“The Arab is the New Nigger”
“The Arab is the New Nigger”
African American Comics Confront the Irony & Tragedy of 9/111
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter examines how, even in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, many African American stand-up comedians displayed an ambivalent patriotism—indeed, a pervasive Du Boisian “double consciousness” still felt by many African Americans. It shows that these comedians were sympathetic to the victims of 9/11, but whipped up jokes that called into question the clarity of the “us vs. them” distinction that white America largely embraced after the attacks. It discusses the issue of race and racial difference in 9/11-related jokes and considers the Arab or Middle Easterner as the “new nigger” theme in many urban comedy clubs. It also looks at audience reactions to 9/11 humor, noting how not all jokes managed to elicit laughter. Finally, it considers 9/11 jokes as a form of political commentary that offer cautionary perspectives about America’s war on terrorism and its sociopolitical ramifications.
“Black people, we have been delivered. Finally, we got a new nigger. The Middle Easterner is the new nigger.”
—Comedian Ian Edwards
—(African American audience member)
Undeniably, the events of September 11 stunned and momentarily silenced many American comics, including some of the nation’s most popular humorists. As Jay Leno and David Letterman expressed their personal grief onscreen, Los Angeles–based African American comics and their largely Black and Brown audiences had somehow found the will to laugh. How did they find humor in the wake of such wide-scale tragedy and loss?
These questions consumed me in the weeks following the terrorist attacks, transforming a long-held casual interest in Black stand-up comedy into an impassioned preoccupation. In October 2001, I immersed myself in urban comedy shows and competitions in and beyond the Los Angeles area. I also spoke with comedians, club owners, promoters, and club-goers to gain deeper insights into 9/11-related humor and audience laughter (or silence) in response. In time, I amassed a wealth of jokes highlighting such topics as the war on terrorism, patriotism, racial profiling, and President Bush.
Significantly, many of these jokes belie popular claims that America has become more unified and its citizens more patriotic as a result of the national tragedy. While certainly sympathetic to the victims of the 9/11 attacks, including one of their own (comic David Williams, a.k.a “Dogface”), many comics maintained an unabashedly critical stance toward American foreign policy, presidential rhetoric, and frenzied flag-waving. Their jokes (p.48) evoke an ambivalent patriotism—indeed, a pervasive Du Boisian “double consciousness” still felt by many African Americans. In merging observations of everyday culture with the political, these jokes offer important, racially nuanced perspectives on what it means to be an American in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks.
Race and 9/11 Jokes
Race proved to be a prevalent theme in many jokes about September 11. Shang Forbes, a comic and poet, vehemently opposed President Bush’s post-9/11 war rhetoric and what he viewed as the nation’s heightened and reactionary patriotism. In a typical rant, he asked a Hollywood Improv crowd, “Why were there no flags being displayed before 9/11? Where was the patriotism? … Look at the flag—it was made in China!” He ended his set by alluding to the then pending police brutality case in Inglewood, California, involving Donovan Jackson: “They [critics] always say [stereotypic southern accent], ‘Don’t make fun of the flag you fucking … nigger boy. It’s America!’ Well [then] stop slapping [Black] teenage heads against the hood of mother-fucking police cars!” Other comics voiced similar opinions, while also providing pseudopatriotic rejoinders. “Earthquake,” a particularly gifted comic, mused, “Many people wonder why I’m not tripping after the terrorist attacks in New York and D.C. I’m a niggah—I’ve been dealing with [White] terrorists all my life! Still, I’m glad the White man came over to Africa and got me!” The tenor of these and other jokes, and audience reactions to them, reveal how race continues to qualify the experiences of African Americans in the United States. Race proved to be a pervasive undercurrent in other jokes as well, including those that cynically hailed the arrival of a “new nigger.”
The Arab as the New Nigger
The Arab or Middle Easterner as the “new nigger” theme echoed like a riff in many urban comedy rooms. Comic/actor Don “D. C.” Curry remarked at the Ha Ha Café, “It’s a good time to be Black. If you ain’t got no towel wrapped around your head, your ass is in the game!” Glenn B. speculated that “good things come out of bad things,” since racists now deflect their hatred from Blacks to people of Middle Eastern descent. At the Comedy Store, he reported meeting a skinhead in the post office who sought to (p.49) reassure him by saying, “We don’t hate you. We hate the Arabs.” Similarly, “A. C.” acknowledged that, while the national tragedy was “messed up,” it had fortuitous consequences as well. He told a crowd at Mixed Nuts, “I haven’t been a nigger for a month! Everyone’s like, ‘Hey, brother!’”
Comics who celebrated waning antagonism toward African Americans also alluded to more recent embittered histories between Blacks and newly (dis)favored groups. Tony Rock evoked contentious relations between African American passengers and Middle Eastern cab drivers in New York City when he quipped, “It’s a good time to be Black. Afghanis are the new niggers. Cab drivers pick me up and let me drive!” Similarly, New York native Frantz Cassius invoked a history of conflict between Blacks and the New York Police Department when he joked, “There’s one good thing that came from the terrorist attacks. For a good while, the police left Black people alone. [Recently] the police stopped me. I had some weed in my hand and some cocaine in the trunk. They asked me if I’d seen anything out of the ordinary. I told them [puffs an imaginary blunt], ‘I just saw two Arabs walking down the street, and they looked suspicious. You may want to go check ’em out.’”
In this exaggerated plot, Cassius turns the notorious DWB, or “Driving While Black,” phenomenon on its head—in the face of a perceived Arab threat, driving over the speed limit while smoking marijuana becomes an excusable offense after September 11. His joke also acts as a veiled critique by underscoring African Americans’ newfound “rights” consequent to Arab Americans’ waning civil liberties. But the story behind the joke may be more compelling than the punch line. In an interview, Cassius revealed that his joke was inspired by an actual interaction with a New York police officer just days after the terrorist attacks. Accustomed to aggressive police action during routine traffic stops, Cassius was surprised when the officer simply admonished him to stop speeding and released him without issuing a ticket. Cassius explained the irony of his good fortune, noting, “Now, the focus is on something bigger than the Black man—someone who’s really after White people, and not some imaginary enemy.”
In a similar play on the “Arab as new nigger” premise, comic/actor Ralph Harris alleged that first-class passengers now gladly welcome rap artists into their exclusive cabin space. Using hyperstandard diction, he impersonated a passenger issuing a rather unorthodox request: “Excuse me, stewardess? That gentleman who walked by with the gold chains and baggy jeans—do you think he could have a seat next to me? You can just take it off my tab.” This joke sardonically expounds on the ways racist stereotypes about Blacks have evolved since the terrorist attacks. In Harris’s world, the harrowing (p.50) events of 9/11 did not necessarily absolve Black men of the stigma of being dangerous so much as it temporarily recast them as potential allies in America’s new war on terrorism.
Comic Courtney Gee expands the “Arab as new nigger” premise by framing the September 11 tragedy as a great equalizer. At the Ha Ha Café, he joked that everyone, including the most privileged and unquestionably American (i.e., White men), are subject to heightened scrutiny under new airport security laws: “[Now] White men … get to be suspects too. They get to see what it feels like.” Gee then performed his interpretation of an angry White male passenger at an airport security checkpoint: “What?! Take off my shoes? What the fuck for?! I don’t own a 7-Eleven or have a fucking dot on my head!” Here, Gee exploits multiple stereotypes to highlight the seeming dissolution of racial profiling in the wake of 9/11. Collectively, he and other comics depict a new day wherein non–African Americans—e.g., Whites, Pakistanis, Indians, and particularly Arab Americans—are vulnerable to indiscriminate searches and police harassment. Read as political commentaries, these and other jokes also suggest that, despite such generalized vulnerability, not all Americans experience equal footing with regard to their civil liberties.
Racial Difference and 9/11
Racial difference was another prevalent theme in jokes about September 11. In countless Black–White–other comparisons, comics coaxed humor out of stereotypes and defined Blackness and Whiteness in oppositional and highly generalized terms. Often, comics portrayed “ghetto” sensibilities, cunning, and urban combat skills as authenticating descriptors of Black culture and identity. Comics also qualified their frequent use of the slur “nigger,” distinguishing it from their colloquial use of the term “niggah” as an in-group and affinity marker. For example, comic/actor Chris Spencer echoed the general consensus when he discouraged Whites from using the word in any context. Spencer added, “[Plus] when we [African Americans] say it, it’s ‘niggah’ not ‘nigger.’ Avoid the ‘-er’ [suffix] if you want to stay out of the ‘E.R.’ [emergency room].” In 9/11-related humor set within the trope of racial difference, comics often used “niggah” to reference African Americans as a whole and valorize streetwise—essentially “real”—Black folks who would sneer at the threat of a box cutter.
For example, Earthquake repeatedly roused diverse audiences to hysterics when he mused that Osama bin Laden must be highly persuasive to (p.51) have convinced the terrorists to sacrifice their lives. At the Comedy Store, he joked: “’sama bin Laden is a hell of a motivator. He [lives] in caves while others blow shit up. Ain’t no niggahs gon’ go along with that. If I worked for him it would be a whole ’nother story. He’d be like, ‘Go do that [stage a suicide bombing]!’ I’d be like, ‘Where you gon’ be?!’ Hell, I know a pimp when I see one!”
Other comics invoked racial difference to vouch for the valor of African Americans in the face of terrorist threats. For example, many comics expressed a common suspicion that if Blacks had been on the doomed flights, or if the terrorists had merely opted for Southwest Airlines (a low-cost airline), the terrorist attacks might not have happened. Michael Colyar speculated, “There must not have been a lot of brothers in first class the day that the planes were hijacked. I’m sorry, but you can’t hijack no niggahs with a knife!” Comic “Scruncho” bluntly proffered: “God bless all those who died on September 11, but I gotta be real. If it had been at least three real niggahs on the plane, It-Wouldn’t-Be-No-War-Right-Now!” Scruncho has performed this routine at multiple venues, garnering thunderous applause nearly every time.
Other jokes offered surprising, if not controversial, elaborations on this theme. While hosting the Comedy Store’s legendary Phat Tuesday show, comedian Geoff Brown jested, “God rest the souls of those who died. But them must’ve been some passive Whites on the plane. What happened to those nigger-killing, Indian-land-stealing White folks? Where’s the Aryan when you need him? … We needed some big niggahs to guard the plane. They would’ve made the terrorists change their minds.” Brown fearlessly flirts with the forbidden by daring to question how the victims aboard the two fateful flights allowed themselves to be overtaken. His provocative query further pushes the envelope by highlighting America’s complicity in a contentious history of slavery and conquest; arguably, this tactical maneuver of revisiting tragic histories within the United States complicates an “America-as-victim-only” response to 9/11.
Audience Responses to 9/11 Humor
However, not all jokes about September 11 managed to provoke laughter. One amateur comedienne met silence before a predominantly Black crowd when she jested that the tendency of African Americans to run first and ask questions later had contributed to the death of Blacks on the upper (p.52) floors of the World Trade Center. Additionally, some jokes, which were otherwise successful in predominantly Black rooms, generated controversy when performed in wider venues. This was especially true of 9/11 humor marking a racial divide in the ethnic group(s) targeted by terrorists and the perceived impact of September 11 on Black versus White Americans. For example, comic and actress Thea Vidale provoked a surge of protest letters after an appearance on National Public Radio’s Tavis Smiley Show when she quipped:
White people, I love you dearly. I do. But Osama bin Laden—he ain’t mad at us, he mad at y’all. Y’all got a problem … I don’t know what you did to him, made him mad, but y’all got a problem … America was shocked ’cause it’s not so much that we got bombed; it’s where they bombed us. They bombed us at the World Trade Center. That’s the World Bank in this country! You know ’cause if it had … been bombed in Compton … or Harlem, they would’ve been saying [upbeat reporter voice], ‘…Osama bin Laden has bombed Compton, California, and Harlem, New York. Next, Jim with sports.’
Many listeners found her comments to be distasteful, divisive, and anti-White, compelling Smiley to devote a subsequent segment to respond to listener comments.
The controversy surrounding Vidale’s joke is itself a commentary about the way audiences police the boundaries of tragic humor. Understood against the broader spectrum of Black stand-up comedy after 9/11, it also raises questions about how race can constrain or facilitate laughter at such comedy. It’s worth mentioning, for example, that the sentiments expressed by Vidale were not only echoed by other comics, but were also overwhelmingly endorsed by predominantly Black and Brown audiences throughout Los Angeles.
For example, comic/actor Arie Spears presented what Black audiences found to be a plausible and humorous theory about why poor Black communities were not targeted in the terrorist attacks. He quipped, “A lot of people don’t know it, but the safest place to be right now is the ghetto. Osama and them not worried about niggahs. Can you imagine al Qaeda trying to convince bin Laden to bomb Black people. They’d be like, ‘Osama, we have found a target!’ Osama would be like [highly agitated], ‘What is this Compton?! Look, I don’t have time for this …’” In Spears’s comedic reality, the reason why Blacks are spared from greater casualties is not because of their (p.53) cunning or combat skills. Rather, the fate of Compton and other poor minority enclaves is predicated on the their marginal status in the United States, and hence, their negligible currency as American targets in the terrorists’ imaginations. Spears’s and Vidale’s jokes are similar in this regard. Spears’s impersonation of a weary bin Laden exposes his devaluation of the ghetto as a strategic American target, much like Vidale’s parody of an impassive American news reporter reveals the media’s disregard of a potential terrorist strike (and, presumably, other tragedies) in the ghetto. Both underscore the relative status of African Americans within and beyond America.
Many comics also emphasized the disproportionate impact that September 11 seemed to have on White versus Black Americans. Several comics coyly asked Black audiences to indicate, by show of hands, their lingering trauma after the terrorist attacks. Audiences responded, in line, with more chuckles than raised hands. Chris Spencer, host of the Laugh Factory’s Chocolate Sunday show, also observed, “It’s a damn war going on and Black folks are the only ones going out [and] having a good time!” Comic Loni Love similarly joked that she was angry with the terrorists for interrupting her hair appointment, but even more perturbed with White Americans for not preventing the September 11 attacks. With hands on her hips, she chided, “White people?! Why y’all let this happen?!” Dave Chappelle also won laughs after wearily informing a crowd at the Hollywood Improv, “White folks done got us into some problems again”
An Ambivalent Patriotism
Why do these jokes work in comedy clubs, and why are predominantly minority audiences able to laugh at them? African American humor, from slavery to present, has proven to be a balm in times of trouble, as well as an indirect means of confronting racial injustice. As a genre characterized by expressive “lies,” poignant “truths,” and lively call-and-response, Black stand-up comedy has also offered a formalized and communal mechanism for commenting on daily and monumental tragedies, often in contrast to mainstream accounts. Laughter and applause from African American audiences can thus serve to endorse comics who are perceived to “speak truth to power” about the war on terrorism and other political matters. For many minority audiences, 9/11 jokes “work” as political commentaries that resist pro-war rhetoric and implicate a larger shared history of racial marginalization. These jokes also work because they invoke problems of race in (p.54) America, particularly comics’ ongoing struggles against violations of their civil liberties. As actor/comic Evan Lionel solemnly notes, these recurring domestic struggles complicate expressions of loyalty to America, even in the face of war:
We all love this country but a lot of folks think that Blacks don’t support the war on terrorism. That’s bullshit. It’s just hard for me to get behind the war on terrorism over there when we haven’t done it here. Can we stop off in Alabama and hunt the terrorists there before [we go to] Afghanistan?! … People say, “Well, if you don’t like it then go back to Africa.” What African tribe I’m-a go back to?! Plus, Black people helped build this country! … I love America.
On October 28, 2001, political columnist Jonetta Rose Barras wrote in the Washington Post that African American responses to 9/11 encompass sadness, fear, and grief, as well as doubts concerning the meaning of the American flag and how far civil liberties extend in times of crisis (A6, A19). The laughter I observed arguably reflects more than the ideological idiosyncrasies of African American comics and their audiences. Instead, the nature of 9/11 humor reflects a widely shared ambivalence among African Americans concerning the nation’s response to the attacks and their collective identity as Americans at this critical historical moment.
The “Arab as new nigger” premise is itself a telling exemplar of the paradoxical impact of September 11 on the lives of many African Americans. As noted earlier, many comics adopted this premise as a sardonic celebration of their newfound privileges resulting from the curtailment of Arab American freedoms. In other jokes, comics invoked this premise, directly or indirectly, to critique America’s diminished attention to racism, poverty, and other social ills plaguing African American communities following September 11. Some comics, including Don “D.C.” Curry and Brandon Bowlin, acknowledged the plight of Arab Americans in their jokes but nevertheless found the “Arab as new nigger” comparison to be an inappropriate, if not insulting, metaphor to endorse verbatim. Curry’s quip provides an interesting case in point (see “The Arab as New Nigger” above). While his joke emphasizes the vulnerable position of Arab Americans in the wake of 9/11, Curry personally takes issue with the “Arab as new nigger” comparison. In his eyes, the metaphor fails to problematize the slur “nigger” and falsely equates the recent hardships experienced by Arab Americans with the chronic struggles faced by African Americans. Still other comedians, such as Ray Chatman, alluded to the tenuousness of the “Arab as new nigger” thesis in light of past and (p.55) recent high-profile cases (e.g., the O. J. Simpson trial) in which the alleged sins of one Black person serve to stigmatize African Americans as a whole. Referring to the Washington, D.C., sniper case, Chatman recently inspired raucous laughter when he joked: “Hell, if we had placed bets on whether or not the [Washington, D.C.] sniper was Black or White, we would’ve all lost money! I couldn’t believe it was a brother! He [sniper] done set us back again! After September 11, we wasn’t niggers no more. We had new niggers! Now, we niggers again. … How you gon’ be niggers again?!”
In speculating on the new dangers facing African Americans, given the disclosure of the sniper’s ethnicity, Chatman’s joke challenges the very premise upon which it is based. In essence, he suggests that the post-9/11 framing of the Arab as “new nigger” was a bittersweet outcome at best, since it only afforded African Americans basic freedoms as U.S. citizens (e.g., temporary reprieve from indiscriminate racial profiling and police brutality). Moreover, his conclusion—“How you gon’ be niggers again?!”—is strictly rhetorical, suggesting that African Americans are ever vulnerable to disparaging labels and perceptions.
9/11 Humor as Political Commentary
Overwhelmingly, the 9/11 jokes I observed in “urban” comedy clubs offer cautionary perspectives about America’s war on terrorism and its sociopolitical ramifications. Besides denouncing blanket racial profiling, comics also condemn simplistic and ahistorical accounts of U.S.–Middle East conflict that conveniently absolve America from culpability in past and present tragedies. Moreover, comics carefully consider what America’s new war on terrorism will mean for them as African Americans, who, in the words of comic/actor Faizon Love, “only get to be Americans when [the nation] needs something from them.” As complex political commentaries, these and other jokes offer important, racially nuanced perspectives on what it means to be an American in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks—perspectives too often lost when our nation rallies in the face of “new” vulnerabilities.
I would like to thank my colleagues Stan Huey Jr. and Marvin Sterling, as well as the USC Norman Lear Celebrity, Politics, and Culture Seminar for their invaluable comments on this manuscript. I also want to thank a host of (p.56) comics, club owners, promoters, and managers, especially Brandon Bowlin, Don Curry, Jack Assadourian, Bené Benwikere, Kenya Duke, Enss Mitchell, Chris Spencer, Spike Thompson, Leland Wigington, Michael Williams, and Tony and Rhonda Spires, all of whom provided support and inspiration for this manuscript. Financial support for this research was provided by the USC Visual Anthropology Endowment Fund and the James Irvine Center for Scholarly Technology at USC.
(1) . This chapter was initially published under the title “‘The Arab Is the New Nigger’: African American Comics Confront the Irony and Tragedy of September 11.” Reproduced by permission of the American Anthropological Association from Transforming Anthropology Volume 14, Issue 1, pp. 60–64, 2006. Not for sale or further reproduction.