“Hey, would you mind getting me a glass of water while you’re up?” I asked, extending a blue Commons cup toward my friend, Justin Williamson ’16, who is African-American.
He stuck out his tongue. “Do I look like a slave?” he asked.
I shrugged slowly. “Well . . .” The table shook with the raucous laughter of my peers.
We often proclaim that our race plays a very small part in our lives, and, in comparison to how race has affected preceding generations, this is true. No one can deny, however, that racial jokes are ever-present, both at Andover and beyond. As an intentionally diverse community, we are constantly discovering new ways in which we are different, which can be both uncomfortable and enlightening. Often, we deal with our discomfort through humor.
While I am not personally offended by every racial joke that I hear, I do believe there is a stigma on campus surrounding speaking up when a racial joke makes one uncomfortable. This stigma is a particularly harmful one, given the sensitive and highly personal nature of these situations: race-based jokes present us with an opportunity to initiate constructive discourse about race, and the silence of those offended should never seem socially obligatory.
It is reprehensible that students are made to feel over-sensitive or quick to anger when the words of their peers make them uncomfortable. In the past, people have attempted to justify the “black jokes” made at my expense by claiming that people make fun of other races just as often. Whether this is true or not, some racially-charged jokes simply are not funny. Jokes that appropriate one’s personality, future or intelligence as characteristics of a certain race can be very disheartening. Given our culture of accomplishment, it is not uncommon to sometimes feel as though we don’t measure up to our peers—this feeling is only aggravated by the seemingly constant barrage of jokes regarding poor, illiterate black people or nerdy, socially-awkward Asians. It is simply never funny to entertain some at the expense of emotions or self-worth of others.
Even worse, individuals who do voice their opinions are often bashed for being too sensitive. In my experience, when someone says that they did not like a joke because it was rude or made them feel uncomfortable, they are often shot down. More than once, I have told someone that I didn’t like a joke they made—only to be labeled “the angry black girl.” This type of treatment only reinforces the already demoralizing nature of racial jokes. No one, of any race, should feel as though they cannot voice their objections. There is nothing wrong in feeling uncomfortable with being the butt of a joke. People should not be made to feel that their emotions are unreasonable.
I do not think that we should ban racial jokes altogether—this leads to a fear of stepping on toes and being politically incorrect. I am also not claiming that I have never been the perpetrator of a potentially damaging racial joke. Nevertheless, we should be allowed to express our discomfort without fear of retribution or being considered hypersensitive. When someone says that he or she has been made uncomfortable by a statement, it should lead to constructive discourse. By questioning why certain statements evoke emotional responses and considering what makes us consider some assertions funny and others rude, we can learn to reflect on the way our statements might affect our peers and their sense of self, instead of senselessly uttering those highly impactful words.