The Danger of Dave Chappelle’s Transphobic ‘Jokes’ [OPINION]

By Sameer Rao Jan 02, 2018

Dave Chappelle is not the first comedian to mix biting insights about one type of injustice (in his case, racism) with cheap shots at the expense of other marginalized people, and he won’t be the last. But his enduring fame makes his jokes about groups besides his own—especially those about transgender people—dangerous.

Chappelle devotes part of “Equanimity,” one of two new stand-up specials to hit Netflix on New Year’s Eve, to defending remarks from his last Netflix specials that critics labeled transphobic.

“If the police shot half as many transgenders [sic] as they did niggas last year, it’d be a fucking war in LA!” he said in one of the earlier performances.

He reaffirms this perspective during an “Equanimity” bit in which he crudely professes allyship with his trans critics. “They mean what they say,” he explains. “Them niggas cut they dicks off, that’s all the proof I need,” he continues to rapturous applause.

Chappelle later discusses feeling bad after a trans fan, offended by one of his jokes, sent him a letter expressing disappointment. The note apparently caused him to reflect on whether or not he’s actually transphobic. The reflection didn’t go far, though; he quickly resorts to framing Black and trans struggles as irreconcilable:

My problem has always been with the dialogue about transgender people. I just feel like these things should not be discussed in front of the Blacks. It’s fucking insulting, all this talk about how these people feel inside. Since when has America given a fuck how any of us feel inside? And I cannot shake this awful suspicion that the only reason everybody is talking about transgenders [sic] is because White men want to do it. That’s right, I just said that. If it was just women who felt that way, or Black dudes and Mexican dudes being like, “Hey y’all, we feel like girls inside,” they’d be like, “Shut up, nigger, nobody asked how you felt. Come on everybody, we have strawberries to pick!” It reeks of White privilege. You ever ask yourself why it was easier for Bruce Jenner to change his gender than it was for Cassius Clay to change his fucking name?

Like #MeToo survivors and several other groups he discusses during “Equanimity” and its partner special, “The Bird Revelation,” Chappelle envisions trans people as a homogenous White community. Neither the police killings of Black trans women like Kiwi Herring nor the ways that The Movement for Black Lives and related groups center police violence towards trans people of color matter in Chappelle’s world. He ignores how trailblazers of color like Marsha P. Johnson fought to make the world where Caitlyn Jenner could openly transition—and the fact that Black trans people like Johnson even exist.

He also dangerously makes comedy out of trans people’s struggles while pretending that they’re not dire. While Chappelle makes millions of dollars by lamenting his targets’ alleged entitled attitudes in specials with record-breaking viewership, trans people of color still suffer deadly violence with none of the attention he claims they get. This violence took at least 28 people last year, making 2017 the deadliest year on record for trans people in at least a decade. Moreover, a 2017 report from Human Rights Campaign notes that at least 75 of the 102 trans people killed in the last five years were Black. 

Attacks on the autonomy of trans people of color compounds the interpersonal violence they disproportionately experience. Morality-espousing state and federal leaders push a never-ending stream of legislation and orders that assault their rights to use bathrooms corresponding with their gender identity, fight housing discrimination, serve in the military or even be acknowledged by the public health establishment. 

Dave Chappelle is not responsible for the legal, physical and emotional siege laid to transgender people of color’s very existence. But launching context-adverse tirades that diminish their real demands for a better world and ignore Black trans people’s centrality to anti-racist police reform movements risks actual harm. 

He should ask himself why no trans comedian has achieved anywhere close to his level of fame. The other communities he takes shots at in these newest specials—Asians, Latinx people, other LGBTQ individuals, women—boast nationally-renowned comedians who can offer their own narratives in televised specials. Trans comedians of color remain largely invisible in an entertainment world that sees them as punchlines and not punchline-makers.

To Chappelle and comedians who share his devil-may-care view of comedic responsibility logic, jokes are just jokes. Following this code, anyone who opposes them is a humorless snowflake. But Chappelle’s jokes broadcast assumptions to millions of people who may never get to see a transgender comedian offer a counternarrative about why they’re not entitled complainers. Punching down carries more potential for harm than he’ll ever acknowledge, and that’s decidedly not funny.