The United States sucks at talking about race.
Some of us desperately believe that moments after Martin Luther King Jr. said he had a dream, racism was banished to the far-off corners of society, never to be seen again.
But it merely changed its form, preferring to slither out of the shadows rather than stand out in the light of day. It disguises itself in biased statistics and phrases, such as “I don’t see color.” It lulls you into a false sense of security that ignorantly proclaims you can only be racist if you fling slurs and really mean it.
Remember that video of a student “jokingly” saying slurs and questioning why Black people and women have rights in David Blackwell Hall a few months ago? Most people were horrified, but in the comments, you could see a few people defending him saying, “Oh he’s only joking, why are you taking it so seriously?” I’d love to say people like him are few and far between, but as a 20-year-old guy in college, I see this kind of garbage all the time.
And I’m tired of it. Don’t get me wrong, jokes about race can be hilarious when done correctly, but this intolerance just reduces people to punchlines. So to all the people who think they’re hilarious for being “playfully” racist: Nobody’s laughing, and you’re no Dave Chappelle.
What’s missing in a lot of discussions about race is acknowledgement. The reason it’s hard for people in the United States to have substantive conversations about race is because most Americans do not attempt to find a common understanding to build on. For instance, many Americans know of our country’s history of oppression, but many fail to acknowledge that those systems still affect people of color to this day.
This is why you see some people blame the disproportionate rates of unemployed Black people on them supposedly “not trying hard enough,” ignoring the neglected, de facto segregated school systems and a prison industrial complex that overwhelmingly targets young Black men.
It’s a way of thinking that says, “If I don’t see it, it’s not real,” which is kind of like an ignorant game of peekaboo.
It’s hard to truly empathize if you haven’t lived through it yourself. Many people don’t know what it is like to be afraid for your life every time you’re pulled over by the police, to feel anxious going through airport security because of your name or to be under the constant threat of deportation even if you’ve lived in this country for almost your entire life. That’s why I’m not surprised to see so many people engage in this kind of bad faith humor.
I grew up where there weren’t that many people who looked like me, so naturally I’ve heard every joke in the book. From comments like “dot head” to “Osama” to my personal favorite, “You must be pretty good at hide-and-seek.” It’s pretty difficult to make a joke that is more than just a jab about me being brown if that’s all you know about me. It’s also why these same people become defensive and try to paint someone as hypersensitive when they say that their joke really wasn’t funny: They haven’t built up the empathy to see why it could be hurtful. It’s really more a sign of immaturity than anything, but as I got older, this racial vitriol only grew.
With the rise of the internet, it’s easier than ever to say anything. Anonymity guarantees that you’ll face no consequences. Blatantly racist posts litter Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, you name it. On Reddit, there are a slew of pages devoted entirely to being “ironically” racist, misogynistic and homophobic, which inevitably get shut down because saying racist slurs “ironically” don’t make them less racist. These are the same kinds of people who “Zoom bomb” online classes and meetings to yell slurs.
This is a different kind of group than the people I grew up with. Fueled by anonymity, these people thrive on outrage. They say volatile things, such as “Women and Black people don’t deserve rights” because they know it’ll bring them attention. Recently, this online chain of harassment has been co-opted by a bunch of college dudebros who think it’s hilarious and edgy to use racial slurs in real life.
If this behavior is the symptom of not being able to engage with race as a society in a constructive way, then what can we do to fix it? We need only to look back at a comedian like Chappelle. Chappelle has a reputation of saying whatever he wants, whenever he feels like it, and he has faced scrutiny for that.
But the difference between one of his jokes and the aforementioned lazy jabs is that Chappelle’s jokes have weight. They don’t diminish the experiences of the people they’re about; they lift them to the forefront. He’s able to wrap the bitter truths of racial history into a sweet outer layer of comedy that doesn’t leave people feeling defensive. He shows us that we don’t have to be afraid of making jokes or being controversial, but there is a way to highlight differences with respect that is too often ignored.
At the same time that I saw this increase in ignorance, I’ve also seen an unprecedented outpouring of kindness and compassion. I see it when my friends ask to learn more about my culture. I see it when people rebuke ignorance online. I see so many people making an effort to learn more about one another, and that gives me hope — and more people to laugh with.
Nishi Rahman writes the Thursday column on cultural and political diversity as a second-generation American. Contact him at [email protected]