March 8, 2011

Controversy Week: Race

A lot of people are uncomfortable talking about race. Well, really just a lot of white people are uncomfortable talking about race. Let's be honest, historically when white people talk about race some pretty bad s*** usually followed (holocaust, slavery, et al.) so there is a bit of guilt there. If you hang out with black people or Latinos for any length of time you'll quickly find out that they really have no issues talking about race with you or anyone else.

As a white kid growing up in Chicago you get confronted with race issues from a pretty early age. Early on your nickname on the playgrounds is pretty much guaranteed to be either white boy or wedo (which is just white boy in Spanish). As a white kid with a smart mouth sooner or later you end up calling other kids black boy or tamale boy and probably end up getting into a few scruffs because of it. Eventually, kids get a little older and start developing friendships and a sense of humor.

By the time I was in eighth in grade or so I had a pretty diverse group of friends and all we would really do was play sports and sit on our parent's porches talking s***. If you've ever had a group of male friends you realize that when the s*** talking starts there isn't really much that is out of bounds to use as fodder and race was no exception. I was a little uncomfortable at first, because I was white, but eventually I learned that I could pretty much say the most racist possible things I could think of and as long as it was funny no one really made a big deal about it. Sure feelings would get hurt from time to time, but those people would just get made fun of more. Just sort of how it works with young men.

Because of my somewhat unique experiences as a white male with race it's somehow gotten to the point that people know I'm not racist because I say so many racist things. Now I'm not saying you should suddenly start going up to black people you don't know and give them KFC coupons because that will probably get you punched in the mouth. But, if you've got a black friend that wouldn't get offended for you making that same bad joke chances are you aren't racist.

A lot of it comes down to comfort levels. If you're comfortable around blacks and Latinos then chances are blacks and Latinos will be comfortable around you. Black people like jokes about black people more than anyone if they're funny and without malice. We're the Barack Obama and Dave Chappelle generation, not the George Wallace generation. There is a lot less racial tension out there and it isn't as taboo as you think it is to talk and even joke about race. If we ever do make it to the point that we live in a post-racial world it won't be because we don't talk about racism. It will be because we think racism is just one big joke.

Image taken from here:


  1. The topic of race has long been burdened by politically correct verbiage. While I don't condone general rudeness or malicious stereotyping I think our culture's insistence on the "right labels" increases the gap rather than closes it.

  2. Aah you have touched on a blog I was working on my friend, though I am writing a historical piece on the false biological/genetic basis of the term 'race'. However I do like the point of your work especially the endnote stating that racism (and ipso facto 'race') will become one big joke (much like the false 'science' of phrenology etc).
    Well done, another balanced and well put together piece.

  3. I will pretty much call people whatever they prefer being called. Under normal circumstances, that is. If you're out drinking with me or something, all bets are off.

    I have a friend who doesn't want to be called "black" because he associates "black" with dirt or something. I don't understand it, but I don't call him black.

    It's like with trangendered folks: I just ask them what pronoun they want me to use, and I use it.

    Why wouldn't I? If I had a friend who wanted to be called "Bill," I wouldn't get in a huff about how last week he wanted to be called "William."

    Of course, I'll also call Bill or the black dude an idiot if they're being idiots. Race is beside the point.

  4. that picture is awesome.

    for me, i think my attitude towards race developed from both my school and home environments. here in canada, we take eeeeverybody, and when you cram all their kids together in one kindergarten class, that's all they are to each other - kids. i think that, coupled with the fact that my parents had friends of different races and they didn't seem to give two shits what color their skin was, led to race not being too big a deal for my family.

    and now, as an adult, i dislike everyone equally.

  5. The reason we laugh at Stephen Colbert is because his politics were implied by the Daily Show. No way he'd be funny (to lefties) if he cut his TV teeth on Fox. He could totally be a racist douchebag but I think it's unlikely and I'm always amused by people who think he's serious.

    I am generally very perturbed when someone who doesn't know me makes a crack about a black stereotype or if it's someone who I know has views about blacks that are offensive and stereotypical. We can laugh at it together when we know it's crap not when you think it's true.

  6. I don't consider myself racist, but I have been known to tell racist joke or two - but it's not so much I like telling racist jokes - it's that I like telling jokes that offend people... In a sense... I'm an equal opportunity obnoxious jack-ass.

  7. While racism has gone down tremendously in this world, it still exists and it is shocking when confronted by it. When I was in first grade (1991), I lived in a medium-sized town in Missouri. There were still signs on some stores downtown that said "no colored people allowed." WTF.

    And then in middle school, my fam moved to a large city in Nebraska that was just starting to desegregate (1996), but they did it based on neighborhoods. Ten blocks from my neighborhood were bused to a school district in the poor part of town. So for my entire seventh grade, I was one of the few non-black kids in my school. Going to a school with gang members and metal detectors was a huge eye-opening experience for me. It was also the reason my parents moved us again. They were horrified.

    Anyway. Great post. I'm loving your controversial series. This is what blogging is all about!

  8. I so love this post Chris Allen!!

    Race is a very big issue here in India because there are so many sub sets and people have made and become stereotypes and then there is a lot of inequality leading to that. People do not show it, but they are all a little racist towards each other. Very few people are neutral and do not bother about what color or background is associated with a person. I do agree that a Black person would enjoy a Black joke if it is funny enough and does not offend people personally. I have had people talk to me and like me and then ignore me the moment I told them that I was from India coz they think that Indians are all about poverty and Slumdog Millionaire and stuff like that.

    We need to be individuals and treat others like individuals too, I do not think that is a lot too ask for. If we point fingers at others, 3 of our own fingers will point back at us, and instead of playing blame games we need to make the world a peaceful place by just respecting the good and dealing with the bad.

    I guess I spoke a lot, well written once again sir! Loved it. I heart the controversial series :)

  9. I guess like with most things, it's a matter of knowing your audience.

  10. Race is only a social construct and that's why it's ridiculous. We're all related, the human genome. I love having friends from all kinds of backgrounds and I do crack jokes with my Asian girlfriend about eating rice and she laughs, and she calls me "round eye." It's hilarious.

  11. My husband is slowly starting to realize when it's racism, and when it's joking. He's starting to understand that there's a tone and feel between joking racism and real racism. Unfortunately, dating him is what it took for him to really internalize how racist SOME people are.

    He was met with things like "I didn't know you were into the asian thing", or "Oh? Did you meet her when you were stationed in Korea?"

    Exposure to it, and understanding how stupid it is, also opens up a door to you seeing how horrible it is when those 'jokes' aren't jokes.

    I once had someone come up to me and greet me by saying "You're Blasian? That's so cool!" Of course, I'm neither... and I also don't walk around saying "Hey Cracker" to people that I have JUST been introduced to. Context matters so much. Only someone who isn't racist can really get that.

  12. I've noticed that there are very fine lines.

    For example, if you're in a group full of mostly white people and start saying racist shit to the one black/brown guy/girl there... it's most likely going to be taken badly. Nobody likes to feel ganged up on, especially when it's such a sensitive topic.

    Also, there's a fine line between joking racism, and hateful racism, even if meant as a joke.

    I've had complete strangers make 'racist' jokes to me, and been able to laugh about it, because it's been clear that it's JUST a joke.

    On the other hand, I've had a good friend make racist 'jokes' to me, and it just felt hateful.

    I'm not sure where the distinction lies.. but you need to be very careful to suss out the social context before saying anything racist, because that shit hurts when it's not done right.

  13. I've probably got a few years on you and I grew up in a small Southern town. I saw examples of racism all around and have always found it very disturbing.

    I have never given a thought to someone's race, religion or sexual preference. My friends are a mixture of all of the above but to me they are friends.

  14. I guess, as with anything, I have to consider the source...and the situation.
    Something tells me that if I was hanging with you at a bar and you called me a hot tamale (my dad was French/German, my mom Mexican/Spanish) I would not be offended.

  15. Nice! Lol, I've gotten into a lot of trouble recently because I don't discriminate when I take the piss/talk shit. ANYTHING is fair game to me.

    I'll do you a special post about Oishi. You should also watch 'Chushingura' and read 'The 47 Ronin' to see his exploits. The guy was a genius!

  16. Race has never really been an issue over here, it's more sectarian. I have friends on both sides who I can joke with and calls names but if I said some of the same shit to a stranger I'd be looking at a Chelsea smile.

  17. ab: I've often thought about how the census uses labels like black, white and hispanic. In a way they've helped a lot with making progress on issues of race by identifying inequalities and segregated areas but at the same time it's keeping people in a group when really we all share the same DNA.

    Dan: Look forward to checking that one out.

    Katy: That makes sense. If we're going to be reduced to using labels we might as well choose which labels we want applied to us.

    Kage: Yea I liked that picture a lot too. I was worried what I'd get when I googled "racism is funny", but it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be.

    My parents were pretty cool about dealing with race as well and I know that guided me to not make it as big of a deal as it's made out to be. Having parents that teach you to treat people as just people gets you off to a pretty good start.

  18. Tanya: Are there really people that think Colbert is serious? Oh.. I have to meet these people. And yea, I could definitely see that. Personally I won't make racist jokes if I'm only around white people because then I think I'll give the false impression that it's OK. Because people really do need to know that racism isn't cool before they can start joking about it.

    Austin: Offending people really can be a fun pastime so I can understand you on that one. Plus, I think humor brings people closer together because it's hard to be mad at someone you're laughing with.

    Jennifer: Wow. I had no idea that kind of stuff was going on.

    Coincidentally enough, when they desegregated here in Chicago because of the de facto segregation that came from the neighborhood system my grandma ended up protesting against busing when MLK was in town. Nice one Grandma! But yea, it wasn't because she was racist she just didn't want my Dad going to a crap school so they moved to the burbs.

    Apfel: Very well said. People always talk about how important individualism is in the world yet people always tend to look at us in groups and it often leads to trouble.

  19. Mandy: Very true.

    Tsarista: I agree. The whole race thing is really so silly if you look at it from an objective perspective.

    K. Syrah: So much of it really comes down tact. Some people know how to not be jackasses and some don't. I get the feeling that a lot of the people who make idiotic racist jokes would make idiotic jokes about people whether they included race or not.

    Infidel: I agree. One rule I have is I never make racist jokes if I'm only around white people because they'd get the wrong idea and think it's either OK to be racist around me or that I'm just a racist jerk.

    Oh, and thanks for coming by my blog!

  20. SquirrelQueen: That's an important point, it's hard to hate someone that is your friend. The more people get to know each other the better things end up being.

    Jo: Ha! If I called you a hot tamale I'd be offended with myself. I'm hope I'd be able to come up with a more witty way to flirt with you than that.

    Peridot: I imagine you are always getting into trouble with that mouth of yours! I look forward to checking that out. I think I've heard of him but no one really ever filled me in on any details.

    Ryan: Yea, no matter what the topic if you say something offensive to a stranger the chances are you might get popped.

  21. I'm in a very small town in the south. Yes. Yes, there is.

  22. I find it interesting to see so many people okay with racist jokes if it's with the "right" group. This to me is the most dangerous form of racism, the insipid kind, the kind where somehow using the N word is approved if you are of a certain color or with a certain group, when the words were created to repress and take away the humanity of a group. It is not acceptable to call a woman a bitch or a cunt, a person of color the 'n' word (or the other words that have been made up to diminish women or people of color over the years in comparison to white men). There is no excuse, not even "humor", to make it OK to use words that deliberately insult others. It's like Mel Gibson making excuses for his anti-Semitic remarks. People need to hold each other More accountable, not less accountable. There is too much laughing along with the 'jokes' rather than using one's brain to think of something with actual intelligence to say and stand up to sick remarks and tell people it's not okay to show disrespect to any group by using racist words. Stereotypes and racism is still a rampant issue, it just is veiled in a way it wasn't in the past. The more we confront each other and our fears and our potential prejudices, and talk about it, the closer we can get to letting them fade away and treating all people like human beings. BTW, a great book to read and challenge the mind is called "Race Traitor" - check it out :)

  23. Love the post! A topic that might step on some toes, but also need to get discussed, especially by white people. Funny but still serious. The eye-opener of today. Bis, aurélie

  24. Great post, Chris. This is an issue that I continually struggle with because I cannot understand how people can hate because of skin colour. I know the history, I know the causes, I know it's due to ignorance but it still never fails to amaze me that people are not capable of stepping back and just realizing that we are all connected. Sounds terribly innocent, I know, but it's just a simple truth.

    I was in a group discussing this the other day and we were all laughing about the fact that people like to declare they are 'colour blind' and that they don't notice if people are black, brown, white or whatever. How ridiculous. We notice everything about others. Their hair, their eyes, their clothing, their size. But suddenly we don't notice their colour?
    My feeling is that it is just fine to acknowledge that others are different in colour, religious beliefs, etc. However, it is what you do with that information and how you translate it in your mind and your actions that makes the difference. When is the world going to learn to embrace and celebrate the differences?

  25. btw..ever watch Russell Peters? Funny, funny guy who approaches racism in the most hilarious manner. Youtube him if your'e interested.

  26. Tanya: I would have way too much fun messing with said people.

    Eco: I'm personally of the opinion that humor is absolutely vital to having any sort of discussion. Humor is one of the most basic ways that humans connect to each other and generally speaking people who are willing to joke around together don't lynch each other. We'll never realize how silly dividing people by skin tone is until we just come out and say how silly it is.

    Aurélie: Glad you enjoyed it, it's good to talk about uncomfortable things from time to time.

    Robyn: Very well said. Another big part of it, I think, is being comfortable in your own skin. It happens a lot that people take out their own insecurities on others by lashing out in ways that are always stupid and sometimes scary. We just need to all get in a big kumbayah circle, breathe and say we're good enough. And I've never sounded that much like a hippie in my life. Dear God.

    Oh, and I'll give this Russell fellow a look!

  27. Christopher Robin: Interesting lighthearted touch on racism. I find, it curious people unaffected by the ramifications of being a person of color. I and 20 other people rode a bus, 3 of us were of color, the driver reported to the Border Patrol, the bus was boarded...and we were the only one's on the entire bus asked for ID. I am 100% Native American and was in the same exact spot God created me to be, from the beginning of time. I migrated from no where, the other was a young Asian college student and the other was a woman, who may have been from Europe. A lot more these days, as a person of color, people complain to me about how 'it wasn't me, I didn't do those horrible things to your people. Why do I have to pay for it?' Nothing could be more offensive, why even 'pay' or 'make up' for something, if you aren't going to make a full 'conversion' of sorts. Racial equality, is more than skin color it is recognizing the inherent dignity, at all levels for all reason's. I go to a local college, in a diverse neighborhood, I mean 'hood' and I've yet to see a person of color professor. Why is that? In terms of my own heritage, I will not ever--Not on a boat, with a goat, on a house nor with a mouse ever speak out against my Native American people. My loyalty has to be fully for them. OH KAY, I did post something about Sherman Alexie once, but I felt he perpetuated a stereotype, that is already and still quite alive. My point is, I will not contribute to a division among my people--which is what racism does, it is what politics does, it divides. I'm not racist, I have plenty of white friends (Sorry, I couldn't help it).


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