Thursday, February 7, 2013

Bingo, Black Dildos and Racially Charged Humor!!

Yesterday during Bingo Night at the Greyhound Hotel in Melbourne, I had an interesting conversation with a friend about a topic I don't believe I'd ever touched on: What's a little racial humor among friends?

Not so much the use of "nigger" and "nigga" as terms of endearment -- I'd already gone there several times before. (And once more: Considering the loaded meaning of the words coming from a white person, it's a privilege which I believe should be reserved for black people only, unless the white people happen to be Django Unchained screenwriter/director Quentin Tarantino and Lincoln scribe Tony Kushner, crafting Oscar-caliber historical masterpieces.) What my friend and I were talking about was taking broad ethnic stereotypes and using them for jokes.

An example: making I'm-laughing-with-you-not-at-you cracks to an Asian about his or her supposed bad driving because, you know, all Asians are supposed to be terrible behind the wheel. Another: serving me a fried-chicken-and-watermelon lunch for kicks, or giving me a basketball as a gag birthday gift. Nobody's ever done either, but if they did, would I have every right to be offended? (For the record, I'd play along and laugh politely, but since I hate watermelon and don't play basketball, to the trash both would probably go.)

Of course, it's all about context. Normally, I'd roll my eyes in response to any joke about how blacks, whites or Asians all look alike, but not last night. I was too busy wondering if people really do think we (as in blacks, though the subject, at that point, was Asians) all blend into one.

My friend, who is dating a guy who is one-half German and one-half Chinese, told me a story to offer an example of innocent racial humor among friends. One day, while talking to the guy he's dating at a party my friend was throwing, he accidentally called him by the name of one of his friends who was there -- another Asian guy. "Oh, sorry, you know you all look alike," my friend joked to lighten the moment. Or maybe it was the boyfriend who said it: "Oh, yeah, I know, we all look alike." Or maybe it was someone else who overheard.

I was too focused on what had preceded the unfortunate punchline to focus on who had delivered it, and it seemed a lot more benign anyway than it would have in isolation, not coming after such a loaded blunder. (God, I hope it was the Asian guy who said it, though!) "If that had happened to me, if someone I was dating called me by the name of his black friend, I'd be furious," I said. Not because I would be worried that I was dating a racist, and I certainly wasn't entertaining the notion that my friend was racist. When he said there was no subtext to his calling one Asian by another Asian's name, I completely believed him.

But just because there was no intent (a key ingredient of "subtext" -- it's put there deliberately) didn't mean there wasn't a subliminal cause. Though it may have been an honest mistake, with such slips of the tongue, I believe there's an unconscious lumping together of people of a certain type, like when two blondes, or two sons, momentarily merge into one as you search for the right name to call one of them. Such mergers are perfectly normal, but they become more complicated and can have more far-reaching implications when they involve race, a characteristic that's often used against people, as a vehicle to segregate and ostracize them.

My best friend sometimes accidentally calls me by her husband's name when we're together. It's an understandable human error. Her husband and I are both guys, and he's the most prominent man in her life, so of course, his name would usually be on the tip of her tongue when talking to any guy, especially a best friend she no longer sees on a regular basis because we live on different continents. Were she to start calling me Usher, though, we'd have a problem.

Still, calling me by the name of your other black friend probably would be less offensive to me than the lazy categorization in play when guys on Grindr approach me by going on and on about how much they love black men. I know they mean no harm. In their minds, I should take it as a compliment. But saying black men make you horny isn't a compliment to me any more than saying white men or Asian men or Latino men or Lebanese men are hot would be a compliment to a particular one. It has nothing to do with any of my specific personal attributes, only my skin color.

It's a "compliment" that applies to every black guy. In the eyes of someone who feels the need to lead with that (and many guys do it tentatively -- prefacing it with "No offense, but..." or "Do you mind if I say...?" -- as if they are aware that they're treading potentially dangerous ground), I'm just the stock black man. That's worse than calling me Usher, especially because it's not an unfortunate slip but a deliberate statement.

It's this over-awareness of my skin color that makes me uncomfortable and leaves me groaning whenever those crusty old black jokes are hauled out. Sometimes I play along and make the joke myself, just to get it out of the way, like last night at Bingo when one of the prizes was a dildo -- or more specifically, "a black dildo," as the drag-queen host kept repeating, emphasizing "black" to the point that I started hearing it as "a black cock" and imagining that everyone was looking at me.

"Oh, I already have one just like it," I said, and I made a few more similar jabs. Call it the Whoopi Goldberg/Ted Danson approach, though I hoped my version of it wouldn't backfire on me the way it did on Danson in 1993 when the actor, who was dating Goldberg at the time, showed up on the dais in blackface at a Friars Club roast in Goldberg's honor. My friend was mock horrified, but he laughed along. Rather than sinking into my seat, certain that everyone was trying not to look at me (which probably would have been just my paranoia running away with me), I had decided to take control of the situation, grab the stereotype and turn it into a joke before a white person had a chance to do it.

To be honest, I don't think any of my jokes were particularly funny last night, no matter what my ex said by text ("Ha ha. That's so funny!") when I repeated one of them to him. Racially charged humor rarely is, in my honest and not-so-humble opinion. Would they have been even less funny and more offensive coming from a white person? I would have rolled my eyes for sure while chuckling politely, but I wouldn't necessarily have dismissed that person outright as racist. I have a sense of humor, and I'm too good a sport for that.

But everything in moderation (to address the use of stereotypes with a cliche). A little racial humor goes a long way. It's one thing to justify the occasional slip of the tongue by putting it firmly in cheek (as my friend, or his boyfriend, or the eavesdropper, had done with the crack about lookalike Asians), but if the only jokes you can tell around people of a different color or ethnicity relate to their color or ethnicity, I'd say it's time to get some new material.

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