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On racism, revisited

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)

Laurel Regan – Writer, tangler, learner of French and Italian, crocheter, cat herder, needle felter, iPhoneographer, Growlita, iFan, on-and-off politics junkie, 80s music trivia freak, ongoing work in progress.

{ 22 comments… add one }

  • Suzanne March 8, 2012

    I really appreciate this post. We have a strict “zero tolerance” policy for racism in our house. Or, like you said, any sort of poking fun at generalized groups of people. Sometimes people tell us to “lighten up”, but I see no levity in being hurtful or prejudiced.
    Suzanne recently posted… Escorted Through Sleep By My MusesMy Profile

    • Dawn
      Twitter:
      March 9, 2012

      Oh, the dreaded “lighten up” – I detest those words! Some things are too important to take lightly, and I’m so grateful for families like yours who take the impact of our words seriously.
      Dawn recently posted… On racism, revisitedMy Profile

  • Gene Pool Diva
    Twitter:
    March 8, 2012

    Your Dad is awesome!
    Gene Pool Diva recently posted… Techniques of SeductionMy Profile

  • Elise Davis March 8, 2012

    It’s pretty powerful when people speak up and call others on derogatory language. It would be nice if it happened more often in homes, schools and public – particularly in schools where bullying can be so damaging. Great dad it sounds like you had. My folks were pretty similar.
    Elise Davis recently posted… Hats Off to the UniverseMy Profile

    • Dawn
      Twitter:
      March 9, 2012

      Very true, Elise. I wish people realized how much power their words have. It breaks my heart when I hear of young kids committing suicide (there was one in our area not long ago) because they couldn’t take the bullying anymore.
      Dawn recently posted… On racism, revisitedMy Profile

  • cooking lady March 9, 2012

    hmm, well too bad everyone doesn’t think like that. I would say, your dad taught you a very valuable lesson. You didn’t understand then but, I bet you do now. Excellant post!
    cooking lady recently posted… Easy Potato Baskets With Scrambled EggsMy Profile

  • a.eye March 9, 2012

    What an awesome lesson!!

    I wish more people would hear something like this. You would be shocked at how many people I work with are willing to tell off-color jokes about people of color (in front of me even though I am brown) and about disabilities and even about some of the types of students we teach. It is ridiculous and they look at me like I am the crazy one when I say that they are not funny or that they shouldn’t make jokes like that.
    a.eye recently posted… I think I want to be a bigger writerMy Profile

    • Dawn
      Twitter:
      March 9, 2012

      Honestly, sometimes I really don’t get people. I guess we all learn different things at different times! Or maybe sometimes we don’t learn at all.
      Dawn recently posted… On racism, revisitedMy Profile

  • Raquel March 9, 2012

    Dawn, this is wonderful. What a great dad, and what a great lesson.

  • ElaineLK March 9, 2012

    Dawn, I’ve nominated you for the Versatile Blogger award. Stop by my blog to pick it up.
    elainelk-tealeaves.blogspot.com
    ElaineLK recently posted… Versatile Blogger!My Profile

  • Classic NYer March 10, 2012

    As a member of one of the more frequently targeted racial groups I think I can begin to answer this question by saying that it comes entirely from the (unfortunately problematic) modern human need to categorize things, to form alliances, and to make enemies. Also we need reasons, albeit false or faulty ones, to think of ourselves as better than somebody.
    Classic NYer recently posted… On muffins and generosityMy Profile

  • The M Half
    Twitter:
    March 11, 2012

    This is a great lesson. Unfortunately, my Dad was one of the “lighten up” guys and while I truly believe he didn’t actually mean it, he perpetuated the jokes until I was old enough to tell him *I* didn’t find them appropriate.

    On the other hand, I was raised with no idea that people of different races were “supposed” to be “different” until I was in high school. I was raised on military bases and went to school with kids of all different backgrounds and skin tones.
    The M Half recently posted… The Busyness of Travel and a Close EncounterMy Profile

    • Dawn
      Twitter:
      March 11, 2012

      That’s the thing – I imagine many (most?) of the people who crack those jokes really don’t mean them. I don’t believe they have bad intentions, I just think they don’t realize the impact words can have.

      That must have been great growing up with such diversity! Until I moved to the city I’m currently living in, most of the places I’ve lived haven’t been very diverse at all. I love the change!
      Dawn recently posted… A look in the mirrorMy Profile

    • a.eye March 11, 2012

      I always find that people who spent time in schools on military bases (anywhere in the world) are way more open to different types of people, even as they grow into adulthood.
      a.eye recently posted… Disney ruined my dream lifeMy Profile

  • Masked Mom March 12, 2012

    I think these kinds of “jokes” can definitely desensitize us to the feelings of others. Your dad was very wise. When I was in high school in the ’80s, a friend had a family friend whose half-brother was biracial. All the rest of the kids in the family routinely called the little boy (who was five or six at the time) a “jigaboo” and worse. They justified this as trying to toughen him up because they assumed he would be called “worse” out in the real world. It makes me sick thinking of it to this day.
    Masked Mom recently posted… Spiral Notebook Sunday: Thursday, May 25, 2006My Profile

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