Dave Chapelle Should Read Adolph Reed Jr.

Photograph Source: Raph_PH – https://www.flickr.com/photos/69880995@N04/32081916018/ – CC BY 2.0

We should all read Adolph Reed Jr.! But Dave Chapelle needs him most of all. Dave Chapelle recently performed a bigoted comedy special that was explicitly homophobic and transphobic and contained few jokes. In classic boomer fashion it was sparked by some article online that criticized Chapelle.

He then preceded to go on a rant about being canceled, which just means one blogger doesn’t like you and you get that parlayed into millions of dollars based on the unhinged rage of rich white people. This was in theory the very same crowd Chapelle was critiquing but as always the thesis of liberalism being bourgeois just missed the mark.

Dave Chapelle may have been right to recognize that his original fan base was a bunch of racist white liberals but he has only been a reactionary thus far, moving from white liberalism to white conservativism, which pays even better. That being said Chapelle as always is doing something a little more than the typical reactionaries. That doesn’t mean his transphobia is any less dangerous.

What it does mean is that he is a worthy opponent to argue against. While he should be canceled, he isn’t. This means we have to engage his argument that is gaining steam in the boomer bourgeois.

Before I go on cancelling anyone else let me first offer an apology on any TERF (trans exclusive radical feminist) garbage I had expressed in the past. By today’s standards, it is an inexcusable view and harmful to both the feminist movement and transgender movement. The basic logic of TERFism is that women are oppressed so transgender people cannot claim womanhood. One struggle should not negate another.

Dave Chapelle took sympathy with the TERF position because he framed transgender people as culturally appropriating women’s identity. Because he correctly interpreted his white fans flocking to him based on stereotyped humor of African Americans, he offered an olive branch to women who feel men are doing the same to them.

As a result, Chapelle came out as both against transgenderism and transracialism. Adolph Reed Jr. does the opposite. As a Marxist interested in materialism, he supports the transgender movement and rejects racial essentialism. This view leads him to accept transracialism as a radical step beyond racism just as transgenderism is a radical step beyond sexism.

What Chapelle and Reed agree on is that our understanding of racial identity has not yet reached the point of liberation that gender identity has. Chapelle resents the rigidity of racial stereotypes he had to play to succeed with a white audience and rightfully so. But why should this invalidate the identity of a transgender person?

Reed has been canceled for being a “class reductionist” but that lumps him in with the Trumpenleft, which is unfair especially given his recent must-read piece titled “The Whole Country is the Reichstag”. His diagnosis the current danger of the right-wing that has only been rivaled by Paul Street.

Reed takes up the case of Rachel Dolezal, and like the late great Glen Ford, he wishes more white people were like her. Even if she wrongly identified as Black, she at least dedicated her life to stopping racism rather than how most white people act, which is to uphold white supremacy at all costs. Reed points out that it wasn’t long ago that we heard the same arguments against transgenderism that we do about transracialism now. Those who identify as outside of their rigid identity are called liars and ruthlessly shamed and canceled. Meanwhile, those who prop up traditional hierarchies are rewarded with massive Netflix deals.

Reed argues that our own identity should be determined by the person holding it. Who are we to decide who is lying and who is not? Reed is especially disgusted by the notion that ancestry is necessarily for racial identity and rightly links this to traditional white supremacy.

Reed hits it out of the park: “Talusan’s confusion of sex and gender is startlingly naïve. She contends that gender is a “product of a fundamental aspect of our humanity” and that, unlike race, the medieval European invention, gender is a “fundamental attribute” of our existence. But gender is no less culturally constructed than race.” Most people are fundamentally misunderstanding the transgender movement when they claim that there are only two genders and transgenderism is merely some correction that reverts us to tradition when fulfilled.

Additionally harmful for Reed is the claim that Dolezal benefited from her Black identity. In what world are these people living in? We heard the same thing about Obama for years from much of the Trumpenleft. He only made it because he was Black. In reality, even the conservative Obama acknowledged he had to be twice as good as his white counterparts at all times to get to his position.

Reed does have criticisms of Dolezal but they come from the left, not the right: “In addition to the problems of articulating what confers racial authenticity, if what we have read about her approach to expressing black racial identity is accurate, she seems to have embraced an essentialist version of being black no less than do her outraged critics.”

I do have my own disagreements with Reed. I think too often his arguments are misunderstood and taken up by those on the right and Trumpenleft who hate identity politics. He is a key anti-racist figure and at times his arguments could be clearer.

In addition, he seems to link identity as such as an expression of neoliberalism at times which is an ahistorical approach that contradicts most of his arguments before which were rightly that both gender and race have been fluid throughout history.

Does this all mean that transracialism would look the same as transgenderism? Of course not. But it does mean that perhaps in the future we should be more open-minded to people’s identities not just for their own sakes but for all of our sakes. The transgender movement has helped us all see how our genders are false and alienating. We should be careful not to appropriate the authentic transgender identity which faces hate crimes and homelessness and health care apartheid. But we also should acknowledge how all of us fall along the spectrum of gender alienation precisely because it is a false orientation.

There may be no support amongst the readers for transracialism. Most people find it even more offensive than transgenderism. But even if no one agrees with me about transracialism Reed is useful in examining how our resistance to such a concept informs our racism. Why do we hold onto the essential nature of race so closely? Why do we believe that if someone takes solidarity with the oppressed race that they are somehow getting an advantage? How is the modern right mobilizing the conspiracy that the system is rigged against white people key to modern fascism?

To me, these are all very important questions. As I prepare to start a biracial family of my own I wonder what will I tell my children? Certainly amongst my peers leaving the gender open to the children to decide seems to be becoming slightly more tolerable. But should I not give them the same freedom to navigate their biracial identity?

Something fundamentally dialectical is going on in the mind of the Marxist Reed. He wonders why he has to be chained down by his race. Why can’t Reed talk about economics without being canceled from anti-Marxist groups like DSA? If Reed was white would we be so hard on his anti-racism?

As much as I found Dave Chapelle to rehearse tired arguments about cancel culture I think he asked some of the same questions. Why are we narrowly defining his identity as a performer? Is he not free to make the same wokeism tropes as his contemporary white knuckleheads like Joe Rogan? Based on his identity, we ask him to do twice as much.

Americas’ heart beats for white supremacy at all costs. This is something Chapelle gets right. He takes aim at another identity group who he sees as advancing further when he could be providing an intersectional argument like Reed does. The question Chapelle is asking is not wrong though. Why can’t we liberate race as we have done gender? Here’s to hoping it’s just a matter of time.

Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at pemberton.nick@gmail.com