mid-town wouldn\’t allow this kind of behavior now, but in Queens it is a different matter. There it is still uncertain what standards prevail, and I\’ve been in movies where a couple of people are engaging in this kind of back-and-forth with the movie while other people find it inappropriate.

  6. The RoboCop anecdote reminds me of the hoppola surrounding Snakes on a Plane and the general trash-film experience…which I don’t think is particularly “racialized”. But maybe you are talking about something else.

  7. Michael Richards is a professional comic, and he’s been around for 25 years. Stand-Up is vulgar theater. He’s been heckled before, and he knows what it’s like. Kerim, you’ve missed one of the most important rules of intellectual life, the KISS rule: Keep it Simple Stupid. Don’t make generalizations when the details will suffice. Especially in matters of race you go out on thin ice very quickly. Amil Dash by his own admission is a geek, and geeks don’t like empiricism. It’s too sloppy.
    Danny Hoch explains it. [courtesy of Dennis Perrin]
    Aside from his bullshit theorizing, Dash at least links to someone else who links to the commentary of another pro who was there.
    It was not Times Square, and it was not Amateur Night at the Apollo, where the audience is the arbiter. Once you’ve gotten the details then you may choose to get into a discussion of the modalities of audience response, but there’s no reason to be as quick to find racial divisions as you were; that decision had more to do with your interest in making associations than with the subject at hand.

    I take this shit personally. But I think I’ve mde my point.

  8. First, In response to Kerim’s Robocop comment, and maniaku’s response, this is the kind of experience you expect when going to films you KNOW will be bad, or that do not require a great deal of concentration to keep up with (if keeping up with the plot or action is even a goal in mind at all). When I would hang out at anime screening clubs there was usually an MST3K element that would go on where people would try to make funny or ironic comments about the film being screened. It isn’t particularly racialized as such, but it may be more prevalent within the black community. It’s certainly not unheard of in the white community though.

    The problem is that in the situation of a comedy club the heckler is a force that can interrupt the actual event. A movie keeps playing, no matter what, but an unruly drunk and disrespectful heckler can bring a comic’s performance to a halt. Thus, it is usually the case that comics learn to deal with hecklers by including them in the performance and playing off of them to keep the show going (since that is basically the heckler’s goal anyway, to usurp the throne, so to speak).

    I still havn’t made up my mind whether Richards was actually acting with racist intent, or if he just knew that these words would trigger a response in the hecklers, as the hecklers also traded racial insults (understandably so). It’s inexcusable in any case. But imagine if Carlos Mencia were the one saying those things. That guy seems to be able to get away with perpetuating every racist steretype in the book (and not in an ironic way) and no one bats an eye. Replace Richards with Mencia and I bet everyone would have been howling with laughter.

  9. Several links here to the Sinbad commentary, which is excellent. About 3/4 of the way through Sinbad articulates how he relates to the audience, emphasizing that the way he works relies on a certain amount of back-and-forth, and that he doesn’t feel the same need for “control.” Just saying …

  10. Exactly, and I think that Richards has more of a control issue than a racial issue. Then again I don’t know Richards personally so I can’t really say in regards to the his racism or lack of it. Just using racial slurs doesn’t really make someone a racist. It makes them a jerk, or ignorant, or an ignorant jerk, but not inherently “a racist”. Comedians in particular tend to blur this line for many reasons. Words are weapons, and Richards used the nuclear option here, and his act blew up on him. Just like if I get mad at my girlfriend and call her ugly just to spite her, regardless of whether or not I think she is in fact ugly (i should hope not) I am sure to be sleeping on the couch.

  11. Michael Richards lost his shit for the same reason white people always get mad when black people talk at the movies.” [boldface in original]
    No. It’s simple, Michael Richards behaved like a schmuck.
    Again: he’s a professional comedian who’s been through this before. Whatever it was that pushed him over the edge, it wasn’t new to him.

    Black people talk at the movies” is to the history of audience participation in Afro-American culture what “Jews are good with money” is to the history of Middle Eastern traders and European Anti-Semitism. Read the comments at Anil Dash’s page. Watch Danny Hoch rip Seinfeld a new one: no one’s responded to that.
    Dash’s BS is not dealing with the issue, it avoids dealing with the issue. He asks complex questions to avoid asking hard ones, overintellectualizing to avoid serious thought. I find that pretension given the context, even more annoying than usual.

  12. I think that video Danny Hoch’s about Seinfeld completely misses the point as well. The show Seinfeld was ABOUT sheltered neurotic white people. We weren’t supposed to feel good about the things they did, we were supposed to laugh at how awful they were as human beings. Furthermore, we were supposed to look at them and realize that many of us are just as sheltered and moronic as they are. Danny didn’t want to play a character, that’s fine, but it’s not like Seinfeld was ever supposed to be racial in any way, positive or negative.

  13. but it’s not like Seinfeld was ever supposed to be racial in any way, positive or negative.

    I think perhaps you should look at it from another side. The face of television in mainstream America is generally white. You have to have the kind of enculturation in order to relate to it in the first place.

  14. Exactly. I wholly agree with that statement, and I should have been more clear. Seinfeld DID play to a predominantly white audience, as most mainstream television does, however, Seinfeld really never touched on issues of race besides some comments about how cookies embody diversity. The non-white characters in Seinfeld were often one-dimensional charicatures, but so were the main characters, as is usually the case with sitcoms. There is nothing complex about George, the neurotic stout balding character, or Kramer, the wacky neighbor. They are all just charicatures. The focus of the non-white characters in the show was not usually about their ethnicity, or their skin color, but personality traits that went beyond some simple racial or ethnic otherness. The Soup Nazi wasn’t quirky because he was Eastern European or Russian, he was quirky because he was a fascistic cook. Likewise, the personality focus of character that Danny Hoch was slated to play was not his ethnicity, but rather his fawning need for Jerry’s friendship. Everyone is a charicature on a tv sitcom, but whether or not the ethnic or racial “otherness” is the focus is the important point to look at. The most stereotyping that went on in Seinfeld usually had to do with a character having a foriegn accent. Something which you encounter quite often in a major metropolitan city, and world wide economic hub like NYC.

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