Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Jokes Are Supposed to be Funny

A good friend relayed a story today and I haven't been able to shake it. The premise is familiar. Before I hop on my soap box, I’ll give the details.

My friend is black. He works at a facility where 95% (if not 99%) of the members are white. He entered this job holding disdain and uncertainty about white people. Over the course of his work tenure, his feelings changed and his perspective altered. White people were not awful. In fact, they were no longer an entity, they were various individuals.

Today when I saw him, he was flat. He seemed tired, maybe sad. He told me that last week, while he was at work, he heard a friend of his repeatedly tell a joke. (I hate to repeat the joke for fear that its bigoted threads will weave into someone else’s psyche, but I must.) The joke goes like this:

Joke teller: “Did you hear that Obama is going to raise taxes on aspirin by 40%?”
Unsuspecting joke receiver: “No. Why?”
Joke teller: “Because it’s white and it works.”

(I wonder how many years this joke has been in circulation, the only change being the Democratic president de jour. My pal noted the inherent irony that the joke is being told while our country’s first black president holds office.)

The first time the joke was told, my friend wasn’t supposed to hear it.
The second time he heard the same joke, told to a different group, he was merely miffed.
The third time he heard the joke, he became furious. Yes, he was sick of the constant recanting of the joke. But what really got him was the way his white friends, upon hearing the punch line, reacted.

They smiled and laughed. And they agreed with the philosophy behind the joke, proven by their “cosigning”—discussing the joke and their agreement with the premise. They jumped on the racist bandwagon and did donuts around their black friend.

Through their actions, these white people confirmed that they believed that black people are lazy. And that white people do all the “heavy lifting” in our society. In the process they crushed the spirit and hope of my friend.

I haven’t stopped thinking about this. After my pal relayed his story, I, too, was crushed. Mad. Heavy. I felt like crying.

I tried to make sense of this mess. This ignorant bigotry is learned—it’s not inherent. Generations pass it down to the next unsuspecting generation. From infancy through adulthood, through subtleties, stereotypes and stigmas, racism continues. It flourishes because we allow it to do so.

Then I started thinking about our kids. We can teach our children the right way. Abby plays daily with children of many different ethnicities. It is glorious. Naturally, she notes the physical differences between her and her friends. But that is where the comparison ends. She does not place one child over another because of their hair, their eyes or the color of their skin.

As her mother, I wonder how to nurture her open, accepting soul. How do I preserve her tolerance and protect her and her generation from the insidious racism that can still warp the educated minds of our society? Abby and Henry perceive everything and absorb the slightest nuance. They take hubby's and my cues--we are always teaching and they are always learning. They will grow up knowing that jokes masquerading as racism are not funny.

My friend and I are fortunate. We talk. We discuss all of the taboo subjects—race, religion, homosexuality, stem-cell research and politics—with openness. Many times we don’t agree—but that’s the point. We keep on talking.

So I’m going to talk with my kids. And I hope that the conversation never ends. As for the bigoted aspirin "joke", I hope it dies a slow, painful, non-medicated death.

“It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and an even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your child to hate.”
- James Arthur Baldwin