Sarah Silverman is planing to hold a comedy show in Texas, the home state of Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry. And she plans to call it "Live From Niggerhead: Stripping The Paint Off Of Good Ol' Fashioned Racism." Take a deep breath. Let it out.
My initial reaction when I heard that Perry's hunting ground in Texas was formerly called "Niggerhead" and that the name was painted on a rock at the entrance for years? Shock, swiftly replaced by a cool, knowing disappointment. Of course it was. This is our American history. Rick Perry's family has been in Texas since before the Texan Revolution. Texas was the last state where slavery was abolished, in 1865. Perry was born in 1950, which means he was 15 before Jim Crow laws were overruled. He grew up in a segregated United States, and in a Texas county that began observing Martin Luther King Day two years ago. A place where a County Judge told the Washington Post: "[Niggerhead] is just a name. Like those are vertical blinds. It's just what it was called." (Perry has said it's an "offensive name that has no place in the modern world.")
Silverman is using the word "Niggerhead" as part of her show title for shock value, but also as a reminder. She tells Entertainment Weekly:
"This is a never-forget moment. The show's provocative name holds a mirror up to an ugliness that seems to have become yesterday's news without having barely even made news."
But is Sarah Silverman the best person to hold the mirror? She made headlines ten years ago, when describing getting out of jury duty. She joked that a friend suggested writing "I hate chinks" on her paperwork. "I wanted to do it, but then, I'm like, I don't want people to think I'm racist. You know, I just want to get out of jury duty. So I filled out the form and I wrote I love chinks. And who doesn't? "
Many people — including the president of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans — found the joke, and its language, offensive. Obviously Silverman is not the first comedian to use an ethnic slur, or talk about race in a way that makes people uncomfortable. Some folks think that because something is taboo, it's also edgy. But if you are actually oppressed and discriminated against, you probably don't find insulting racist language amusing. The unspoken rule these days seems to be that you should not use slurs — but if you do, you'd better be in the race you're mocking. Chris Rock has used "nigga" to make a point; Margaret Cho has joked, "I was walking down the street the other day and this man actually called me a chink… I was so mad! Chinks are Chinese." In general, though, I'm of the opinion that if you need to rely on jarring, abominable and offensive words, you're probably not that funny.
That said, it is worthwhile to confront Americans with Rick Perry's family history. And even if you don't like that, at the very least, know this:
Silverman plans to donate all proceeds to the NAACP.