Kevin Hart and Dave Chappelle’s Privileged LGBTQ Blind Spots
The two superstar comedians have come under fire for their insensitivity to the LGBTQ community. They have much to learn, writes Stereo Williams, as do their critics.
Oppressed people can oppress people. It’s an uncomfortable truism.
The discussion around privilege is nuanced; it requires an understanding of dynamics within various communities and how those various communities interact with each other. Sometimes, when we’re engaged in our almost ritualistic cycle of celeb backlash, commentary and fallout, it’s easy to forget how the dynamics of marginalized groups can shift. Black hetero men, so often centered in our discussions surrounding racism, family, and community, can contribute to the marginalization of women and LGBTQ people in the community. One can become oblivious to that—even in trying to fight “the good fight” against bigotry. Recent headlines have made that clearer.
Being a black man in America means navigating the racism of the majority, but it also has to mean understanding how our position within our culture affords us power to stand over others in that culture. Two of entertainment’s most successful and controversial comedians have faced recent criticism for their inability or unwillingness to recognize the latter.
Dave Chappelle and Kevin Hart have both been at the center of PR nightmares as the result of remarks they’ve made about the LGBTQ community and LGBTQ issues. Those controversies were back under the spotlight recently. In August, Chappelle’s latest Netflix special, Sticks & Stones, reignited what feels like an ongoing back-and-forth between the comic and the audience he seems to revel in provoking. And Hart, during this week’s appearance on LeBron James’ HBO series The Shop, sparked an uncomfortable exchange when rapper Lil Nas X explained why he’d decided to come out just as he was breaking big with the No. 1 hit “Old Town Road.”
“He said he was gay! So what?” Hart interrupted as marketing executive Paul Rivera asked Lil Nas X about the decision.
The 19-year old shared why he thought it was important.
“It’s not like I was being forced. It’s just like knowing growing up, I’m growing up to hate this shit. I’m not supposed—”
Hart abruptly interrupts him again.
“Hate what? Why? Why are you growing up to hate?” the comedy star asks.
“Homosexuality, gay people,” Lil Nas X responded. “Come on now, if you’re really from the hood, you know.”
He goes on to say: “If for me, the ‘cool dude with the song on top of everything,’ to say this at any other time, I’m doing this for attention in my eyes. But if you’re doing this while you’re at the top, you know it’s for real,” he said. “It’s showing it doesn’t really matter, I guess.”
As Hart recuperates from a serious car accident, his The Shop reaction was roundly criticized as tone-deaf. It highlighted what so many have tried to address as it pertains to homophobia: willful ignorance regarding a black man’s ability to punch down.
In Hart’s case, the “why is it a big deal?” reaction suggests that one doesn’t understand why a high-profile young black man coming out is still important. Black men are under a racist scope in this country, and have been since before this country was a country; the reality of what it means to be black in America plays out in our lives daily.
But we must recognize how we can culturally, politically and fundamentally leverage our position within our own community against the most vulnerable in our community. A gay black man making it clear that he is gay is a revolutionary act when so much of what he sees every day tells him his existence is wrong.
Wearing a burqa in a conservative Christian town, growing your hair into an Afro when you’re the only black woman in the office—these are only seen as acts of defiance or antagonism because they fly in the face of so-called societal standards; similarly, a man telling his peers that he prefers men is only ostentatious because it subverts the inherent homophobia in our wider culture. That’s why what Lil Nas X did made sense and remains necessary. But it’s also why Hart needed to pretend he didn’t understand why it matters.
The “who cares?” refrain is always disingenuous. Hart’s Oscar controversy from earlier this year, when the star decided to back out as host of the awards show after old homophobic tweets resurfaced, led to a reluctant, unofficial post-Oscar apology-refusal tour.
That shouldn’t be conveniently framed as a black man’s forced humiliation at not bowing to some gay white Hollywood power, but more as Hart’s defensive reaction to being made to face how his words helped marginalize those in his community who experience hate within that community constantly. Homophobia, obviously, isn’t exclusive to the black community, but homophobia anywhere is detrimental.
Chappelle’s latest Netflix special has sparked the expected controversy; his set takes aim at everything from Anthony Bourdain’s suicide to the Jussie Smollett case—but some of the reactions ignore how most of this is standard-issue Chappelle.
In the early 2000s, he joked about Elizabeth Smart’s kidnapping, O.J., R. Kelly and Michael Jackson both in his stand-up and on his much-beloved sketch show. The acidity in his humor has always been a part of why it resonated. What’s frustrating now is seeing how, in his mid-40s, he’s decided to cling so tightly to ideas a man of his intelligence and insight should be evolving past.
“Why is it that I can say the word ‘n*gger’ with impunity, but can’t say the word ‘f*ggot?’”
When Chappelle relays the story—that he was asked not to say “f*ggot” by Standards and Practices at Comedy Central during his Chappelle’s Show run because he’s not gay—and ends the bit with “I’m not a n*gger, either,” he’s pointedly obscuring the harder, messier truth: that, just as Comedy Central is in no position to tell him he can’t subversively use the N-word, he’s in no position to decide who is or is not a “f*ggot.” Because in his hetero-privileged hand, the word can only wield oppressive power, not subversive redirection.
“Who cares?” Most people do. And you have to see that in order to grasp why the black LGBTQ community has to be a part of how we see ourselves as black people.
“What I wanna say to Lil Nas X is that in no way shape or form should you have to defend [yourself],” Hart shared on The Shop. “When you have a voice and simply say ‘this’ [being gay], there is no back-and-forth about what ‘this’ is. Nothing else needs to be said.”
Hart’s words of so-called LGBTQ solidarity came after his refusal to host the Oscars and a subsequent backlash; while Chappelle seems to relish poking this particular audience at this point. When Richard Pryor famously announced he would no longer use “n*gger” in his set during his 1983 concert film Here and Now, it wasn’t because of pressure or criticism—not that he hadn’t endured both. It was because of his personal conviction (and maybe had a stake in earning some goodwill following some personal setbacks), not because he’d been publicly repudiated. Until and unless Chappelle, in particular, has a Pryor-esque epiphany, this is who he is.
There’s always a need for comedy that makes people uncomfortable, but when it comes from a societal perch, it’s more handily a tool to preserve the comforts of the status quo. Regarding Hart and Chappelle, criticism is warranted, but white liberals also have to accept that Black voices aren’t beholden to their takes, and those Black voices are varied. There can be an eagerness to address these celebs without acknowledging that white privilege is still white privilege and can be brandished as such even from marginalized white folks. This particular discussion is being had with or without your positing what it all means. Our comics have always been ours, first and foremost, and their stories have always mattered. These guys will keep telling Black stories. Who will still be listening remains to be seen.