Insult comedian Lisa Lampanelli has made headlines again – for all the wrong reasons. Last week during the Writers Guild Awards, she shamelessly tweeted a picture of she and HBO “Girls” producer and star, Lena Dunham captioned “Me with my Ni**a @LenaDunham of @HBOGirls – I love this beyotch!!”
The interwebs erupted with rage as yet another privileged white comedian made a “joke” at the expense of the Black experience. The ubiquitous nature of racism means while we see and hear it everywhere, we’re rarely given the opportunity to understand the motivation behind it. Lampanelli’s entire shtick is to exploit the sensitive nature of race and homosexuality and to make money from abusing the art of comedy, not taking responsibility for the social implications of her “work.”
Lampanelli is no idiot — not instructionally anyway. We’re not talking about someone with little to no awareness who hasn’t been given an opportunity to “know better.” She’s Harvard-educated with a background in journalism and even spent some time fact checking. Which is why it was so grueling to read that she defended her use of the word with this classic line” “…‘Whoa, wait a minute’ knowing what a difference there is between saying the N-word with the A on the end versus the N-word with the R on the end…”
What she’s referring to is the incessant argument that changing the spelling of the word n***er to n***a makes its use palatable and totally OK for her and other white folks to use it, mostly because black people do it all the time. We’ve been back and forth about this time and time again. The evolution of the word n****r, used in conjunction with the enslavement and dehumanization of African and African-Americans for several hundred years by white people to that of n***a, which translates affectionately to a form of camaraderie.
The dispute from annoyed white commenters is that if Black people don’t want white people to use it, we should stop using it too. To that I say this: there is an evolution of language that we’re all responsible for shepherding. Racist white people rooted the negatively connoted word into U.S. culture and forced it upon us. It has since taken new shape among a community of people who are still dealing heavily with internalized, interpersonal and institutional racism. In 50 years the word and feelings behind it may look drastically different, but it is our collective obligation, especially if we know the extent of the damage cutting words have, to respect the history of exploited people and to not abuse it.
Lampanelli, whose career is built on using hate language and xenophobic fodder for her comedy, is desperately trying to stay relevant. She is motivated by a fear of being obsolete and must “shock” whoever will listen with cutting language that is culturally insensitive and hateful. She isn’t the first to employ this strategy and wont be the last. As she continues to weather, I imagine her desperation and behavior will only become incited. She later stated on Twitter that she is glad it keeps people talking and loves the controversy. She’s obviously banking on this to maintain her celebrity, albeit infamously.
As far as Dunham is concerned, I believe she was a victim of guilt by association. Though it does not help that she’s been berated for a lack of diversity in her show. She’s also young and maybe doesn’t have a great publicist who didn’t warn here against capriciously taking pictures with seasoned race-baiting xenophobes. She did later responded to the controversy on Twitter, tweeting:
That’s not a word I would EVER use. Its implications are beyond my comprehension. I was made supremely uncomfortable by it … But 140 characters will never be enough for the kind of dialogue that will actually help us address issues of race and class.
Racism takes many forms. In this instance it is being masqueraded under the pretext of comedy – something we see often both on the national stage and in our everyday experiences. Unfortunately, this isn’t something that we’ll soon see an end to. But calling the Lampanellis of the world out on their shit at least gives us an opportunity to deepen our awareness around it. By the way, fuck you, Lisa.
Read more from Shanelle Matthews at ShanelleMatthews.com.