I love jokes. I always have. One liners, knock-knocks, stories, even limericks. To me, there’s nothing better than a quick quip or some clever word play that makes me laugh or at least smile a little. I’m a pretty easy audience. For the love of God, I’ve seen “Dumb and Dumber” 30 times. I should probably be medically tested based on that fact alone.
And yet, as much as I love jokes, there’s always been one type that makes me uncomfortable. You know the type I mean. It usually starts with, “Did you hear the one about—,” and then the joke teller will lower his voice a little and maybe shift his eyes around the room to make sure it’s safe to proceed. And I cringe because I know what’s going to come next.
“Did you hear the one about the black guy?”
“Did you hear the one about the Mexican guy?”
“Did you hear the one about the Jewish guy?”
I’ve heard these stupid racist jokes my entire life. Most white people, especially those over the age of 30, have also heard them. I’ve heard them anywhere and everywhere. At parties, at work, at school. From bosses, from friend’s parents, from neighbors. Once a co-worker even pulled at his eyes to make them “Chinese looking” while he told a horribly racist joke. And that genius was an Ivy-league educated executive who made seven figures a year.
But here’s the thing: as much as I love jokes, as much as I love humor, I’ve never found anything funny about these casually racist slams. So instead of laughing, I usually react by trying to leave and/or making eye contact with the other people in the room who aren’t enjoying it, either. Then I’ll call the joke-teller an asshole in my head and vow to limit all future contact. But you know what I haven’t really done? Not really? I haven’t said, “Shut up. That’s wrong, and it’s racist and it’s harmful.” And I—and, in my opinion, everyone —need to start saying that. Here’s why:
“Did you hear about the black guy” isn’t the same as a blonde joke (of which I’ve heard many) or a Norwegian joke (of which I’ve heard many) or even a Texan joke (of which I’ve heard many). Know why it’s not the same? Because nobody walks into a church and opens fire on people because, and only because, they’re blonde Norwegian Texans. Nobody tells jokes about blondes, Norwegians and Texans to dehumanize them and “put them in their place” or show that they’re “less than.” Blonde jokes aren’t insidious. They’re not pernicious. They’re not yet one more way to chip away at an entire culture’s dignity. But racist jokes? That’s racist jokes’ jam, man. Otherwise, why would people repeat them?
Now, telling a racist joke doesn’t mean you’re one step away from putting on a white kracker hood. Laughing at a racist joke doesn’t mean you’re just one Facebook manifesto away from starting a race war. But come on. We all know it’s not the right thing to do, either. It’s not how you should act as a Human on this planet. It’s not how you should act if you have a thinking brain in your head and a working heart. All these jokes do, in their essence, is use humor to make yourself feel better than an entire group of people. And next thing you know, you’re watching the Charleston massacre on the news and wondering why other white people have to take this superiority a bit too far.
All of that said, please know that this isn’t an easy thing for me to write about. I’m not a social justice crusader. I’m not always comfortable sharing my feelings. I’m not nearly as smart as my many friends who’ve written brilliantly about this issue. Hell, I’m not even someone who can spell vaccum right on the first try (damn it—vacuum). But my heart hurts. My heart is broken. My eyes are filled with tears. What the hell is happening in 2015 when innocent souls in our country are massacred just because their skin is darker than some would like? What a world, what a world.
There’s nothing funny about that.