Friday, August 26, 2005

To joke or not to joke?

I've met some great people in Arizona, among them a sweet girl born in America but raised in Canada. She's funky, effervescent, and generally far more rambunctious than I could hope to be. I've been carpooling with her this past week, and during that time, our morning conversations have gamboled from sex and promiscuity to Canadian race relations. Part of this morning's discussion was the validity of ethnic joking, and while M and I disagreed, I appreciated the chance to really think about why I feel the way I feel about ethnic jokes. Ethnic jokes against my community bother me, and while some have a high tolerance for "all-in-good-fun" teasing based on race, I've simply never been one of them. My thinking is this: I am more than the sum of my culture, but I am proud of my culture. Asian Americans, like all communities of colour, have been the targets of endless stereotyping and joking, and this dehumanization has been what has kept us oppressed. While it seems like mocking my people's cultural practices or musing about the inherent studiousness of the yellow kind, it was thinking like this that prevented and continues to prevent us from achieving true diversity of opportunity. This line of thinking mimics my feelings on reclaiming words -- some words have inherent pain, and I think it is not only impossible, but highly disrespectful of our collective history of oppression to attempt to erase and re-define a term that was once (and will thus always be) a slur. A feminist cannot reclaim the word "bitch" or "whore", a black man calling himself a "nigga" is being prideful of being 3/5ths of a man, and when a woman on a forum I frequent mentioned her "chinky eyes", I rolled my own, anything-but-"chinky" eyes. Similarly, I simply cannot bring myself to find humour in dehumanization. No matter how amusing, how true, how light-hearted, how good-natured an ethnic joke is, I always find it more uncomfortable than comedic when a person devolves me down to my race and proceeds to mock or stereotype it. And a lot of it has to do with insider/outsider dynamics -- I might find it amusing to secretly muse about Asian parents with a yellow or brown sister, but as with the whole Cosby incident, there's something to be said about keeping one's dirty laundry internal. But, maybe that's just me... I've always thought I lacked a certain sense of humour.


Blogger jose said...

I'm drunk and I probably shouldn't post but I gotta tell you what I'm thinking right now.

We're smart. We understand irony. We like the unexpected. Absurdity tickles our minds. And what is modern humour built on? All of that and more. Especially the stereotypes -- what the general audiences expects -- and blasts them with it when they don't expect it.

As a fellow minority, most of those stereotypes are actually expected, which results in a groan. As someone with a sense of humor, I can understand why it would be funny to some people.

The problem is that some people understand why it's funny, that's it's absurd, it's wrong, and the comedian is making fun of the ignorant, but the rest of the population is the ignorant. For these people, they view this public display as society's approval of such ideas, and effectively their propagation. These people still find humor in the situation.

Knowing how important media images are, especially for a group of people a majority of the audence have never met face-to-face, I'm split in terms of freedom. The freedom of speech and enjoying the liberty of those who understand, would be limited by any limits on such types of jokes. It doesn't help when the joke is spoiled.

Or rather, when the joke is explained. No one likes a joke ruined, and that's what happens when we point out that a certain joke wasn't funny to us. We're told we have no sense of humor, implying we don't have the intelligence to understand, and a bit of smug cultness on the comedian's part kicks in. It would be much better if they acknowledge that the joke is funny to a different group of people due to its absurdness/playing on stereotypes/whatever, but I'm not sure how that would work in reality. Comedy is a show, and it would break the fourth wall to The More You Know, and as mentioned before, explaining the joke defeats the whole point of telling it.

To this end, it seems the current system is the only way it could work right now -- someone says something and we react; they get what they want, and we get what we want (as much as the reflection of the greater institutionalized system allows). I'm not sure what conditions would accomodate deviating from this without a paradigm shift in greater society.

8/27/2005 02:03:00 AM  
Anonymous ben said...

lmao, good points both of you.

8/28/2005 02:09:00 AM  
Anonymous tekanji said...

Jeez, Jenn, I bet you're one of those humourless feminist types too. :P

Seriously, though, the kind of joking you're writing about is a very sensitive issue. One that I've given lots of thought to, but still don't have an answer or even a definitive stance on.

As a Russian/Polish cultural Jew, I'm not a racial minority (I check the white/caucasian box) but I'm not exactly a cornfed American. I grew up in a household where Polish jokes were typical but not intended in any way to be serious. Especially because most Polish jokes are like blonde jokes (also told in our house, as my eldest sister is blonde haired and blue eyed) - the "ha ha these people are stupid" bent - and my family believes strongly in our own intelligence (sometimes too strongly, I think ^^;).

That being said, I'm of two minds about ethnic jokes (or reclaiming ethnic slurs). On the one hand, I think the principal is good: turning a negative into a positive so it can't be (effectively) used to continue perpetuating harm. On the other hand, I'm not sure if it's truly possible to erase history like that. Current attempts have been with mixed success (as you've noted, but also with the word "gay" and its use in pop culture to mean "stupid" or "bad"), sometimes serving to further the barrier it seeks to dismantle (it only being ok for the right ethnicities/groups to use the slurs - I can say "bitch" or "cunt" because I'm a woman, but a man saying it is bad!). I'm also a big fan of the idea that language has a big impact on us and I'm not sure the “all in good fun” mentality gives enough credit to the impact of subtle (and not-so-subtle) messages in joking/slur usage.

Now, me being a heavily sarcastic person, I will sometimes repeat a stereotype/joke/slur to make a point about how the stereotype/joke/slur is bad and wrong (like I did in my first sentence, which was a natural response and not actually planned out). But beyond that I've used some pretty offensive language in my life. For instance my ex is Korean Canadian and he would lovingly call me a “kyke”, which is a slur against Jews, and I would lovingly call him a “gook”, or if I wanted to annoy him a “chousenjin” which is a derogatory label for Koreans in Japanese (the correct term, I believe, is “kankokujin”).Was it right of us to say things like that to each other? I don't know. I would never use terms like that in any serious way, or even in a humourous way on someone who doesn't have an explicit understanding set up with me, but even then does the mere use of the words perpetuate oppression?

I don't know if there are any right answers here. I've changed a lot of my speech/habits over the past few years as I've grown as a person and a feminist. Language is powerful and I don't think there's anything wrong with acknowledging that or your personal feelings on the matter. I may not have your same conviction, but I do think you've hit on a bunch of good points and I certainly sympathize with your feelings.

8/30/2005 08:28:00 PM  

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