Why I Can’t Criticize Dave Chappelle

CW: Mentioning of hate crimes, transition surgery, transphobia.


I know Dave Chappelle, but I don’t know Dave Chappelle. We live in the same town. He is three years older than me, but I moved here the year before he left to go live with his mother in D.C. I knew his father, a most wonderful man, and one of his siblings. The latter and I were in a play together, Member of the Wedding, which was how I first met Dave. He was just gearing up to start his run at comedy. I was enamored from jump street. And while we would run into each other numerous times over the years, I have always been better friends with our mutual friends, if that makes sense. He knows who I am, but I have exactly zero relevance to his life. I just want to make that clear. I’m not trying to claim some intimacy with him, or to act like my opinion should matter to him at all. I really like Dave, and I love the fact that he can live here and be a husband and a father.  We both play roles in the village and try to be positive citizens. Over the years I have helped run interference between Dave and tourists, especially after he first moved back and everyone was wondering why he went to Africa. I love the fact that he came back here. And I know why he came back.

Yellow Springs comes with responsibilities. If this place shapes you and grabs you, and you continue to claim it as part of your identity, even if you no longer have a residence here, it means that you need to carry our values. Imperfect values, to be sure. But ones that are a better starting point than perhaps any other place in the United States. At least for me. In a country where a great number of my generation did not learn about the Civil Rights movement in school beyond reading the “I Have a Dream” speech, I was educated by people who participated in the movement. I lived in a place where Coretta Scott studied (but wasn’t allowed to do her teaching co-op in the very school system in which I was learning). Dr. King gave a significant speech here in 1965. I knew that Yellow Springs from decades before the current movement has been a rare haven for GLBT families. I grew up with dear friends who had two dads or two moms. Women have had more of a voice here than in surrounding areas (but misogyny knows no zip code). My father worked at a college that was lampooned on Saturday Night Live for believing in sexual autonomy and agency so much, a group of female students–some queer, some non-White, all powerful–pushed forward a sexual consent policy that nearly 30 years later is being recognized as the template for institutions to take seriously sexual violence. (I am also not saying that sexual violence does not occur on Antioch College campus, either.) All of this to say: before I was a Christian, I was from Yellow Springs. This place prepared me for the dirty business of following Jesus.

I recently watched the first installment of Dave’s Netflix shows. A lot has been written by voices more important than mine. But I work very closely with the trans community here; it is hard for me not to become emotional when I talk about how sacred those relationships are to me. This feeling is mirrored by only two others: the relationships I have been able to have with men and women of color, and the relationships I have been able to form with Muslims. In each, I have had to unpack my privilege, to listen and receive anger that I had no right to ask be held back, to examine my own complicity in structural oppression. But it is both much more than that and less grandiose. It is the opportunity, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggested, to affirm someone else not as Kant defined, not as a “not-I,” but as a You. A person who exists independent of me, who should be seen in as much totality as possible, affirmed as being created imago dei. Those experiences and identities: trans, Black, Muslim–they matter. They matter as do my own identifiers. The rub is, only together will we see ourselves and discover God.

Dave’s words about trans persons hurt me because I knew the hurt that they were causing others. It hurt because I pastor a church that has dedicated part of its ministry to declaring and creating safe space for trans persons. It hurt because I know on the weekends when we are a tourist trap, some trans persons who will walk downtown in the middle of the week stay away. I received messages asking if I was going to talk to him, or if I was going to write anything. I posted an article on my Facebook page (written by an African American male) and a conversation ensued that went along the lines that I thought it would.

So, here goes: I’m a White, Christian dude. Doesn’t matter how I wear my hair, the tats I get, the academic work I do: the fact is I am a White dude. I get it; that used to piss me off, but see above and the relationships I have developed. The fact that I can’t fully understand an experience because I have not lived it no longers sounds like a criticism to me. It is a fact. No one is saying I am a bad person, at least no one worth listening to. But at the end of the day, Dave is a Black man and a Muslim. Within both of those cultures, there is deep transphobia. And Dave is at the more enlightened end of the spectrum in that regard. I may have wished that Dave would’ve taken the jokes in different directions, but you know what? That does not matter at all. I’m not a world-famous celebrity; I have not walked away from millions of dollars to follow my path; I do not have the right or the standing to assume license and tell one of the greatest comedians in American history how to write a bit. I don’t have the right to tell a Black, Muslim man that he is insufficiently progressive on this issue. It would just be wrong on so many levels.

I’m not trying to sound egotistical, but I’m writing this because a number of people have asked me to say something to Dave or to write about the situation. I’ve really struggled with this, but in the end I have decided on what you’re reading here. Transphobia is deadly. Trans women are particularly vulnerable;  trans women of color are even more exposed to attacks upon their bodies and persons. Perceiving them to be men in dresses is damaging and devastating, and I strongly disagree with perpetuating that image except to expose and destroy it as a pernicious lie. But I am not Black. I am not Muslim. I operate in different contexts and have a different perspective. Dave and I might live in the same town, but we don’t exist in the same worlds. I can’t criticize him, but I will continue to try to live my life as a close ally to the trans community.

I understand that for some, I am a traitor. I am not drawing a clear line in the sand and saying that certain words or ideas, when expressed by anyone, are unacceptable and will be decried loudly. I get that position. I can only say that there are others in the community who are doing that; I am not one of them because I have taken vows to be a person of service. I have friends who are genuinely uncomfortable with the idea of trans persons, but they are confronting it and trying to work through their emotions. It is easy to say that it should be easy, but for some, it is not. They are dealing with family expectations, ethnic and culture influences, religious decrees, and an overall popular culture that lampoons sex and gender non-compliance. Taken in isolation, even one of these would be enough with which to wrestle. Taken together, we have a battle royale. I think it is important that those persons who are in the fight feel like they have someone to whom they can speak, and that is where I come in. At least, that’s what I am telling myself. As I said, this has been a tough situation for me to read and to discern how I should act or not act.

The conversation is important. If nothing else, I can take a side on that; it is vital that we really talk through the emotions and reactions. In that way, Dave shows once again his power and influence as a cultural figure. For me, though, I just can’t call him out. I can’t criticize him. I will criticize the position, and I will actively fight against the damage that arises from some of the attitudes expressed in his bit. Reducing transitioning to genital manipulation perpetuates the notion that being trans means defying nature. I have held a person who shook visibly as she described just one of the beatings she sustained, men screaming about her “missing” genitalia amidst raining blows. But I was once further back on my own journey to conscientiousness, and I know that there are still areas of my own life fraught with phobia. Glass houses and all that.

I never want to use being a White dude as an excuse, but I also want to recognize the situations in which being a White dude means I should shut up. I get the deep irony that in order to express that I am shutting up, I am writing a not short blog. Let us all chuckle at that, and then try, as Bonhoeffer said, to see one another so that we may better see ourselves. And, for those of us so inclined, to see God. And with that, I’ll shut up now.

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