NPR’s Sarah McCammon chats with black trans actress Mx Dahlia Belle, who wrote an open letter to Dave Chappelle after again drawing criticism for jokes about trans people.
SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
Dave Chappelle, revered as one of the all-time comedy greats, is once again coming under heavy criticism for his jokes about trans people, this time in his most recent special, “The Closer” on Netflix. Over the course of a 70-minute set, Chappelle revisits jokes about LGBTQ people over and over again, references the criticism he has received for being transphobic and homophobic, and lashing out at Jews and women. Mx. Dahlia Belle is an actress from Portland, Oregon. She’s a black trans woman and she wrote a letter to Chappelle in The Guardian titled “Dear Dave Chappelle Transgender Comedians May Take a Joke, But Why Are Your People So Funny?” And a caveat – this conversation contains specific language about violence. Mx. Dahlia Belle, welcome to the program.
DAHLIA BELLE: Thank you very much for having me.
MCCAMMON: You say in your letter to Chappelle how much he influenced your own understanding of comedy. What makes him successful as an actor? And how does it go in this special?
BELLE: I think what’s really amazing and impactful about Dave Chappelle is his precise ability to, for example, really get to the heart of a subject in a way that is always entertaining and compelling to his audience and his audience. ability to really pull together a full narrative, which I think he manages to do in “The Closer” as well. It’s just that his narrative is completely wrong, and that kind of kills the humor for those of us who actually know the subject.
MCCAMMON: Yes. I want to talk about this story. As a comedian yourself, tell me about how this special is put together, what its purpose is. What struck you?
BELLE: The whole special is built around this rhetorical argument that his seemingly transphobic jokes aren’t about women and aren’t about gays or trans people, which he frequently refers to in derogatory terms. His problem is with whites because as long as he says any criticism anyone makes of him is an example of anti-black, then in his imagination he’s untouchable.
MCCAMMON: You know, Chappelle says he’s been accused by trans people of, in quotes, of “punching” them, and he ends the special by begging the others not to hit what he calls his. people. I wonder how you hear that call.
BELLE: I hear that call as a complete erasure of my existence, which – as a black trans woman, it’s really painful because our existence is already being ignored.
MCCAMMON: Some of Chappelle’s jokes seem to be based on the idea that gays are advancing faster in America than blacks, and so it’s okay to make jokes at the expense of LGBTQ people. I wonder how you think about that.
BELLE: I think that’s a very fascinating theory. In Portland, I see a lot of Black Lives Matter signs. I see a lot of murals of black men who have been murdered by the police – not a single poster, not a single mention of the many black trans women who have been assaulted, shot, stabbed, literally set on fire. So I’m curious as to how, in quotes, “our movement” – so the broader LGBTQ efforts for liberation, legal protection – I don’t know how we have advanced beyond the rights of my other community, the Black. And especially since if I, as a black trans woman – I am facing the oppression of being a woman, I am facing the oppression of being black, I am facing oppression due to being trans, i am facing oppression due to being queer, what benefit am I getting for all of this?
MCCAMMON: It’s Mx. Dahlia Belle. She is an actress and activist from Portland. Thank you very much for joining us.
BELLE: Thank you.
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