No laughing matter

Some years back I stopped listening to and telling “ethnic” or other targeted jokes, even within the confines of my communities.  While people often talk about how a joke is based on “context,” I could no longer support the idea that a joke that disparaged any one group could exist within some isolated context that rendered it harmless.

What is the context in our society?  We live in a society in which people of color are routinely and regularly disparaged and demeaned.  This is the context for racial jokes–one in which the “humor” relies on laughing at somebody else.

Worse yet, I harbored the sneaking suspicion that my retelling of these jokes made me complicit in a racist system.  And as a person of color, I granted other people permission to laugh at my own community.  The thought made me feel sick inside.  I have suffered from internalized racism for years; it has been an ongoing fight to keep from absorbing and being poisoned by racist imagery, words, actions, stereotypes and thoughts.  It is a fight not to spread that poison.

For this same reason, I often despise “ethnic” comedians such as Margaret Cho.  Just like the geeky kid at the party, so many of these comics abandon their souls to be part of the cool kids.  I feel both anger and pity when I hear their words and witness their actions.  When I see an Asian man sitting with Miley Cyrus and friends while they are all making the “slant-eye” gesture, all I can think of is whether he considers the trade off worth the gain.

I think that when a lot of people talk about intent in racism, they mean that something just didn’t occur to them.  Part of my struggle has been to think critically and thoughtfully about these subjects.  So “lack of intent” perhaps wants to express lack of maliciousness or hurtfulness, but instead expresses thoughtlessness.

In the Dartmouth incident, the vomiting of racial stereotypes and slurs was attributed to an attempt at “humor” and “satire.”

What is the “context” for this joke?  The context is that Jim Yong Kim is a highly respected and highly accomplished man who is also an American of Korean descent.  He has been named president to an Ivy League school, which is a historical first.  Despite high levels of education, Asian Americans still face discrimination.  Less than one percent of universities are headed by Asian Americans, and I can only think of two other major universities ever headed by Asian Americans.  When talking about Asian Americans in the workforce, the term “glass ceiling” is often employed.  You can only go so far.

And in a moment that was one of pride for Asian Americans, one person took it upon himself to remind everybody that you can be accomplished, you can be well-respected, you can have done everything possible to enrich yourself and your community, and in the end you are just a Ch*naman.  You should be working in a restaurant, not heading an Ivy League school.

I can’t find any humor in this, because I once waited for over an hour for a job interview.  The reason?  The receptionist did not think that I could possibly be the candidate, so she never bothered to inform anybody I had arrived.  Try explaining that one to the interviewer.  I have  been told how “odd” it is for me to be in my chosen field–because “my people” typically don’t do this.  (I note also that my people didn’t get that particular job, but my people didn’t want it at that point.)

Maybe if I interviewed at a restaurant I would be more likely to be hired.

So the “context” for this “humor” is that it really isn’t very funny at all to be asked if you have the right to work in this country after you’ve shown your passport.  Or when you’re asked if you speak the language fluently.

If deep down the interviewer has the belief that “my people” aren’t suited for this job, if he or she can’t envision me in the job, how likely do you think I am to be hired?

“Satire” works even less well as a defense because it typically functions best when it is illustrating or illuminating an idiocy of the majority.  Satire also depends on context.  In this case, too many people will laugh at the switched Rs and Ls, the restaurant and Charlie Chan reference, and all that other racist mockery.  I’m not even sure how the idiocy of racism might be illustrated in this manner.  Possibly because nobody really ever thought about it.  It’s the intent thing again.

White people often rush to explain “satire” to those of us who protest racism.  And I’ll tell you just to save your breath, because you’re exhibiting your white supremacist viewpoints again.  Because we understand what the word “satire” means.  We’ve read literature and works of satire.  We can use google and wikipedia just as well as you can.  And in addition, we’re able to understand context.

Something Mari Matsuda wrote some time back comes to mind when I think about Dr. Jim Yong Kim.  Matsuda, a critical race theorist, writes about encountering a woman of another race and how an unbidden, unwelcome racist thought immediately popped into her mind.  What Tommy Brothers did was to reinscribe the racist stereotypes and their association to Dr. Kim.

Not funny.

I tend to believe that racist jokes are a way for people to make statements that might be considered unacceptable if uttered in a non-joking fashion.  They are also a way to increase white bonding.  White folks, if you ever want to get kicked out of the white club, simply try objecting to racist jokes.  Almost white folks, this goes for you too.

So when a person issues a racist statement couched as a joke, he or she can evade consequences by insisting that it has no meaning, that it’s just humorous, lighten up!  But within the context of our society, rational thinkers know that to be false.

If you don’t agree that the racist joke is humorous, you’re painted as lacking a sense of humor.  Get a life.  Get a grip.  Lighten up.

The other person is thus positioning him or herself to be the arbiter of humor, of what is/is not racist and of your sense of humor.  Plus he or she got to release some racial anxiety at the same time.  It’s a two-fer!

For the record, I have a sense of humor.  And everybody who knows me usually knows it, and thus the “humor” defense doesn’t work very well with me.  But I don’t laugh at serious issues that harm other people, and I expect others not to laugh at issues that are important to me.

Ultimately, maybe as sinoangle has said it’s a matter of respect.

Congratulations again, Dr. Jim Yong Kim.

5 thoughts on “No laughing matter

  1. Is there such a thing as humor regarding the collision of differences that isn’t racist? Or is it by definition wrong?

  2. Ed,

    Real satire typically aims to subvert power structures by poking fun at the powerful, not taking advantage of the oppressed.

  3. I definitely think that there can be humor regarding the “collision of differences.” But I think that we have to take the power dynamic into account.

    Elton, thanks for the nice summary. That’s what I was trying to get at when I wrote satire works best when it illustrates the idiocy of the majority.

  4. internalized racism.

    spend a few months in east asia. (can’t speak for south asia but…) places like south korea-> THE case in point for internalized western hegemonic racism.

    it’s sad really.

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