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Race Consciousness and Class Invisibility in American Comedy

A few months ago, I went with some friends to a sketch comedy show titled “The Taming of the Flu” at Chicago’s beloved Second City Improv Theater.  Second City has long been an incubator for cutting edge comedy. As many of you may know, some of America’s most brilliant and over-exposed comedians (Tina Fey, Steve Carrell and Stephen Colbert to name a few) began their careers there.

The power of good comedy rests in its ability to expose human foibles and to reveal the silliness of cultural norms that we seldom question. The show I attended that night mastered both of these objectives. For example, the audience erupted into laughter during a skit that featured a conceited Mayor Daley trying to woo the Olympic Committee into choosing Chicago as the host city for the next summer games. Later, the audience giggled in amusement during a sketch that portrayed a husband too distracted by his Iphone to converse with his wife. From start to finish, the show was peppered with jokes that ridiculed arrogant public figures (such as Daley and Blageovich), and mocked America’s infatuation with technology or other cultural absurdities.

A number of the skits also focused on another pervasive aspect of American culture: unconscious racism. For example, in one skit a teacher and her students talk about the new president Barack Obama—but whisper every time they say the word “black”. The one black child in the classroom is confused, never gets called on, and is finally shouted at for not raising his hand. The skit makes fun of whites for their discomfort with talking about race and their misguided attempts to seem politically correct. This kind of humor, which jibes at the subtler aspects of racism, is popping up all over American comedy. It was perhaps first popularized on “The Office” where main character Michael Scott refers to collard greens as “colored greens” and plans a “Diversity Day” where he forces all of his employees to act out ethnic stereotypes.

After watching the show at Second City, I reflected that discussions of race in popular comedy have evolved quite a bit over the past decade or so. As I remember, mainstream white comedians and sitcoms during the late 90s and early 2000s (such as Seinfeld and Friends) tended to ignore the subject of race altogether. Only irreverent black comedians such as Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle were brazen enough to talk about racism and to make fun of white America. Both comedians were masters of transforming some of the most serious, controversial and taboo topics into something funny. For example, one sketch on the Chappelle Show included a mock documentary of the first black man to poop in a “white’s only” toilet.

It seems that Rock and Chapelle’s brand of defiant comedy has now faded. The new trend in race comedy is much subtler and gentler. Racial stereotypes are reversed, and racism is portrayed in the form of misplaced comments and Freudian slips. For example, in one classic moment on “The Office”, Michael Scott offends his employee Oscar by suggesting that the term Mexican is an offensive ethnic slur rather than a nationality. Characters with unintentional racial bias (such as The Office’s Michael Scott) are portrayed as ignorant, silly, obnoxious—but also harmless and ultimately forgivable. It strikes me as interesting that modern comedy chooses to portray racism so often as a deeply embarrassing and unintentional social faux pas.

However, this new kind of race-conscious comedy does reflect an evolving awareness that racism is a nuanced, complex, and intractable phenomenon. We find it funny precisely because it exposes reality. We live in a society deeply confused about race. (Should one say Black or African-American? Hispanic or Latino? White or Caucasian?)  As a culture, we fumble to bridge our differences, struggle to disguise our prejudices, and worry secretly that we might “say the wrong thing”. It is no surprise that today’s comedians have begun poking fun at our generation’s discomfort with the topic of race.

It is striking to me that while American comedy and pop culture remain obsessed with the topic of race, the subject of class-based prejudice is largely invisible in both these mediums. Class-based bias (unconscious or deliberate) also permeates many aspects of our culture and everyday lives—and yet this phenomenon is rarely recognized.

The Second City Show I attended clearly conveyed the message that racism is distasteful.  However, the show was much less sensitive to the subject of class. A number of the short sketches unashamedly ridiculed lower class or ethnic whites. One skit captured a conversation between two white, Chicago bike cops with exaggerated blue-collar accents. The theater rippled with laughter when one of the cops describes his recent “commuter vacation” where he and his wife took a week off from work and commuted to the casinos in Hammond, Indiana—because they could not afford to travel to Las Vegas. Later, the audience roared when a hairy-chested, mafia-esque Italian character delivered a monologue that advertised his low-cost health insurance (an obvious scam). In another sketch, the audience snickered at an ambiguously foreign cab driver who, refuses to change the ethnic radio station in his car for passengers.

When I left that show that night, I agreed with my friends that much of what we had seen was funny. Yet, I felt uncomfortable with the degrading depiction of lower-class people in many of the jokes. I also felt uncomfortable with the writers’ implicit assumption that its audience members were all a part of the upper middle class. The show’s depiction of lower-class whites seemed so incongruous with its commentary about race. The show’s insinuation that lower class whites are somehow silly, stupid, trashy, and un-American left me very uneasy.

However, it would be wrong to blame Second City for my uneasiness. Comedy only mirrors the attitudes of larger society. And while making racist jokes is rightfully taboo in today’s society—making fun of poor or ethnic whites is culturally permissible and seems to go largely unnoticed.

Our socioeconomic status can in many ways unfairly shape our educational and career opportunities—but Americans seldom acknowledge this fact. I’m not sure whether America’s absence of class-consciousness is a triumph of capitalism or a consequence of long-standing racial and ethnic rivalries. Perhaps our belief in the concept (or myth) of American meritocracy makes it difficult for Americans to acknowledge that class divisions do exist in our society, and that socioeconomic status is a barrier to equal opportunity for many. At a time where a college education is both prohibitively expensive and essential for entry into a middle-class profession—the “rags to riches” American dream is far less common. As many of you are probably aware, the past twenty years has seen the rich get richer, the poor get poorer and the middle class get smaller. The Second City Show I attended suggests that we live in a divided society, where the upper-middle class has little compassion, understanding or interest in the lives of the poor and uneducated. The worst part of all of this is that Americans use our belief in meritocracy and individualism to deny that we make judgments about people based on class.

The fact that class prejudices are not discussed in mainstream American comedy (which is perhaps the medium where controversial issues can be discussed with the most honesty) does not mean that these prejudices do not exist. It only means that Americans are largely oblivious to our prevailing attitudes about class and the damage these attitudes might cause.

We live in a highly materialistic and consumerist society where the cars we drive, the shoes we wear, and the houses we live in are often mistaken for badges of our self-worth. And now we are in the midst of the Great Recession, where more and more middle-class people are slipping into poverty. I hope that more artists, songwriters, writers, comedians and others who help form American culture will take this time to reconsider America’s obsession with wealth, disdain for poverty, and discreet class prejudices. It is time that Americans begin to approach the topic of class with some of the same seriousness, interest and insightfulness with which we have begun to think about race.

Thoughts on Childhood Obesity and Poverty

Between working as research assistant on a cancer-risk study and a social work intern at the University of Chicago Hospital—I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the intersection between poverty and obesity-related diseases.

While America’s obesity problem is often blamed on a cultural addiction to television and fast food—I believe firmly that our eating habits are not shaped by culture and individual proclivities alone. This is especially true for America’s poor.

From my experiences teaching in urban neighborhoods and serving poor clients at the University of Chicago Hospital—I have deduced a few major problems that increase the likelihood that poor, urban children will suffer from obesity-related diseases.

Safety & Exercise.

One respondent I interviewed as a part of a cancer study, informed me that she did not exercise because it was not safe to walk around her neighborhood and she could not afford to join a health club. I realized afterward that my students in Englewood had often commented that the number of shootings in their communities forced them to stay inside the house as much as possible. When neighborhood streets and parks are not safe places for children to play —it is only logical to assume that they will not receive regular exercise.

Children in poor neighborhoods may also be pressured to work or to care for younger siblings after school. This makes it less likely that poor children will participate in after school sports programs. Furthermore, due to the demands of the No Child Left Behind Act, many schools have slashed recess and elective courses (such as gym class) in order to accommodate for extra test preparation.

School Lunches.

School lunches across the country are notoriously unhealthy. A recent Chicago Tribune article revealed that nachos submerged in a puddle of cheese are regularly served for lunch in Chicago Public Schools. Since that article’s publication CPS pledged to make their menu healthier by using whole wheat tortilla chips. (I’m sorry but whole wheat or not any meal drowned in fake cheese does not qualify as nutritious).

While most middle class children have the option of packing a healthier lunch from home, the majorities of poor children qualify for free or reduced price lunch and breakfast. Poor parents cannot afford to buy breakfast and lunch for their children—so poor children have no choice but to eat the high fat, low-nutrient meals at school. Is it any wonder that poor children suffer disproportionately from diabetes?

Grocery Deserts.

There are no grocery stores in the vast majority of inner-city neighborhoods. This means families who do not own cars will most likely be forced to buy their food at gas stations or fast food establishments. This means that many poor families are subsisting almost entirely on highly processed packaged foods with little nutritional value.


Between the French fries and pizza served at school and the packaged foods that stock the shelves at gas stations—most inner city children are likely to go through the day without ever consuming a fruit or vegetable item. As I consider the realities  discussed above, the issue of poor nutrition among America’s low-income children strikes me not only as a serious public health concern but also as a human rights issue.

It is proven fact that poor diet and the lack of exercise can lead to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. If this is true—shouldn’t all citizens have access to healthy foods and safe places to exercise? It seems to me that all Americans should have the right to practice good health. For poor, inner-city residents this choice is non-existent.

Currently many preventative health care programs in schools focus on educating students about the value of exercise and eating healthy. Such educational programs are valuable, but only when children have access healthy foods and safe places to play, walk, or ride bicycles. As long as structural inequalities that deny poor children the option of choosing healthy foods persist, preventative health care education will never accomplish much change.

Our government pumps billions of dollars into expensive medical procedures to treat obesity related diseases and has invested billions in medical research to discover more effective treatments. Why not invest more money in preventative care? There are a few steps I believe our government could take to greatly reduce the prevalence of obesity related diseases among our nation’s poor.

  • Give subsidies and other monetary incentives to low-income families in order that they can afford to buy produce and other healthy food items.
  • Invest money in improving school lunches
  • Provide incentives for grocery stores to move into low-income neighborhoods
  • Make parks and other public spaces safer places for children to play
  • More funding urban gardening programs and non-profit organizations (such as Girls on the Run) that bring exercise programming to schools
  • Mount an intensive public health campaign against the food served at fast food chains (similar to public health campaigns waged against smoking)

I am convinced that leading a healthy lifestyle is as important as access to good doctors and high quality medical care. If our government undertook some of the simple and relatively cheap suggestions above  (compare the cost of a heart transplant to the yearly cost of a healthier school lunch for one pupil)I believe we could radically improve the health outcomes of  many children. The real question is whether our nation will ever decide with sincerity that the health and well-being of poor, minority children matters.

I Care Movement Hosts Peace Walk Saturday, October 2nd

In 2009, 213 people under the age of 25 were murdered in Chicago. The vast majority of these victims were young, African-American males. I have to imagine that if a violent outbreak of similar magnitude occurred among white, middle-class children it would elicit national hysteria and become the subject of endless media coverage (just look back to the Columbine shootings a few years ago).

While the gruesome death of Fenger High School student Derrion Albert garnered the attention of the New York Times this fall, Chicago’s violence problem has hardly been given the consideration it deserves. Just think—in 2008 314 soldiers were slain in Iraq, while 509 people were murdered in Chicago.

It is no exaggeration to describe Chicago’s South and West Sides as war-zones. These are places where innocent and healthy children live with the very real possibility of death each day.

As a teacher in West Englewood I often witnessed the ways in which gun violence impacted the safety and emotional well being of my students. To share just a few examples:

  • During one staff meeting a school social worker shared with me that one of her students was experiencing trauma after a stray bullet pierced his thigh during the walk home from school.
  • Two of my own students entered my classroom with bandages covering bullet wounds on their arms.
  • Another student of mine disappeared from school after a gang fight sent him into a coma and left him with debilitating brain injuries.
  • One afternoon my lesson was interrupted by a volley of gunshots outside our window.
  • During the first six weeks of school last year– three students were murdered at the school where I taught.

When an inspirational speaker visited our school during “Peace Day”—he asked the student audience how many of them knew someone who had died from gun violence. Slowly, students began to lift their arms. After a few moments there was a sea of raised hands—too many to count.

Community violence not only imperils the safety of young people. It also fills their lives with grief, fear and uncertainty. Children living in a toxic environment are more likely to have difficulty concentrating on school work, pursing goals and planning for their future. Exposure to violence can also cause stress, anxiety and more serious mood disorders. Furthermore, community violence depletes the energy and optimism of community leaders, teachers, social workers and other professionals who serve inner-city children.

I’m sharing my thoughts on this topic today because on Saturday, October 2nd, the ‘I Care Movement”  ( will be hosting a 5K “Peace Walk” to raise money for anti-violence programming. (In order to register to participate or learn more follow the link above). I believe this event is a great opportunity for concerned Chicagoans to generate awareness around the youth violence epidemic. It is an outrage that poor children in the world’s wealthiest nation experience higher mortality rates than children living in some of the world’s poorest, and most turbulent nations. If this issue moves you, then please consider walking, volunteering, or making a donation to the I Care Movement  Peace Walk.

Two Good Books

As a follow up to my last post, I thought I would recommend two books that have helped me to shape and clarify my views of education reform.

The first book is “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” by Diane Ravitch. Ravitch is one of our nation’s leading educational historians. Her latest book chronicles the evolution of education reform over the past twenty years. Ravitch’s account examines the passage of No Child Left Behind, the rise of the charter school movement and the failures of large urban school districts. The book investigates the legacy of the Bush Administration– especially its obsession with testing and accountability.

Although I wished Ravitch would have spent more time discussing the future of education rather than the failures of the past, I believe she brings some important questions to the table. Foremost, she questions whether large philanthropies (such as those created by Bill Gates and the Waltons of Wal-mart) possess too much unchecked power and influence in the world of education reform. She also expresses concern over the explosion of charter schools and the shrinkage of neighborhood schools  (she theorizes that parents are more likely build community and engage in collective action at neighborhood schools).

Where or not you agree with Ravitch’s conclusions (she argues fervently for the creation of a rigorous national curriculum, and calls for re-investment in the traditional neighborhood school)–the history she provides can help you understand why our national educational system looks and operates  the way it does today. Furthermore, the book is concise, accessible and though-provoking.

The second book I would like to recommend is “So Much Reform, So Little Change: The Persistence of Failure in Urban Schools” by Charles Payne. Payne’s book seeks to explain why so many reforms are unsuccessfully implemented in urban school districts. Dr. Payne explores how school cultures are formed, and he explains how such cultures might help or hinder school performance. His descriptions of a “culture of failure” completely synchronized with my own experiences as a teacher. During my second year of teaching– the understanding I gleaned from this book helped me to make sense of the context I was working in. For those of you who feel deeply frustrated by the failures of our urban school system– Payne helps to de-mystify the complex problems facing teachers, students, parents and communities. This book helped me to see that school climate can thwart changes efforts and that reforms are likely to fail without the buy-in of teachers. In sum, Payne’s book teaches us that reform efforts that fail to acknowledge the nuanced, and interwoven nature of problems in our public school systems are unlikely to be successful.