As a kid, I loved funny things – jokes, riddles, puns… the sillier the better – anything that made me laugh. I was an extremely shy child, but telling jokes was a surefire way to talk to people when I didn’t know what to say or how to say it. I remember on more than one occasion holding someone or other captive as I regaled them with joke after joke from one of my many books. “Just one more!” I’d beg when one of my parents tried to save my hapless victim from my corniness. “This next one is really funny!”
As it turned out, it was a joke that began my education into the understanding that racism is wrong.
I remember coming home one day with an ethnic joke I’d heard from one of the other schoolkids. I don’t remember the joke itself, or even which particular group it targeted, but I must have thought it to be quite funny, as I held on to it long enough to share with my dad when he got home.
Much to my surprise, however, Dad didn’t laugh… not even a little. In fact, he was deadly serious. He told me in no uncertain terms that telling jokes that made fun of any group of people was wrong and that he didn’t ever want to hear me doing so. I protested a bit, saying that it was just a silly joke and I didn’t really mean it, but he was adamant that it did matter… that words are powerful, and that we are responsible for what we say.
I came away from our discussion a little embarrassed at being chastised, but his words stuck with me. From that point on I thought twice before telling a joke or making generalizations about any group of people, considering whether someone might be hurt by my words. In all honesty at times I resented this need for vigilance, grumbling to myself that it was really “no big deal” and that Dad had been overreacting… but despite my frustration, I must have believed he was right.
In retrospect, that stupid joke was probably relatively harmless in the grand scheme of things. But I wonder, sometimes, what kind of person I might be today if Dad had laughed instead of challenging me on the need to be accountable for my words. Telling a harmless joke may have only been the start, something that made it easier and more acceptable to hear derogatory things about others… and then maybe to speak them… and then, perhaps, to believe them. Is it possible that hatred might begin by being “softened up” by something intended to be funny?
To this day I am taken aback when I meet someone who seems to have no qualms about making others laugh by denigrating a particular group of people. I don’t understand how it comes so easily to them. Then again, maybe they didn’t have someone like my dad in their life.
Thank you, Dad.
(originally posted in September, 2009)