Funny how? (Is America ready for a white First Lady?)

Did it amuse you? I’m talking about Robert De Niro’s joke while introducing First Lady Michelle Obama at a recent Obama fundraiser in New York. You missed it? Here’s what he said: “Callista Gingrich. Karen Santorum. Ann Romney… Now do you really think our country is ready for a white first lady?”

Newt Gingrich demanded an apology from President Obama (who didn’t make the statement and wasn’t there when it was said, but whatever). And some people seriously agreed with him and seriously called for apologies from De Niro and the White House. And got them!

Have we all gone mad?

A friend of mine posted on Facebook, favorably, an article calling out De Niro for his insensitive joke (which I contend is inoffensive and, if anything, says something FAVORABLE about America). What follows is the dialogue between my friend and me, with his name and irrelevant comments removed. Enjoy.

Oh, we've already HAD white First Ladies? Who knew? Click on the image to visit the National First Ladies' Library


  • Me: De Niro’s comment was ironic and funny. The right is constantly lecturing the left to get a sense of humor, yet they pick on THIS joke to get indignant? Puh-leeeze.
  • Friend: If it was ironic and funny as you say, then why would the flack for Michele Obama, who De Niro was complimenting, call the comment ‘inappropriate?’ If she didn’t have a problem with it, then I’m sure she would have defended De Niro. Regardless of the context of the joke, why bring in race? I mean, I love De Niro, but he has to go there to be humorous? Really? Not to mention that the comment was absolutely stupid from a PR standpoint, considering the timing.In fact, I’d argue that if a right-leaning A-list celeb (Adam Sandler, Clint Eastwood, etc.) flips this around a…nd says something to the effect of, ‘Michelle Obama. Do you really think our country is ready for another four years of a black first lady?’ in the same gist that De Niro said his joke, they’d be crucified and painted as flaming racists. But it’s OK for De Niro to say it because he’s poking fun at possible first ladies who are white? Nope. There’s no place for it dude, by either side. Sorry.
  • Me: The difference is we’ve had 230 years of white first ladies, so De Niro’s comment is obviously absurd. The converse is not true, and without the inherent absurdity, there’s nothing funny about it. To equate De Niro’s comment with its converse (or is it inverse?) would be disingenuous. De Niro’s comment is funny precisely because it’s ridiculous. Lighten up!
  • Friend: Rafi, I get what you’re saying. I got the joke when I first read what he said. But to propose the converse (I think you’re right, it’s not inverse) isn’t really disingenuous when you consider recent history dude. I mean, it’s a hypothetical that, in a way, I hope would actually occur just to prove my point that such a double standard really does exist.
  • Me: A statement that America is not ready for another 4 years of a black first lady threatens to resurrect and/or inflame racism as applied to the first family. It is not funny. To joke that America is not ready for a white first lady is patently absurd with the added benefit of bolstering and complimenting America on its acceptance of the current first family. It is funny. The two jokes are thus nothing alike. Therefore, disingenuous is exactly the right word. America does not have a history of anti-white racism that would compel anyone in his right mind to take De Niro’s comment seriously. The history of anti-black racism, if we can call it history as opposed to current events, doesn’t have the same claim to innocuousness (if that’s a word). [emphasis added for this blog]
  • Friend: How many people do you think understood his joke?
  • Me: For the record, I think everyone got De Niro’s joke except for those looking for evidence of a double standard. Not saying a double standard doesn’t exist. Am saying, emphatically, that this is not an example of it.
  • Friend: Michele Obama’s flack calling the comment ‘inappropriate’ leads me to question that statement, unless you think she said that to quell the uproar from the right. (But I do understand how De Niro meant it.)
  • Me: Bingo.
  • Friend: Then that doesn’t say much for Michele Obama. If she knows De Niro meant no disrespect by it, why not stand up for him? Hell, if that’s the case, she may have missed an opportunity to argue the exact point you just did and turn this against the right.That said, I still think someone on the right who makes a similar joke gets lambasted. And I’m not necessarily saying that because I’m Republican or dislike Obama. I thought – and still think – Rush Limbaugh is an idiot.

  • Me: Someone on the right makes a similar joke would be blasted because it wouldn’t be funny.
  • Friend: What’s the difference between the two sides?
  • Me: Asked and answered.

Published by Olmeda

At-large director on the national board of the Society of Professional Journalists. Former president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and of UNITY: Journalists of Color. An extreme moderate, not committed to political ideology. Stepfather to two wonderful daughters. Father to two wonderful sons. Husband. Rogue karaoke singer. Humanist

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