Monday, August 11, 2008

The Joke's on You

Last week I had a conversation that reminded me why I cut back on trying to correct racist mindsets in regular people.

That may take some of y'all by surprise considering I have this entire blog that appears dedicated to discussing race and racism each and every day. As some readers have noted, I possess a special ability to find the racial angle on any event. More importantly, I use that skill the way Lil Kim uses plastic surgery, liberally.

However, in my private life, I've really cut back on my attempts to cure people of their racism infection. That may sound cowardly to some of you--isn't it typical of a blogger to be big and bold behind a computer screen but punk out when it comes to real work--but I had to stop trying to be Captain Save A Racist because it was making me crazy.

The folks that really drove me to be more selective in my battles were the comedians. Not real comedians though, I'm talking about the amateurs. Those folks that love to use a snarky comment or mildly humorous joke to re-direct conversations about race. The kind of person who would interrupt a discussion about the hypocrisy of the Founding Father's stance on slavery with a joke about how Thomas Jefferson couldn't have been a racist because he loved him some black women.

See what I mean?

To be clear, I think that you need a sense of humor to discuss racism. The disease makes human beings behave so illogically that if you can't laugh at other people's stupidity you will soon find yourself sobbing on your bathroom floor unable to leave the house. You don't want to be there because that bathroom tile is cold and it smells like pee.

Humor is wonderful, it's just not something I want to deal with when I'm trying to have a serious conversation about one of the most difficult topics in the world. Many of these amateur comedians genuinely believe that their humor makes it easier for people to deal with the truth. They might compare their jokes to the peppermint your mother gave you just before she forced you to swallow a big tablespoon of castor oil; just a little something sweet to help the medicine go down.

They are wrong.

See, if I'm listening to someone explain to me the horror of rape, I don't need some jokester chiming in about how "everybody needs love." If a homosexual is explaining to me just how painful it is to hear somebody use the word faggot, I'm not expecting that person to lighten the mood with a joke about Project Runway. When people are discussing serious topics, I expect them to be serious. I don't expect them to sugarcoat the conversation so I can feel more comfortable learning what the world is really like.

Hard truths are called hard truths for a reason.

I know that those of us who discuss racism and discrimination have to constantly remind ourselves not to become annoying caricatures. At times I do temper my message to appeal to a wider audience, but it's important that I make that choice instead of someone making it for me.

I don't need anyone else deciding that the conversation I'm trying to have is too serious and then interjecting some random humor. Not only is that decision arrogant, but in many cases it totally ruins important conversations. Once people think it's "joke time" they have a tendency to stop paying attention, which means they don't get the information I'm trying to impart. In fact, I suspect that many folks interject humor not to lighten the mood, but because it's a passive aggressive way to end a conversation.

That's just not funny.


OG, The Original Glamazon said...

In fact, I suspect that many folks interject humor not to lighten the mood, but because it's a passive aggressive way to end a conversation.

I think you may be right. I think humor is some peoples defense mechanism. What I am interested in is how do you deal with it? Have you really stopped? Or do you have your own snappy redirects?


Big Man said...


I have stopped trying to enlighten folks all the time about their prejudices. Often times, I'll let people say something that clearly has racist underpinnings and not correct or debate them because I don't feel that person will be receptive to what I have to say. It's the same approach I take to sharing the good news about Jesus. I try to watch people and determine whether they really want to have a serious conversation or whether they would prefer to just stay in their cocoon. I only confront people when I feel like they've crossed the line or acceptable behavior, or when they say something that I find so offensive that I just have to check them. Otherwise, I've stopped trying to cure everybody.

As far as the humor thing, until recently I really didn't know how to react. It always seemed like those folks had good intentions, so I didn't really worry too much when their jokes sidetracked an important conversation. Lately, I've been more forceful about not allowing people to use humor to end conversations or steer them towards another topic. When they try to interject humor, I've stopped laughing politely and instead just look at them blankly before continuing what I was talking about. This seems to make people uncomfortable and they typically stop with the jokes.

Deacon Blue said...

This is a very interesting topic and not one I've ever really explored or seen discussed this way or even talked about with the wife.

Considering the places I hang out at regularly in the blogosphere, I'm gonna be double checking that when I try to make a joke, I'm not doing it the wrong time or for the wrong reason and risking this kind of perception.

Thanks as always for the insights, Big Man.

Anonymous said...

Just a simple honest question which may have a long answer: define racism.

To me, racism means simply assuming that a person of another race is inherently inferior and less deserving. Then, from racism, you have discrimination. And of course, it exists, and it happens a lot. But, the good news I think that in the last 50 years we have made great progress and are continuing to make great progress. We're about to have a black president. That's extraordinary when you think of where we started.

The term racist seems to be way overused I think. When white people complain about affirmative action and stuff, I don't think that's racism. It's a point of view. The 'resentment' that comes about when a group is given special treatment. Just like how any person may resent an illegal immigrant being given access to social services. That sort of thing. Not racist.

Also, wrt to profiling and the like, well call me crazy but statistics should matter. I don't think it'd be too outrageous if Arabic folks got special scrutiny at the airport whereas old white ladies got less. And it's also a matter of demeanor.

I sometimes think that some black people are trying to provoke what might be seen as a racist incident. Attire and behavior designed to get looks from people. Just the other day I was on the train and this kid was listening to his iPod and singing a rap song at the top of his lungs. I looked at him and he gave me a look back. I think he wanted people to complain so he could say he was being victimized because he's black.

You have to ask yourself if with all other things being equal, would what may be regarded as racist incidents occur to other people who had the same demeanor and behavior?

When I see a well dressed civilized black person walking toward me on the street, I am fine just as I would be with a white or Asian person with the same demeanor. When I see a thugish looking black person walking toward me I am uncomfortable but at the same time I am reluctant to change my route because I don't want to be seen as a racist for doing so... even though I'd be just as uncomfortable if a kid looking like Eminem was walking toward me, the only difference there is that I'd definitely get out of the way.

I think it would be more constructive if the term "racism" were more limited. It exists of course and is very bad but the term has gotten so overloaded it's ridiculous. And the fear of getting labeled as such is debilitating. It's something which can never be disproven and once your name has been associated with the word you can never undo it. Just like if someone said you were attracted to kids, you might as well kill yourself cuz your life is over.

Now, go ahead and parse this and find a way to see some racism in there. If you look hard enough, you will definitely find it.

OG, The Original Glamazon said...

Anon- Did white males get special screening when renting U-hauls after Oklahoma City?

Where attractive brown-haired white males around colleges and place cute co-eds frequented stopped by police in the area after Bundy?

Just thoughts. I'll let Big Man answer the rest of your questions I actually have to work today.


Anonymous said...

I'm a white male between the ages of 18 and 45 with dark hair and a slightly olive complexion. I often travel alone for work. I would have absolutely no problem being given extra scrutiny as I fit the profile of a terrorist.

Deacon Blue said...

OK, all well and good, Anon 1:35.

Let's try some of these:

How would you feel being pulled over for a routine traffic screening or a very minor driving infraction and, being a white driver, having the police officer look at the black woman in the passenger seat and ask you "Who is this?" (I have. The woman was my wife, btw, in case YOU'RE wondering)

How would you feel having a cop question you on the sidewalk as you're trying to walk home with a steak and cheese sandwich and fries wearing perfectly nice and normal attire, accuse you of fitting the description of someone who's been trying to open car doors in the neighborhood, and then tell you when you ask to be taken to your home two blocks away that your parents don't need to be involved, even though you're a minor (Happened to my son).

How would you feel as a well-dressed black woman in a perfectly middle-of-the-road retail store, frequently being followed around by security guards even though the typical profile of a shoplifter was, last I heard, a middle-aged or elderly WHITE woman? (Happened to my wife a LOT)

These are just a few examples of the small shit that blacks have to deal with every day. And if you don't know how small shit adds up and spells racism, check with the camel who's just had the millionth piece of straw heaped on his back.

Anonymous said...

Every example you just gave are indeed most likely the result of racism, but you'll notice how careful you were to qualify each one with extra information such as demeanor and attire. This implies that you are well aware that had they been white and had a negative demeanor that it could definitely had happened to them. Like I said, racism is real and discrimination based on it happens a lot and that really sucks.

Back to the question at hand...

Big Man said...

I'm going to pass on answering anonymous's questions since they are variations on questions Anon has asked in the past. I've seen several posters answer those questions and I've answered some myself.

But, if anybody else is interested in discussing them they are more than welcome.

Anonymous said...

Just as well, not really in the mood, downtrodden today.

I might take a break for a bit, I know you'll miss me. I'll be back.


Deacon Blue said...

Anon said: This implies that you are well aware that had they been white and had a negative demeanor that it could definitely had happened to them.
It implies nothing of the sort. It implies that black people's very presence brings out racism in a whole lot of white folks, whether overt or on the sly.

There are plenty of hip-hop attired white kids in our area and I don't see them catching shit like this. Plenty of white kids slinging and using drugs in the country who get off with light sentences while blacks who commit the same offenses get the book thrown at them.

Blacks get more shit when they are acting and dressing "proper" than white folks get when they are dressed "gangsta." THAT'S my point.

But you will read what you want to with regard to this. I should follow Big Man's example and stop responding to you probably.

Gye Greene said...

"...sobbing on your bathroom floor unable to leave the house. You don't want to be there because that bathroom tile is cold and it smells like pee."

LOL'd; nice one. :)

You should collect some of your lines, and try 'em out at an open mic stand-up night.


Big Man said...

Getting up in front of a crowd of people and trying to make them laugh is not my idea of a good time at all. I respect comedians because I think they have one of the toughest jobs in the world. It's much easier to crack jokes in print.

Deacon Blue said...

And even in print we sometimes get very "vocal" groans and boos....believe me, I know. ;-)

awb said...

I disagree to some extent. Sometimes a "humerous" comment does more to get to the heart of an issue and can be more insightful than pages and pages of sober analytical commentary. Problem is, and your comment about the difficulty of being a stand up comedian reflects this, not many people can do that. Or are that funny.

Raving Black Lunatic