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On racism

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.

Laurel Storey, CZT – Certified Zentangle Teacher. Writer, reader, tangler, iPhoneographer, cat herder, learner of French and Italian, crocheter, needle felter, on-and-off politics junkie, 80s music trivia freak, ongoing work in progress.

{ 15 comments… add one }
  • Just My 2 Cents September 18, 2009

    Racism seems to be rearing it's ugly head more and more in politics these days. Shockingly so.

  • Laurel Regan September 18, 2009

    I agree… and think it's sickening. I honestly never realized the extent to which racism existed. The horrible things we're seeing these days is stuff I thought only existed on the very fringes of society. 🙁

  • Anonymous September 19, 2009

    I had a similar experience with my dad when I was a little kid. We used to call the grocery store around the corner "The Chinaman's" in order to communicate differentiation from the corner store that had less of a candy selection. We actually did it for a long time before my dad was struck by it (he may have been a little bit of an oblivious sort of parent) but at some point he told us under no uncertain terms were we ever to use the term again and why.

    Obviously, if we still remember it (and I do vividly), it stuck with us and shaped us as adults. I'm grateful because I know many parents today who don't correct racist statements their kids utter. One family I am thinking of has Irish immigrant grandparents who hear the filth coming out of the grandkids mouths and say nothing, even though they themselves more than likely experienced anti Irish sentiment when they were young. Now they hear the grandkids talk about "the *n-word* in the Whitehouse" and say… nothing because they found someone they percieve is below their class.

  • Laurel Regan September 20, 2009

    That's so sad, and so foreign to me. I don't understand how people can listen to that sort of talk and not say something… particularly when it's a member of your own family talking that way. 🙁

  • J. Lee Elliott September 21, 2009

    Wow… I'm impressed by your story! I wish my parents had been like that. My mom's parents are from a very racist portion of the south (not all the south is racist, but their area was) and though she outrightly says racism is wrong, it's influence is still VERY obvious in the things she says and does. My dad likes to make jokes sometimes, too. The unspoken thought through my growing-up days was "Racism is bad. But… kinda funny." I'm always having to call my own parents out on how ridiculous they're being. 🙁 I wish I had it the other way around.

    -Jesse

  • Laurel Regan September 21, 2009

    Jesse,

    Thanks for your comment! I think it's good that you speak up about racism to your family – I think that's one of the way things change. I wish you all the best! 🙂

  • SUEB0B September 21, 2009

    "I don't understand how people can listen to that sort of talk and not say something…" I can answer that. Because we know it won't do any good. My dad has been a racist his whole life and me busting him on it won't change anything. Believe me, I have tried. And tried. And tried.

    In many ways, he is a good man. But he is a racist and that will never change.

  • Laurel Regan September 21, 2009

    SUEBoB – Thanks for your comment – I definitely appreciate your perspective. I guess maybe all that can be done in some cases is to make your position clear and then leave it alone. I can imagine how frustrating that must be, though, and I'm sorry. 🙁

  • Mozette September 25, 2009

    When I was young, we didn't see that many people from other countries in my area. However, as I got older, and went to high school, there were more Asian kids and other kids around; and so we had some racism in my high school. But I never understood it; as the colour of a person didn't matter to me… it was their personality that came first, not what colour they were, or religion, or anything else. I was one of the few kids who came from a racist background who saw the world so differently – so much more equally – and yet everyone else around me didn't. Then, we were given 'To Kill A Mockingbird' and I just couldn't read it because there were racist terms in it (and besides, I didn't understand any of them at the time). I may have been 17 but my mind wasn't into the racism and horrible things everyone else's was. And I've attempted reading it again without success… so I suppose at the age of 35, I still see the world the same I did when I was in high school.

    A few years ago, I began to take interest in a Maori and he was very interested in me. However, my parents kept calling him black. I kept saying that he was was from New Zealand and quite lovely and very respectful to me. But, no matter which way I put it, he was still black and my parents didn't like him. I talked to my brother (who is my rock in these situations) and he said that Mum and Dad would come around; however that happened too late and I lost him. I do care for him deeply and wish we could start over again; but it's harder this time.

    Why is the world so segregated about race when we all have a brain, a heart, eyes that see the world virtually the same and when we bleed, our blood is all the same colour – red?

  • Laurel Regan September 26, 2009

    Mozette, thank you for your post. Such a sad story – I'm sorry that happened to you. 🙁

    I wish I could answer that question! I totally agree… just doesn't make sense to me why race should even be an issue.

  • Mozette September 26, 2009

    My first trip overseas was to Vanuatu and I loved it; I was 19. With my long red hair, the Vanuatuans were wonderful as they followed me around and touched my hair (it was good luck); never fought in front of me (that was bad luck) and I felt very protected by them. They were much nicer than the French who were there.

    My next trip was to the South Island of New Zealand; where the Maoris were lovely there too. I think it's my hair and complexion that they loved; as the moment I walked into pub, I had about half a dozen staring at me. It put me on edge, but after that I didn't mind them. Just as I don't mind Maoris here in Australia; they are lovely people and have a great respect for their culture, dances and I always wonder what their tattoos mean. And would you believe that there's hundreds of different kinds of Hakas they can write and learn? True!

  • Laurel Regan September 27, 2009

    I know very little about the Maori culture, but it sounds fascinating!

  • Elaine October 24, 2009

    I guess this means that I can't tell you what happened to the Irishman one day at the bar… 😉

  • Laurel Regan October 24, 2009

    @Elaine – Cheeky monkey! 😛

  • Elaine October 24, 2009

    Hehehehehe

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