Culture

‘Put Down Your Torches’: On Amy Schumer’s Alleged ‘Blind Spot Around Race’

CREDIT: Charles Sykes/Invision/AP

Has anyone enjoyed more universal acclaim this year than Amy Schumer? The comedian is rapidly approaching untouchable status but, as is the law of celebrity physics, no rise comes without backlash. A critique of Schumer arrived this Sunday morning by way of The Guardian.

In a mostly-positive piece, “Amy Schumer: comedy’s viral queen,” writer Monica Heisey praises Schumer’s astonishingly good year — the woman has been Reaganing for six months straight — with one major caveat. “Schumer has a shockingly large blind spot around race,” Heisey writes. “Schumer’s stand-up repeatedly delves into racial territory tactlessly and with no apparent larger point.”

A few hours after Heisey’s story was published, Schumer sent the following tweet:


Though Schumer doesn’t mention The Guardian or Heisey by name, it seems fair to read this note as a response to the critique raised in Heisey’s article.

What Schumer is describing here is a tricky feat and, as she writes in her defense, you have to trust her. But I’d argue that Schumer’s sketches and jokes about race aren’t making fun of the minority group in question: they are making fun of the ignorance or discomfort that a specific type of white girl has about people of color.

The joke in “Urban Fitters” is not, as Heisey writes, “that all the store’s black employees look the same.” The joke is that the white girl shopping at Urban is trying, impossibly, to avoid describing the salesman who helped her as black and instead is relying on totally not-useful descriptors in her conversation with a black, female cashier played by Sasheer Zamata: “He is wearing, like a vest, and a plaid shirt? He had short hair. He’s, black eyes? I would guess he probably voted for Obama. I know I did.”

That, at the end, every guy who works in the place is (1) black and (2) dressed in nearly-identical hipster-wear — plaid button-downs, thick-rimmed glasses — is a classic Schumer kicker: an escalation of the joke to the extreme.

When Schumer plays the girl — for lack of a better term of art, Amy is playing That Girl, as in, “Don’t be that girl” — and she’s leaning hard into unflattering-at-best stereotypes about people of color, the joke is on the white girl. The person who looks bad is not the person of color but the character Amy is playing. You don’t walk away from those jokes thinking: Wow, she seems like a real smart cookie, I’m sure everything she’s saying is 100 percent accurate. You cringe on her behalf, and maybe, if you have ever been or been around That Girl, you feel a twinge of recognition.

Whether or not she it pulls off is a matter of taste, though as Schumer writes, she can tell the jokes are working because people laugh. If you watch clips of her standup, you’ll see that she’s telling the truth. Maybe her audiences are predominately white; maybe whoever wouldn’t find those jokes funny wouldn’t find themselves in the crowd to begin with. But if people didn’t laugh, she’d cut the jokes out of her set.

“I’m a comedian” is not an absolute defense against bad taste. It’s not a Get Out Of Jail Free Card. Freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences. And when comedians try to justify why a joke doesn’t land, plenty opt out of allowing for the possibility that the joke was poorly constructed but choose to respond to that criticism with, “Well, the problem is you, the audience, not me, the performer.” Often this takes the form of insisting that people didn’t laugh at some racist, homophobic or misogynist thing because people are politically correct to the point of being humorless. This was the gist of Jerry Seinfeld’s recent explanation for no longer playing campuses: college students are “way too P.C.”

This is a claim that, to say the least, does not hold up to close inspection. Here, an incomplete list of comedy college students and millennials love: Key and Peele (sample sketch: “Auction Block“) and Broad City (where Seth Rogen guest-starred as a guy who gets date-raped by Abbi) and Sarah Silverman (“Who’s going to complain about a rape joke? Rape victims? They don’t even report rape.”) and Louis CK (“You can figure out how bad a person you are by how soon after September 11th you masturbated, like how long you waited. And for me, it was between the two buildings going down.”) and South Park (too many to list) and Amy Schumer (see: this entire article). People don’t not laugh because something offends their delicate sensibilities. People don’t laugh when the jokes aren’t funny.

Are Schumer’s jokes about race as nuanced, incisive and brilliant as her jokes about gender? Sometimes, not always. Fair to say her Hall of Fame humor has been about women: the double standards (“Girl You Don’t Need Makeup,” “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer,” “Last Fuckable Day“) and violence (“Football Town Nights,” “A Very Realistic Military Game“) to which women are forever subjected; absurdly self-effacing female behavior (“Compliments,” “I’m So Bad“) and the exhausting performance required of women who want to appeal to men (“Sex Prep,” “Chicks Who Can Hang“).

When she does go there with race, she’s still going there from a white performer’s point of view, like in “Generations,” the season one sketch that asks “are you tired of your elderly relatives thinking their blatant racism is okay?” and offers a solution: a facility where old white people learn “the politically correct social skills to get along in the modern world.” Her stories are coming from her lived experience. I doubt the best way of addressing that fact is for Schumer to pretend she has the lived experience of a person of color and write jokes from a perspective she doesn’t have. It would likely be better for everyone involved if the industry at large dedicated more resources to cultivating and promoting the work of comedians who have lived that experience.

Does that mean Amy Schumer, the real person, is not responsible for what comes out of the mouth of “Amy Schumer,” the persona? Of course not. And while I’d argue that her sketches on race have consistently hit the mark, her standup strays into dicier territory. There’s the line Heisey quotes in her story — “I used to date Latino guys. Now I prefer consensual.” — that is not much better in context, and a stretch in her special, “Mostly Sex Stuff,” about a hot Latina named Jordana that is theoretically a self-effacing bit about how Schumer feels ugly next to this gorgeous woman in Miami but still reads as Schumer mocking Jordana’s accent.

The really questionable lines here are not in the bulk of Schumer’s work but in her response post: “Trust me. I am not a racist. I am a devout feminist and lover of all people. My fight is for all people to be treated equally.” Amy’s feminist bondafides are well established; she has arguably done as much, if not more, to advance conversations about feminism in 2015 than anyone else out there. But feminist cred isn’t a shield against accusations of racism. I don’t think Schumer’s jokes are racist, but I also don’t think “I’m a feminist” is a good way of refuting that claim.

If Schumer’s show is a Peabody-winning A+++, the race-based material in her standup is closer to a B. There is room for her humor about race be even more creative and daring and strange and surprising, all things Schumer has proven herself more than capable of being. Good thing Comedy Central renewed Inside Amy Schumer for a fourth season.