'I'm Better Than All Of You.' Dave Chappelle Confronted by Students at High School Visit

Tuesday November 30, 2021

The Washington Post reports that Dave Chappelle's surprise appearance at his alma mater, Duke Ellington School of the Arts, was greeted with criticism from parents and students. "Some students lined up in the school's theater and voiced their opinion in a heated talk with Chappelle."

Earlier this month the school announced "it was postponing a ceremony to rename its theater after Chappelle until the spring amid student concerns about comments the comedian — one of the Northwest D.C. school's most famous graduates — made in a recent Netflix special. Chappelle has faced criticism for his comments about transgender people and the LGBTQ community."

He made the visit on November 23, which was to be the date of are-naming ceremony. The assembly wasn't mandatory, and around 580 students attended.

Mark Irion, a consultant for the school, said the school principal Sandi Logan "decided it was in the interest of the students to give them this opportunity to both speak to and hear from Dave Chappelle." 

Politico reported the assembly was contentious, adding if Chappelle "hoped to smooth things over amid the backlash over his jokes about transgender people, he was in for a surprise of his own."

One student called Chappelle a "bigot," adding, "I'm 16 and I think you're childish, you handled it like a child," according to two students present. According to the students, Chappelle responded: "My friend, with all due respect, I don't believe you could make one of the decisions I have to make on a given day."

"That peeved some students who were hoping for an apology or some semblance of one from Chappelle," writes Politico.

To another student, he boasted: "I'm better than every instrumentalist, artist, no matter what art you do in this school, right now, I'm better than all of you. I'm sure that will change. I'm sure you'll be household names soon."

"The students recalled that another student in the audience shouted at him, 'Your comedy kills,' and Chappelle shot back, 'N------ are killed every day.' He then asked, 'The media's not here, right?' "

"It was strange to me because he was asking for our opinions, and then when we gave our opinions, he just shut us down," 15-year-old sophomore Seneca Garren told the Washington Post. "There was a very big power imbalance of him just talking down to us, and just being really rude to us. It just it did not feel like a very welcome environment."

Garren said it was a "stressful" and "triggering" environment, and said one student had to leave the theater because she was having a panic attack.

"Students are on edge about the debate over renaming the theater," she told the Washington Post. "As much as there's a large population of students who really don't support him, there's also some students that do support him."

"One of the kids was explaining to him that [in 'The Closer'] he misgendered someone multiple times, and as she was going to explain the effects of that, he interrupted her and said, 'What even is misgendering?' making sort of a joke about it," 16-year-old sophomore Andrew Wilson told the Washington Post.

"Wilson was among those who spoke and said he told Chappelle that his jokes were 'laced with bigotry and ignorance.' "

Parent Allyson Finch Wilson, Andrew's mother, also voiced concern about there not being a mediator between Chappelle and students at the events. "They gave him a stage. They let his camera crews in. They took our kids' phones away, and it was going to go down the way Dave Chappelle wanted it to go down," Finch Wilson said.

The students who supplied Politico with Chappelle's quotes declined to give their names for fears of retribution from the school. One of their parents, who also refused to give their name said: "As a parent, I have to say I have a real problem. ... He was being dead serious and using the n-word on the record. What kind of judgment is the school showing to allow that?"

"He could tell we were nervous," said one of the students Politico spoke with. "It was a huge power imbalance of this grown man and his camera crew — and these 14- to 18-year-olds without their phones, just high school kids." Students had to lock their phones in special pouches beforehand to prevent recordings.

The students added that his tone softened over the hour-long event. "Turning to the camera, he spoke out against death threats some students have received since protesting him. The school has responded by increasing security and barring students from leaving campus for lunch."

"His whole tone changed," one of the students said. "He said, 'This is my family and whether they know it or not I love these kids. ... I don't want to hear about any threats to these kids. These kids don't deserve that.' "

But Chappelle's spokesperson Carla Sims said that the comedian did not get what he was looking for, saying, "Chappelle was expecting forgiveness from students, not to offer an apology of his own. The school postponed an event to name its theater after him amid concern about student reactions to his special.

"He said these kids deserve an F for forgiveness," Sims said. But, "Give them some space to grow. They are going to say things that are immature."

She added: "They are complaining that he talked and said the n-word. If anything, Dave is putting the school on the map."