I wish that we could stop talking about this. Contrary to popular belief, black people really don't enjoy protesting and complaining about every act of racial offense that comes our way. I know I don't. And because we live in a country with such a history of racial injustice as the United States, which still refuses to deal with much of that history and its present effects, to get up in arms about every offensive incident would be to remain in a constant state of distress.
That's why, when I was confronted with the use of the dreaded n-word at an advanced screening of Seth Rogen's comedy Neighbors, I was hesitant to respond. In the movie, comedian Ike Barinholtz fires off the word twice in his improvised lines -- once when reciting the lyrics to an Outkast song and again when mimicking, of all people, President Barack Obama. Not only did the lines seem unfunny in that white-guy-trying-too-hard-to-be-edgy sort of way, but it was also unsettling to see this character use a racial slur on screen with such abandon, knowing that this film will eventually make its way overseas and millions of people will see it when all is said and done.
Perhaps you could argue that since some black people use the n-word themselves, this isn't a big deal. But whether you feel that the word should be used by anyone, there's no denying that it's a generations-old racial slur, widely considered off-limits for white folks, and offensive to the point of being censored on national television.
Here's the thing. I'm not a humorless activist. I get that entertainment, and especially comedy, can be risqué and should be seen in context. So immediately I wondered if people would catch Barinholtz' lines, and whether they would care. As it turns out, a lot of folks are easily impressed. Christopher Rosen of the Huffington Post applauded Barinholtz' use of the word, as well as cracking a rape joke, saying, "That Barinholtz manages to navigate those tricky waters, landing big laughs in the process, is a credit to his comic dexterity."
When The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Neighbors star and producer Rogen about Barinholtz' "boundary-pushing humor," he responded:
On set, you have to do stuff that makes people uncomfortable. You have to always shoot stuff that's less than that. I don't mean genuinely uncomfortable, but there's something in your head that says, 'This is f---ed up'... We'll always push the envelope. If we have an idea and it makes us laugh, we'll film it.
Given this logic, it came as a surprise when rapper Macklemore recently donned a costume that was considered offensive to Jews, and Rogen was among the first to accuse him of anti-Semitism. For a surprise performance at EMP Museum in Seattle on Friday, Macklemore reportedly "thought it would be fun to dress up in a disguise and go incognito to the event," and wore a getup with an oversized nose, dark wig and beard that many thought looked like a Jewish stereotype.
Rogen apparently thought so, and lashed out via Twitter:
— Seth Rogen (@Sethrogen) May 18, 2014
Some may not see the connection between these two situations, but I'd argue that Barinholtz using a slur that offends black folks, and Macklemore donning a getup that offends Jews, are strikingly similar. The difference is that according to Macklemore, he had no idea that his costume would be perceived as offensive, whereas Barinholtz, Rogen, and most of those affiliated with Neighbors knew what they were doing and chose to forge ahead anyway, even patting themselves on the back for doing so.
.@macklemore really?? Because if I told someone to put together an anti Semitic Jew costume, they'd have that exact shopping list.
— Seth Rogen (@Sethrogen) May 19, 2014
The other difference is in how we respond. Macklemore has been taken to task and has since apologized for donning his offensive costume, but there's been no such stir over Neighbors. Sitting in a darkened theater of mostly white audience members, I had to wonder why, when a term offensive to my people is tossed around for comic effect, it's met with uproarious laughter. I had to wonder why it either slips past people entirely, or worse, gets commended as edgy or innovative; but yet when there's even the perception that something is offensive to Jews, it's suddenly time to take a stand against racial insensitivity.
Why Seth Rogen, is it wrong to offend your people, but not mine?
Or maybe the more troubling question is, why does a racial slur against my people not even count as offensive?
Again, humor is a layered and complex thing, and should be considered in context. But in this case, the hypocrisy is abundantly clear. You don't get to celebrate racial insensitivity towards one group and condemn racial insensitivity towards another. If we're ever going to realize the "post-racial America" that so many are claiming, we have to learn to fight ignorance and insensitivity towards everyone.