Wait, is that out of context? What it is not is irrelevant to my mood concerning my thoughts on this topic. In an ironic way.
I’m still guilty of reading Uppity-Negro.com. Aaron writes fascinating stuff that makes me think, whether I agree, disagree, or am too ignorant about the topic at hand to have much to say. Thinking is always a plus, despite the complaints of some of my acquaintances that I think too much.
At any rate, a recent post at Aaron’s site led me to an old post that got me thinking. This is, of course, a good thing, as thinking about the “real world” (outside of academia and all that) isn’t something I’ve been doing much of lately.
I don’t have much to say about Trent Lott. It’s another one of those issues where I can see and understand both sides of the issue, and don’t feel qualified to judge either way. I feel like I’ve been saying that about a lot of things lately, actually…
What was fascinating about the entry was the comments that cropped up. Not the “sthoopid” flamer comments, but those actually discussing the issue of racist jokes and racism. For those that don’t enjoy link-following, the issue of the definition of racism cropped up. According to the sociological definition, racism is a systematic form of oppression in the form of an ideology, not a passing comment or the belief of a minority not in power. According to most dictionaries, however, racism is simply a belief that one (or should I say “one’s”?) race is superior to another. It’s an interesting distinction, and one that can (apparently) kill a conversation about racism, leaving it locked up in an argument about semantics while the real issue is put aside for the moment. That would, of course, be a moment that lasts until the participants tire of disagreeing on definitions and the discussion peters out. Not abnormal.
I, however, am only going ’round and ’round with the voices in my head. I’ll beat the shit out of any one of them that tries to get me caught up in that debate.
What? You hear ’em, too. You know it.
Let’s take, for the sake of getting something written, the dictionary definition of racism as being true or a true fact, or whatever. I’m actually going to quote from Merriam-Webster OnLine, so there’s a little less confusion.
Pronunciation: ‘rA-“si-z&m also -“shi-
1 : a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race
2 : racial prejudice or discrimination
I’m also going to sidestep the irrelevant issue of race as “merely” a social construct. Our practice of science is social construct–does that make the results of it any less real and influential on us?
So are racist jokes funny? I think there are two answers. If you are sitting in front of your boob tube, mindlessly watching Chris Rock, when he delivers his punchline, will you laugh? For those not immediately put off by Rock’s voice or style of delivery, quite possibly yes. If you are sitting and watching television, actually thinking about what Rock is saying, as he’s saying it, will you laugh? Maybe. I’ve found that I don’t. But maybe that’s just Chris Rock; I mean, I personally can’t stand his voice and that pretty much kills the whole thing for me. But who doesn’t chuckle a little (and genuinely) when someone makes a crack about some folks being packed in a car like a bunch of Mexicans? Is this racism? Don’t know. It is, however, stereotyping, which is something I, at least, associate with racism. This would probably fall under the “racial prejudice or discrimination” category. Popularity is not, however, the determining factor of whether something is racist. “Well, everyone does it…” So fucking what? That just makes it widely-spread racism.
At the risk of deviating from the issue at hand, it should be said that there is no real way to say whether something is “funny” or not. One issue, and the main one to me, is this: If one finds racist humor to be funny, does that mean the laugher is racist, or at least puts some stock in those stereotypes being manipulated? What does it matter if some believe in the stereotypes–I mean, everyone knows black folks love to put hot sauce on everything remotely edible, right? It seems the danger comes as this: different is not immediately equal or acceptable to people. Different is weird, or odd, or possibly even ever-so-slightly threatening to the set-in-stone system of your world. Or, perhaps, it’s just plain wrong. To be open-minded is to (theoretically) have fought to get past that reaction, yes? To quickly be able to subdue that automatic apprehension of the different and unknown; to be able to stop and think before making those snap judgements that support the seemingly universal theory that I’m right and you’re wrong.
If different is not immediately kosher for people, then there’s a space of time in which the alienness of a difference makes it seem wrong. After all, what I’m doing works fine. So why can’t you be doing it, too? What’s wrong with you? Get with it. Of course, they won’t get with it; that’s not their thing. So there’s something wrong with them for having that difference, for not being willing to conform. (Remember middle school? High school?) This is, of course, not an extreme that all people go to, or, at least, not for long. Perhaps there is a link between the amount of arrogance one feels in the rightness of their culture, looks, etc. and their likelihood to keep this viewpoint. In a historical context, one could see the imperialistic period of Europe as one of the most arrogant periods of their history. The sheer arrogance of a group of people that would set foot into another culture, condemn them as amoral or inferior, and make attempts to subjugate them is slightly astonishing to me. Maybe I’m just naive. I think I’ll refrain from digging up more modern examples. But my point is this: arrogance, by its very nature, is an overextension of confidence. When the sanctity of the outrageous or presumptuous claims backing up the arrogance are threatened by the success of an alternate set of claims, the arrogant folks in question can become upset. Upset folks can become aggressive and hateful.
So, the link to stereotypes: stereotypes provide a quick, fun-wrapped, easy-to-digest summary of a difference of a group. Add your itty-bitty, harmless stereotype to an arrogance that your way is the right way, and the hackles get raised. I am reminded of the remark by an acquaintance about a guy I hadn’t yet met: “He acts gay, but he’s actually pretty cool.” That “but” seems remarkable emphasized to me. Despite this guy’s difference (in the form of an application of a stereotypical image of gays), he’s ok. My question is: what else would he be?
But putting stock in a stereotype doesn’t make one a racist, does it? Thinking that black folks are all up on the latest dances isn’t condemning them morally or finding them inferior. Hell, you may think it’s cool. But what about those that find clubbing or dancing a frivolous endeavor, and those that spend much time invovled in those activities somewhat ridiculuous? Shouldn’t you be working on doing better at your job or school, or reading a good novel, or playing a musical instrument? As if, once one decides to become a good dancer (or if they simply are a good dancer), all other things in his life have been put aside to practice crimp-walking religiously. (As a completely irrelevant aside, I will state that I have had no luck whatsoever learning how to do that dance. Minimal amounts of coordination are required, folks. Consider yourself warned.)
How skin color fits into this, I can’t say I know precisely. It could be seen as yet another difference, and, better yet, one that is extremely quick and easy to identify, making it all the easier to discriminate. One thing I recall from reading entirely too many old books is the emphasis of Western Europeans on fair skin. Whether this existed before racism against blacks became defacto among Europeans or only after, I don’t know. Something so different as the blackness of an African’s skin, something that so violated the dominating ideas of acceptable, beautiful, and right, would simply have to cause a reaction. Skin color could also be seen as the outer wrapping on a treasure chest full of stereotypes, however. You see a dark skin and kinky hair, you think weaves, welfare, braids, sexual dancing, misogynistic rap music, hydraulics on old hoopties, gangs, and drive-bys. You might also think of older stereotypes, from a couple of generations ago. I am reminded abruptly of the debate surrounding the Joe Boxer commercial, including George’s summary of his feelings on the matter. Most notably, however, the Stepin Fetchit reference sticks in my head (link courtesy of an old thebrotherlove post). But that’s a different direction than the one I want to go into right now. I think. Except to mention in passing that perhaps the coon caricature hasn’t died out as much as we would like to think, hmm? I, at least, can see similarities between the stereotypes. The modern ones are a little more P.C., a little less harsh. Does it make a difference? Is the connotation mellowed with the language and severity of the image? (Or has the image even changed, really?) One thing I’ve always wondered about is which came first: the language, or the thoughts? Does a change in the langauge signify a change in the thoughts? Is my vison of humanity too dark and cynical tonight?
Back to humor. Is racist humor funny? When stereotypes become flaws (when those differences become dangerous in their success), and when ridiculing people’s flaws is funny, then racist humor is funny. What is “racist humor” other than a combination of those two? Now, why in the world did it take me so long to come to that conclusion? And why does that seem too cut and dried? I honestly have no friggin’ idea, for either question.
One could argue (there goes that little voice, muttering and shit), that stereotypes can become flaws in the stereotyped when the failure of the differences becomes glaringly obvious, without there being any hatred involved. Let’s take blacks as our example. Obtaining book-learning, rising economically, all those things valued in (dare I say?) white society seem to be, from the perspective of an outsider at least, seriously difficult, if not nearly impossible to do in an inner-city ghetto going to an inner-city school, etc. And, because people are people are people (right?), then what’s different, what’s wrong should be identified, separated, treated for removal. Standard practice for a business problem to be solved, for solving the derivative using the definition of a limit, for a disease. In this case, though, what’s right, what is being used as the basis for comparison is what works in that other society. It’s natural; one must work with what one knows, after all. Most probably know what the problems are seen as being: academic… issues (I honestly can’t think of a good word for what I want to say there), teenage pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, alcoholism (or is that too serious a term for what is seen in rap videos and the like?), violence and gangs, etc. These are then linked to aspects of culture (rap music, methods of parental guidance (or lack of), etc.). Some go further to attempt to link these to biology, but that’s not relevant to my current train of thought.
I don’t know that anyone is denying many of the root causes for these issues. That would be slavery and the racism that developed along with it. Is anyone (of those rationally considering the issue) denying that the socioeconomic plight of blacks now is directly related to the even more fucked up socioeconomic plight of blacks when they entered this country? That would be on those boats. With the whole sardine effect and the disease and all that abject misery. Remember reading about that?
I also don’t know that anyone is denying that things aren’t as good as they could be for blacks. Meaning, I’m not suggesting that since white standards for acceptable culture don’t seem to match black ones, that we should abandon attempts to improve the quality of life for blacks (or anyone else, for that matter). I just think we should be aware of whose standards we are applying, and that not all will agree with those goals. Kinda the same for America “helping” folks overseas… Refraining from modern examples, right.
So what does this mean for racist humor? I almost think that makes it slightly sicker. To laugh at stereotypes as “flaws” when it’s really their success that irks is just sad and an indication of the laughers’ fears. To laugh at stereotypes that develop as a group of people are recovering (or simply developing, depending on how much linkage one feels exists between blacks here and in Africa) their aplomb and are attempting to better themselves because they are flaws… I find that really sad.