Two Important Lessons About Our Silence in the Presence of Racist Jokes

Paul Scanlon is a motivational speaker in England.

 

While I’m sure that few of us actually tell racist jokes at this point, how do/would we react if we were in a situation where we realized that one was about to be told? The importance of Scanlon’s message can’t be sufficiently underscored as we grapple with the systemic racism that has finally become more widely apparent at this pivotal juncture in our national life.

In speaking of white solidarity and white social capital, Scanlon makes observations that I find critically important.  We must not be silent. We must speak up–knowing we will feel uncomfortable and may lose “social capital.”

Scanlon’s talk brought me back a few decades to another instance of harmful humor, albeit not racial in nature. At that time, I sat with a group of office colleagues who were making “gay” jokes. I recall my discomfort at remaining silent.

Not long after that, one of our colleagues “came out” publicly, and I felt ashamed that I hadn’t ended a conversation that must have been deeply hurtful to him.

I feel confident that it doesn’t dilute the focus on the heinous original sin of slavery that still haunts us and demands redress at last to expand the discussion of what I view as the abusive application of humor.

It seems obvious that there is also personal harm–and often different but important historical relevance–applicable to any “joke” that is designed to depict the “other” and to separate the joke’s target from the rest of us mortals in a derogatory way: anti-gay jokes, anti-Semitic jokes, anti-Muslim jokes, anti-immigrant jokes, anti-Asian jokes, anti-Native American jokes, anti-women jokes, anti-people with disabilities jokes…

None of these jokes can be considered benign when we know that hate crimes are rising–and people are hurting.  And as long as our nation is divided into “us” versus “them,” we are diminished–individually, nationally, internationally.

I am not talking about “in” jokes that people of a particular group tell one another, well aware that they are stereotyping themselves and their group.

Some may feel this sentiment is political correctness carried too far. But can’t we be funny without being cruel?

Annie

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