Laughing, Because Otherwise We’d Cry

I’ve always enjoyed working where I do, but I’m particularly proud of my peers and leaders at the moment for pushing for ongoing conversation around race, social injustice and prejudice. In a time where it seems like everyone is jumping on the George Floyd bandwagon, then jumping off as soon as something else comes along, where I work has – so far – maintained a steady grasp on the importance of challenging racial bias both with our teams and with our customers. We have meetings at least once or twice a week around the subject, and have started to provide venues for black voices to be heard across the company – and acknowledging that even so, there’s a lot more work we have to do.

During one of these meetings, the topic of racial humor came up – specifically, the notion of laughing uncomfortably at racist jokes, or looking the other way, or simply ‘letting it slide’. And the overall consensus was – as one might expect – that racist humor is pretty much not okay.

Personally, however, I think humor is actually a much more subtle and complicated topic than simply ’right vs. wrong’. On the whole, I tend to agree that a racist joke for the sake of being racist, for shock value, or because it actually reflects your true ugly beliefs, is definitely not okay. But this begins to toe a delicate line – if something is taken off the table as a subject of humor because it’s offensive to some, then where do we draw the line at what is and isn’t okay to joke about?

I realize this is an old subject, and there are many who’ve debated it far more eloquently than I’m able to, but it’s nonetheless an important one. After all, we humans love to laugh, and there’s not a whole lot of humor that doesn’t come at someone’s expense. Whether it’s an edgy pedophile joke or simply a punny dad joke, somewhere along the line someone is put out. I think the main reason for this is because of the very nature of humor: we laugh when something clashes with our expectations, prejudices or preconceived notions about a particular topic in an unexpected way. Take one of my favorite jokes from when I was a kid:

Q: What do you get when you cross a canary with a fan?
A: Shredded tweet.

I pity you if you didn’t at least roll your eyes at that one. But the implication is in fact rather violent – a canary fed through a fan would be a cruel, bloody and horrific mess. PETA would not approve.

So should that joke be considered unacceptable? I think most people would find it pretty innocuous, but I can’t deny that there are some people in the world who might actually be offended.

Of course, there are subjects that are far more controversial than childish animal cruelty puns; racism, sexism, child molestation … there’s really no end to the extent of vile and horrible things that humans are capable of, and these are of course very serious topics that should be discussed in a serious manner if we are ever to find long-term solutions to the problems they give rise to.

But we aren’t all capable of changing the world; everyone is not a saint, and most of us struggle as it is to get through our daily lives with our minds and emotions intact. In fact, the vast majority of us rely on humor to diffuse situations, to make life more tolerable, and to simply come to terms with some of the worse things in the world.

So what is okay to make fun of, then, and what isn’t? Can I make fun of a friend for being outrageously gay? Can he make fun of himself for being outrageously gay? Can I poke fun at Mohammed? Or the people who violently protest his depiction in media? An incompetent president for drinking covfefe in the morning? Do I have to limit myself to G-rated humor and wordplay? Innuendo can be incredibly sexist; even an offhand remark about self-tan could come off as racist.

In one sense, there is a simple answer, in which I’ll paraphrase one of my favorite satirical shows ever, South Park: either everything is okay to make fun of, or nothing is. The ‘line’, so to speak, is entirely arbitrary, depending on the audience and the perception of the people both telling and hearing the joke. If I make a Catholic priest altar boy joke, there is a very specific demographic that will likely take great offense to it; most other people would probably laugh. If I make a Muslim joke, it’s pretty likely that those demographics will be completely reversed.

But at the same time, the concept of ‘all-or-nothing’ is still something of an oversimplification. Yes – if we start arbitrarily saying certain things are off-limits, then there’s really no stopping the train until humor is gone forever. I mean, even Winnie the Pooh makes fun of freaking mental health, and where would we be if we had to ban children’s media because it might offend someone?

I think that there are several other aspects to humor that need to be taken into consideration before simply saying something is or isn’t okay. Of these, perhaps the most important is intent. And I don’t mean whether you simply meant to offend someone or not; instead, carefully consider who the joke is actually making fun of. To revisit South Park for a moment, consider the episode dealing with the N-word, With Apologies to Jesse Jackson. This is actually one of the most spectacularly insightful points on racism I think has ever been made in mainstream media, and it does it in one of the most vulgar and offensive ways possible.

For context, it starts with the character Randy Marsh on a game show, having to guess a word based on the clue ‘people who annoy you’. The letters provided are, of course, N, blank, G, G, E, R, S: the real answer being naggers.

You can of course guess what Randy shouts out instead. This leads to a hysterical downward slide in which Randy kisses Jesse Jackson’s actual ass as an apology, and ultimately sees him labeled as the ‘N-Word Guy’, leading to prejudice, abuse, and finally a nationwide ban on the phrase ‘N-Word Guy’.

So why is this okay? How is it South Park can get away with hurling the n-word around dozens of times, making white people appear as the victims of racial injustice, and portraying Jesse Jackson as the ‘king of black people’? The answer is in intent. The episode was not intended to offend black people by using the n-word; it was certainly not intended to empower white people by empathizing with a false-victim mentality. Instead, the purpose of this episode was to bring to light the fact that the n-word is, naturally, an incredibly offensive term that has literally no equivalent for any other race or demographic, and to underline the hypocrisy of white supremacists who would happily argue against its ban, even though if a similar term could be applied to them they would outlaw it in a heartbeat.

The brilliance of this episode is that it makes the viewer painfully aware of the social pain the n-word holds for black people, and that fact that white people will literally never be able to understand what it feels like to hear it used as a slur towards themselves. It does it through absurdist humor, and even though we laugh our asses off throughout the episode, we’re also left, incredibly, more educated than before.

This is one of South Park’s strengths, and one of the reasons that I believe humor can’t simply be divvied into ‘okay’ and ‘not okay’ categories; its satirical power is in making fun of people who are generally accepted to be socially ‘wrong’ by taking their views and beliefs to their logical, if nonsensical, conclusion.

This is something that I think needs to be considered when discussing humor. Of course, this underlines a significant difference between a truly racist joke and a satirically racist joke (see the subreddit r/darkjokes for examples of unfunny, offensive jokes): a spur-of-the-moment offensive joke is unlikely to have been premeditated to highlight bigotry or bias, whereas a joke in the context of an entire story can often get away with it.

In this sense, the perspective that everything is okay to make fun of becomes more understandable. When South Park made fun of teen suicide by having a girl drop her phone off a bridge (as opposed to jumping herself), I was hardly outraged; despite the fact that mental health is a very important subject for me, I was glad that they were highlighting the fact that depression and bullying can lead to terrible consequences (for a deep insight into the disastrous effects of gaslighting, watch the entirety of seasons 20 and 21; it’s painful but enlightening viewing).

Humor is a deep and important part of human culture, and censoring it is a dangerous game. The moment we say something is off the table, it not only opens the doors for further censorship in a fascist sense, but also means that entire demographics of people are left without acknowledgement. The very ability to make fun of something brings that thing to light, and if done in the right way, can actually pave the way for significant changes that might be sorely needed.

This doesn’t mean that you have a carte blanche to let rip your racist uncle jokes; it doesn’t mean no joke can be considered offensive. What it does mean is that we need to protect our ability to satirize the world, because with the amount of dreadful, traumatic events that take place on a daily basis, if we couldn’t laugh, we’d have no choice but to cry.

In that sense, humor can actually be a powerful coping mechanism. Not only does laughing about things make you feel good from a dopamine-release point of view, but it actually can help to better understand others’ perspectives, and to make sense of the world in general.

Should the n-word be banned? Probably. Should racist jokes be outlawed? Not until racism itself is a thing of the past. Ultimately, there will always be people who are offended by jokes, but their offense can’t be the reason to stop making fun of them. Comedy, satire, and insightful – if offensive – humor is terribly important, and can’t be censored for fear of losing our ability to speak freely in the first place.

What do you think? Is there any humor that actually goes too far? Does the intent of the joke matter more than the delivery? Let me know in the comments!

Wearing White Shoes

This post discusses subjects such as racism and misogyny.
If this triggers you … you probably ought to keep reading.

I read an article last week published in the New York Times by poet and essayist Claudia Rankine. With the provocative title of I Wanted to Know What White Men Thought About Their Privilege. So I Asked., she discusses her experiences as a black woman traveling for work and observing frequent – and yet often unintentional – racial bias against her from white men. She recounts one instance in which two white men cut in front of her in line, only for one to comment to the other, “You never know who they’re letting into first class these days.” Another in which a group of white men again try to cut in line, and juxtaposes the actual response of both passengers and crew with the reader’s imagined response had that same group of men been women, or black.

Her article is well-written, thoughtful, and, I suspect, more carefully and deliberately worded than anything I could hope to achieve. Or would need to.

You see, I had never heard of Claudia Rankine. In fact, I originally started this article slightly differently: “… a poet named Claudia Rankine …” was how I was going to introduce her to my readers. I might have even published this post with this phrasing, had I not wanted to know if she had a doctorate or not. A very short Google search revealed more of you probably know of her than don’t. And after having read one essay of hers in the New York Times and spent all of three minutes looking her up, I’ve come to start to realize the extent of my whiteness. I probably will never fully grasp it.

… white privilege is … the simple fact that I don’t have to consider everything I do or say through the filter of my skin color.

You see, the very fact that I’ve never heard of a prize-winning, Yale-teaching poet is itself an aspect of this whiteness. Had she been white, or a man, might I have heard her name a little louder? Might I have inadvertently paid more attention?

Moreover, the fact that I can write and publish my own thoughts on prejudice without fearing insult or injury to my readers is symptomatic of the same thing. As I read Rankine’s article, it occurred to me that she was able to craft her language in such a way that sold a message – and sold it well – without once making me feel guilty – and therefore more likely to disengage. Engaged readers are the key to spreading a message, and I suspect – as she may do – that the New York Times has a lot of white readers.

Of note – although I didn’t spend more than about twenty minutes looking into it, I couldn’t find a demographic split for the New York Times by race; gender, income, age … but not race.

In a dextrous and subtle way, Rankine was able to open my eyes a little more to just what being black means – and to the fact that they’ll never really be fully open. In doing so, she helped me to recognize the way in which my own behaviors – both learned from and encouraged by (typically white) others – are affected by the simple fact that I’m white.

It also made me want to consider my own position on disparity and privilege, because as a white male it’s not something I often think about. My thoughts here are in no particular way well-educated, backed by research or experience, but they’re still my thoughts, so here goes.

Actually, back up a second. Read that last paragraph again.

What if I were black? How might readers’ opinion of my lack of evidence be different?

I believe I’m starting to understand that this is really what white privilege is. The simple fact that I don’t have to consider everything I do or say through the filter of my skin color. I just don’t have to worry.

But to really get it, to understand, it takes a good deal of empathy, and it’s incredibly hard to empathize with a feeling so alien that to you, it doesn’t even make sense. How can I ever understand what it’s like to live every waking moment being first and foremost judged by my skin color? How can I comprehend the conflict of wondering if my successes are going to be judged as leniency for the sake of political correctness, my failures as expected because I’m black?

I want to try something for a moment, and I’d like you to try it with me. I’d like you to close your eyes, clear your mind, and try to remember the scariest, most terrifying thing that’s ever happened to you personally. Try to picture it, remember it, and let that old feeling flow through you. It might not be comfortable, but hold on to that thought.

Got it?

What was it? Was it something physically harmful, like a car crash? Was it a painful accident you thought you might not recover from? Or was it a threat from another person – explicit or otherwise?

The Italian Dolomites, where my ten-year-old brain thought it was going to die.
Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Pexels.com

My answer came to me easily: climbing in the Dolomite Mountains in northern Italy, hanging on to a rope and nearly falling off a cliff. I’ll never forget just how close I felt to death – the surge of adrenaline, the churn of my stomach, the powdery dryness of my hands.

This experience reeks of privilege, when I think about it. The privilege of money. The privilege of travel. The privilege of being able to have such an experience in the first place. And the odds are, if I weren’t white, I probably wouldn’t have had that opportunity.

But what about you, reader? If you’re black, or asian, or female … what was your most terrifying experience? I wonder if it involves someone threatening or hurting you for your perceived identity – your appearance, as it were.

Here’s the thing: I wonder if segregation might almost be impossibly connected to how humans perceive each other. It’s really, really difficult to comprehend that we share the planet with eight billion other individuals, without finding some way to distinguish between them. The first, simplest way is gender – penis or vagina, two choices. Suddenly you’ve just eliminated half the world as people you have to identify with. Next up – skin color. Man, it’s so easy to just ignore everyone who isn’t the same color as me

Human society is built on these premises – despite promises of equality for all, humans are not all equal. There are rich humans, poor humans, white and black humans, gay humans and bisexual humans and hip-hop humans and death metal humans. We pretty much have to break down society into digestible numbers in order to have one at all.

The problem, perhaps, arises when one group begins to dominate the others. When men dominate women, white people dominate black people; even able-bodied people dominating disabled people. To truly live in a fair and equal world, we need to understand that we are different – but that those differences can’t continue to be leveraged to control or manipulate our positions in society.

There have been times when I, as a white male, have walked through predominantly non-white neighborhoods and felt afraid. I felt out of place, a minority, and in danger because of the color of my skin. I’ve experienced a little taste of this. But I knew that I’d soon be in a place where I would certainly feel much safer: somewhere surrounded by white people.

But this little taste helps me understand that some people in the world feel that way everywhere. I get a little scared when I get pulled over by a cop. I have a little taste of what it might feel like to be black and get pulled over by a cop. I get a little scared walking to my car at night. I have a little taste of what it might feel like to be a woman walking to her car at night. My female colleagues carry their keys between their fingers every night, and we don’t even work in (to me) a particularly unsafe area.

How do we teach our children to understand each other?
Photo by Bess Hamiti on Pexels.com

When we teach children about empathy, we often tell them to ‘walk in another’s shoes’. But I don’t know if I’m terribly fond of that analogy; the only shoes that really fit you are yours. Instead, I think we should teach children to ask questions: why does this person feel this way? What might make me feel the same? And most importantly, how can I tell them that whilst I can’t know how they feel, I understand that they do.

At the end of Rankine’s New York Times article, it struck me that, in writing about her experiences with confronting racial bias, she didn’t really come to a conclusion as to what could be done to solve it. I wondered if she’d had to edit it for length, or if she simply didn’t have a solution.

But now it dawns on me that perhaps there isn’t a fix. Perhaps society isn’t broken, just … off-balance. I once witnessed gender bias first hand at work. Afterward, I was talking to the woman who had been essentially dismissed by a male colleague and she voiced her frustration about it.

I don’t know why she thought to share it with me specifically; perhaps she needed to vent, or perhaps she thought she could trust me. But when she was done, I realized that as she’d been speaking, I’d already begun building defenses for our male colleague. I’d started thinking up reasons other than gender bias for his behavior. And somehow in a moment I realized that none of that mattered, because she still felt slighted as a woman. He could have had the best intentions in the world for interrupting and dismissing her, but he was only able to do it at all because he was a man.

So I just said, “That must really suck.”

I realize it isn’t terribly eloquent, but I’ll never forget her reaction: all she said was, “Thank you.”

Empathy isn’t about feeling the same as someone else; it’s about acknowledging that they feel that way in the first place. It’s about understanding your part in how they feel, intenional or otherwise. I believe empathy is a sorely-needed key to unraveling racial, gender, and all other forms of bias, because it allows to realize that understanding others comes not from shared experiences, but from shared emotions.

Of course, none of this changes who I am. I’m still a middle-class white male in rural northern New Jersey, and I will continue to benefit from that identity for the rest of my life. I will benefit from it not because I want to, but because society will offer me help in ways that it simply doesn’t to others. I will get fewer speeding tickets; I will make more money; I will never wonder if I was endorsed for or denied a promotion because I’m not white. All of this will happen whether I ask for it or not, unless we start to recognize what equality really means.

Equality does not mean women should be paid more because they are women; it means they shouldn’t be paid less for equal work. Equality does not mean colleges accepting lower grades for minorities to boost their campus diversity; it means accepting students based on the merits of their work and individuality, and not their skin color.

I don’t know if we’ll ever live in a truly equal world. I doubt I can do a whole lot to change that. But if I can recognize my own biases and privileges, and not shy away from it under the guise of white guilt, then at least I can understand my part in the world’s inequality – and maybe make the world better for just a few people.