Recently I participated in a discussion about whether certain names were “appropriate” for particular racial and ethnic groups. (All of the discussants were Black.) One person joked that members of a particular racial group shouldn’t have “white-sounding names”; another participant criticized the joke. Factions formed and the ensuing conversation became somewhat heated.
The interaction caused me to muse about the dynamics of interracial joking, and interracial relations more broadly. I asked the offended person, “Do you feel that people should only joke about their own racial/ethnic group?” The person answered “yes” — without hesitation. I responded, “You’re far too intelligent to believe that.” (I meant that literally.) The person also is too intelligent not to give other people credit for being able to distinguish jokes from insults, and I’m not merely referring to one’s “intent” in telling the joke. This viewpoint is as intellectually dishonest as the proclamation “I don’t see color” by some who are accused of being racist. The attempt to ignore race is nonsensical, irrespective of the ideology or motivation from which it springs.
There is a difference between Donald Trump “jokingly” labelling COVID-19 the “Kung-Flu” (which almost certainly has played a role in increased anti-Asian bias) as compared to, say, comedians using race as a tool to emphasize our shared humanity. These examples are not merely differences in degree; they are differences in type. (Speaking of the — thankfully — former president, I’ve argued that backlash against the “outrage industry” in part fueled Trump’s rise.)
The ethos that would ban interracial jokes would also prevent “Sanford & Son” and “The Jeffersons” from airing — much less “In Living Color.” And we would all be worse off as a result. Comedians who are as diverse as Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock lament that too many subjects are “off limits” today. The irony is that the comedians who we tend to revere the most — Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Dave Chappelle — are often considered to be very “offensive” by some.
In general, I’m not someone who longs for “the good old days.” But, there is something to be said for common sense that was, well, more common years ago. When I was a child, my friends and I implicitly understood when someone of a different race was laughing with us as opposed to laughing at us (or worse). Did we occasionally engage in humor wherein certain people might feel uncomfortable, such as a closeted member of the LGBTQ community? Absolutely. But did we intentionally poke fun at someone who we knew (or strongly suspected) was gay? Absolutely not. Why? We knew that doing so was wrong. We understood that there was an invisible line that we shouldn’t cross — the transgression of which could have harmful consequences. And we didn’t have DEI training (which I often conduct) to tell us as much.
To be clear, I strongly believe in holding people accountable for what they say — including me. Nobody is free from racial bias. However, “cancel culture” goes further. Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, who is one of the most socially progressive public intellectuals alive, is wary of it. And it is as big a problem on the right as it is on the left. Indeed, attempts to proscribe speech is one form of proto-fascism that can be found on either extreme of the ideological spectrum. It is intolerance in the guise of tolerance. It is arrogance in the guise of humility. It is sanctimony in the guise of empathy.
There is a legitimate fear that racial jokes can get out of hand. (I’m reminded of the dinner scene in Bernie Mac’s movie “Guess Who.”) But that risk exists in virtually all social contexts. The fear that we might accidentally offend someone cannot be an excuse for “socially banning” entire categories of otherwise innocuous — and funny — jokes.
Social mores change over time. Thus, I’m fully aware that my stance on this issue is uncomfortable to some. My religious beliefs are uncomfortable to some; my stances on various social issues are uncomfortable to others. I understand, and respect, dissent. The problem is that an increasing number of people deem themselves to be the ultimate arbiters of social propriety.
Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.