Dave Chappelle and Performing Ignorance

Dave Chapelle illustration with a devil on each shoulder



hen you know better, you do better. It’s the promise and the discipline I was taught by elders throughout my life.


It is the calming idea that the more that you know as a person, the better you’ll do, the less harm you’ll perpetuate, and the more wisdom you’ll be able to share. Naively, I believed this, and maybe even more importantly, I believed that this was the truth for most people. I believed that goodness and wisdom were goals for all people, and acts of ignorance or evil were simply caused by a lack of guidance and knowledge. Moments in pop culture disillusioned this childish fantasy and helped me realize that knowing better and doing better is not of the highest priority when greed is involved.

Dave Chappelle recently released his first comedy program in over a decade via Netflix. The two sets were filled with violent ideas on rape, trans folks, and gay people. As a queer feminist thinker, I, of course, failed to arrive at the enlightenment or relief promised in the humor. But, fortunately for him and the mostly white crowd, I doubt I was the centered gaze when Chappelle was writing his script. As a Chappelle fan, I was disappointed for reasons that were less political. I had an artistic beef with Dave Chappelle in this moment. When did he get so lazy?


As a queer feminist thinker, I, of course, failed to arrive at the enlightenment or relief promised in the humor.

Whether I agree with Dave Chappelle or not is of no real consequence. I am frankly not surprised that the same nation that elected a man that grabs women by their pussy without consent would also produce someone who jokes about rape in a way that minimizes the impact of the act as opposed to interrogating, through humor, the world that makes these actions possible. The naive child inside of me, still, is shocked. I know Dave Chappelle is smarter than these moments. I know, even if I do not agree with where he arrived, that there were more complex and interesting spaces for him to explore. And I know that he could have done it, but he did not.


In this moment of reflection, on Dave Chappelle’s comedy special, my internal child has to suffer to arrive at the truth. The truth is that in a white supremacist capitalist society, there is money to be had by performing ignorance; the more critical, the more intelligent of a moment you attempt to have in this society, the more you are putting your professional body at risk to be silenced and the less likely you are to profit. If Chappelle were to push his mostly white audience to the cutting edge of cis-heterosexual black male thought and concern, he would be risking his comeback into the mainstream. Chappelle of all people knows because he acknowledged and once left the mainstream, that there are

certain things you do not perform or push in order to entice the imagination of the nation that elected a fascist bigot. It is safer for Chappelle’s pockets and brand to explore the ways that patriarchal domination manifests in blackness and whiteness; especially when you reveal on further inspection that it’s all fundamentally the same. Bill Cosby is to Dave Chappelle what Donald Trump is to the vast

majority of white men living in this country. Chappelle chose to have an audience bond over their shared lust for domination instead of exploring the opportunities of humanity in a nuanced way.

Capitalism calls for you to be average and Dave Chappelle obeyed. It calls for you to be ignorant despite moments, even fleeting, of critical enlightenment. It calls for you to suppress anything that does not perpetuate the culture of domination that asks you to reproduce violence in place of empathy. He is not unique. Tomi Lahren did not get fired from her job for being pro-choice. She got fired for having an intellectual, critical moment. She transgressed domination despite her obvious commitment to fascist wickedness. Bill O'Reilly did not say that Maxine Waters’ physical appearance mirrored James Brown because he believed it or because her hair was that distracting. He used misogynoir as a vehicle to disrupt someone having a critical, intellectual moment. He was protecting the very system of domination that has made him possible. He was performing loyalty to ignorance. There is money to be had by performing ignorance and by making others who are committed to ignorance feel better about their choices. There is not much stardom or money to be had in disrupting imaginations and pushing intellectual thought to the edge.


There is money to be had by performing ignorance and by making others who are committed to ignorance feel better about their choices.

It is not that Dave Chappelle’s special was special. I was not especially offended, even though I do recognize these comments were offensive. I was more so shocked that someone who had publicly criticized domination and rejected the desire to collude with it for profit had been “reformed” or “fixed”. The alluring nature of wealth and fame took time to break Mr. Chappelle down. But it did, indeed, break him down. And now, he’s back. Even if it is just a shadow of who we fell in love with over a decade ago.

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