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On Hannah Gadsby, Spike Lee and Kwame Anthony Appiah

Do the conventions we follow when we talk about identity issues in diversity circles confine or liberate?

August 23, 2018
 
 

For most of her one woman show Nanette, Hannah Gadsby does the typical stand-up thing. She delves into a dimension of identity – in her case being a lesbian – and tells jokes about the experiences associated with it.

But in the second half, the show takes a turn. In one of many powerful, not-at-all-stand-uppy parts, she tells the story of the time that her grandmother talks about relationships with her, presenting the perfect opportunity for Hannah to come out as a lesbian. Except that she doesn’t, and instead goes along with the pretense that she’s just waiting for the right man. It’s an approach that I imagine is familiar to lots of people who have an identity or have chosen a route that seems alien (or worse, sinful) to some people in their circles.

But Gadsby does not make light of this moment. She doesn’t tell jokes. Instead she gets deadly serious. She had never told her grandmother that she was a lesbian, not simply because it was easier to avoid the topic, but because she was still, deep down, ashamed of it.

How strange, she observes, as she makes her living by standing on stages and telling jokes about being a lesbian. Surely there are tens of thousands of people who view that as proof of Gadsby’s liberation. In fact, it’s likely that it helped more than a few of them on a path to their own.

Along the way Gadsby delivers the insight that grabbed me by the throat: The form that is stand-up comedy sells liberation for identities, but it’s a masquerade, a deception. Stand-up comedy centers on a two part story: set-up and punch line. But that’s a convention that serves the audience, not the speaker. I invoke an identity, you expect a joke. We make a silent agreement to avoid the hard stuff. 

To come to terms with who they are, Gadsby says, human beings require more complex narratives, three-part stories with a beginning, a middle and an end. But the conventions of stand up don’t allow for that.

I find that an insight with wide relevance. Do the conventions of the ways in which we stage/frame/present/talk about identity issues in diversity circles actually allow for liberation? For these purposes, I’m going to characterize liberation as the multitude of expressions that might emerge from any range of identities.

Here is what Hannah Gadsby is saying to her stand-up comedy audience: Thank you for allowing me to make my living by talking about being a lesbian on a stage, but the longer I’ve done this the more I’ve realized that you only actually want me to talk about certain things. When I say, “As a lesbian …” you have an expectation of what follows from that. You want stories A, B and C. But I’ve realized that stories D, E and F are also part of who I am, and by continuing to meet your expectations, and worse by thinking that this was "liberation," I realize that it has actually retarded my attempts to come to terms with, and be, my full self. 

Kwame Anthony Appiah, academic philosopher and public intellectual extraordinaire, offered some insights into the now hyper-common practice of beginning sentences with ‘As a …’ in a recent piece for The New York Times. Appiah notes the many roles that those two words play in diversity conversations: a formula, an incantation, an arrowhead, a presumption, a cue.

Appiah believes that there are problems associated with each of these uses. Let’s consider when "As a ..." is understood as a cue, meaning that once an identity is invoked, it is preordained that a certain worldview, expression or presentation will follow.

One of the things I loved about Spike Lee’s new film BLACKkKlansman is how he destroys the idea of identity as cue. The hero of the film, Ron Stallworth, is a woke black man who appreciates the speeches of Kwame Ture, is intent on destroying the Klan, and loves being … a cop.

Say this out loud and see for yourself if it doesn’t sound a little bit awkward: “As a woke black man … I love being a cop.”

His girlfriend Patrice, the woke black president of the local Black Student Union, thinks it sounds worse than awkward. She is so tripped out when she finds out her boyfriend is a cop that she threatens to leave him. But Ron Stallworth keeps on being a woke black man, and a cop, and insists that the first can lead to the second.   

The big problem with invoking identity as cue is the charade involved, the elaborate pretense that when a marginalized minority says, “As a …” the power lies with the speaker. A cue only works when the audience has an expectation of what comes next. That expectation presents as a warm welcome, but in reality it constricts like a cold cage. You realize that when you invoke an identity in certain circles, only certain worldviews and expressions are allowed to follow.

Consider: There are lots of black cops in the United States. Some of them have children in college who are both woke about race issues and proud of the public service their parents are providing. I wonder how many of them are sitting in conversations about identity issues saying, “As a woke black woman, I’m proud that my mom is serving our community by being a police officer.” My wild guess is that those students figured out pretty quickly than when you invoke your racial identity in certain spaces, you better come out as Patrice, not Ron Stallworth.

This brings us back to Nanette, and why I admire Hannah Gadsby so much. She realized that the stand-up stage was actually something like a prison, that the audience expectation determined her range of expression, not the other way around. She wasn’t setting up and following through on stories of her own design. She wasn’t the one writing the cues. She was a prop in someone else’s play about lesbians. And once she figured that out, she left. 

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