OPINION: The comedian received the Cultural Icon Award at the Grio Awards and joked that he thought he was canceled. Nah.
Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.
When Dave Chappelle accepted the Cultural Icon Award at the inaugural theGrio Awards, he said, “I didn’t know I was allowed to get awards anymore.”
In 2021, Chappelle was involved in a messy, public controversy over things he said about trans people in his Netflix special, “The Closer.” Some people found his jokes offensive and many Netflix employees who were either trans people or cisgender allies responded with fury. Many protested against Netflix. Also, recently, Chappelle’s opening monologue on “Saturday Night Live” struck many as antisemitic. Apparently, Chappelle himself thought he was beyond getting awards — he thought he’d been canceled. But the modern cancellation movement is, at best, an ineffective and inconsistent weapon.
I found “The Closer” to be about a middle-aged man trying to figure out the world around him as he slowly adjusts to seeing so many trans people in the world. He was crass at times, but he also spent a lot of time talking about a trans person he loved as a friend and welcomed into his tribe of comedians. I know the framing of that sentence risks the whole I’m-not-racist-I-have-a-Black-friend notion that I abhor. However, I think this situation is different. Chappelle finishes his routine with a story about his professional relationship with a trans comic as a way of him saying that he’s inching his way toward understanding. And the “SNL” monologue, to me, was Chappelle talking about antisemitism rather than actually being antisemitic.
Anyway, Chappelle was never really canceled — he has a massive fanbase that remains unmoved by the controversies. Cancellation works only when the crime or the action makes your core fans lose their taste for you.
But Chappelle’s situation, like Kanye’s, reveals something important about cancellation: It matters who you offend. As many Black people have pointed out on social media, Kanye has said horrific things about the Black community for years. It was only when he started saying antisemitic things that he was swiftly canceled. The message is clear: some people’s feelings are more expendable than others.
Chappelle discovered the same thing. In his Netflix special he made jokes at the expense of a community that doesn’t currently have enough political power to get someone canceled. Trans people have enough political power to make someone like Chappelle feel their fury, but not enough to cancel him. Even J.K. Rowling’s comments about trans people, which are actually hateful and disdainful, haven’t gotten her canceled. Now, if Chappelle had made similar jokes about gay and lesbian people, he could have found himself facing cancellation.
Chappelle also danced near the third rail of American life — saying antisemitic things in public — but he survived being canceled for that because he made his comments in a protected space. We understand that comedy is a unique part of society and, for the most part, comedians are allowed to say almost anything if it’s under the guise of chasing a laugh. Society understands that comedians are here to say the unsayable.
Chappelle was never canceled, and I suspect he knows that but saying he is helped build on the sense of him as a dangerous comedian.
In his speech, Chappelle gave a shoutout to theGrio’s owner, Allen Media Group CEO Byron Allen, who was a popular standup comedian when Chappelle was a rising comic. “This guy has been a mentor to so many young comedians,” Chappelle said about Allen. “And not just about how to do comedy, but how to conduct business. And I look at Byron as a leader primarily by example — an excellent example.”
Chappelle said he appreciated the chance to participate in theGrio Awards because “It’s like helping a friend build a home that we can all live in.” And that’s a beautiful way to put it.
Watch “Byron Allen Presents theGrio Awards” at 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 26 on CBS and at 8 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 27 on theGrio Cable Network. Check your local listings.
Touré is a host and Creative Director at theGrio. He is the host of the podcast “Toure Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is also the author of seven books including the Prince biography “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Look out for his upcoming podcast “Being Black In the 80s.“
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