David Cross’ excuses aren’t a valid apology for racism

Graphic by Serena Truong

Last month, comedian-actress-poet Charlyne Yi relayed the first time she met fellow comedian, David Cross a decade ago on Twitter and the account painted a disturbing picture.

The then 40-year-old Cross began by insulting the clothes that 20-year-old Yi was wearing and, when left speechless by his decorum, Cross continued by saying “what’s a matter? You don’t speak English? Ching-chong-ching-chong.”

Yi, a woman of Philippine descent, held onto this story for ten years, knowing that one of the most powerful and recognizable alternative comedians was personally racist towards her – with seemingly no reason.

Cross responded almost instantly and both of his official statements point to a problem that comedians have with apologizing.

While his first issued apology suggesting Yi possibly misremembered the exchange was a textbook example of gas-lighting  and had added additional insult to injury by invoking the classic of Japanese cinema Rashoman in further poor racial optics  his second apology was more telling, believable and inherently problematic.

This time around Cross suggested he was doing a “bit in his ‘Southern Hick’ character.”

An apology needs an admission of guilt first and foremost, and being a comedian doesn’t allot special exemption from the real damage words can cause.

In between the nice words and putting things into the past, the implication remained that the thing he said was never meant to be taken as seriously as Yi and the rest of the internet is taking it now.

The “I was just joking” method of making amends for what you said is not  and never has been  an actual sincere form of apology.

In reality, it is a deflection of blame onto the offended party where it is insinuated that, by not getting the joke, they are responsible for the hurt they feel.

It has the simultaneous effect of not only confirming how little the comedian in question understands how they are in the wrong, but also suggests that, if given time to workshop it, the “joke” could have worked.

As if in Cross’ case there is some parallel universe wherein he and Charlyne are sharing a hearty chuckle over him asking her if she didn’t speak English all those years ago.

By and large, comedians should understand an apology meant to be taken seriously cannot be undercut by excuses designed to shirk ownership of their mistakes. They aren’t above apologizing — as the likes of Bill Burr would have you believe  and their status as stand-ups doesn’t exempt them from criticism.

Humour is most definitely subjective, and shock value is a style which allows for a lot leeway vis a vis the proverbial line and when one crosses it. But with Cross’ incident  where his intent was to show how he regretted his words and wanted earnestly to make amends to Yi  the “its just a joke” explanation does neither of those things.

As a follower of his career, I like to give Cross the benefit of the doubt and think he did indeed want to make amends.

But when a joke goes so far south that the only course back to laughter is to admit racism is funny, then it’s time to stop arguing what your intent was.

An apology needs an admission of guilt first and foremost, and being a comedian doesn’t allot special exemption from the real damage words can cause.

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