The Utility of Race Jokes

Developing a sense of humor to defeat ignorance and bigotry

Talk to the Hand

The online magazine “The Harvard Voice” was the talk of the town recently thanks to an offensive post by an anonymous blogger about Asian students at recruiting events. The crème de la crème of the post’s racist descriptions of Asians include, “they're practically indistinguishable from one another, but it’s okay” and that they “talk in the same sort-of gushy, sort-of whiny manner, and have the same concentrations and sky-high GPAs.”

Harvardians were outraged. The Crimson article covering the post immediately shot to the top of the website’s most read list. The editors of The Voice initially edited and later took down the offensive passage about Asians, amending the post to include the following: “We deeply apologize if this article has offended some of our readers…we have removed the inappropriate content because it is not in line with The Voice‘s mission of promoting satirical, yet inclusive, content.”

But isn’t it? I thought the point of satirical websites was to be satirical. The post was clearly not ill intentioned or meant to offend. It merely poked fun at an oft-ridiculed stereotype in order to lighten the serious tone of recruiting season. Let’s be honest here. You have likely cracked an “Asians study too hard” or “Asians are good at math” joke at least once in your lifetime, and if you haven’t, you have surely heard one. But admittedly, the stereotype that all Asians and Asian Americans are good at mathematics, have high grades, and only study, amongst many other stereotypes, is offensive, unfair and, to a large extent, unjustified.

But while I wish we lived in a post-racial society and a racism-free world, I am afraid that we do not. All of us can be excessively sensitive when it comes to race. I am not defending racism, nor am I arguing that people should not be upset by racist jokes. Everyone has the right to be offended by something that is implicitly or explicitly discriminatory. But I am arguing that an effective way to tackle racism is through racist jokes like the very one published in The Voice.  We need a practical solution to racism, and race-based humor and embracing stereotypes is a great way to conquer racism.

The more jokes we make, the more we can air out the absurdity of some of the racial stereotypes that persist in society. The next time someone cracks a joke about your ethnic background, laugh it off. Maybe even drop a few racist jokes of your own. An embrace of stereotypes and use of humor has successfully been used by minority groups to combat discrimination in the past. Although the experiences of these minority groups are not always comparable due to the different cultural and historical backgrounds of each group, there are lessons from history still worth learning.

Legendary Jewish comedians like Woody Allen and Mel Brooks have made fun of stereotypes of Jewish facial characteristics and personalities in their films and stand up gigs. Now these insults, which used to be widespread misconceptions of how to identify Jewish people, are far less pervasive. Human Rights Watch helps sponsor humorous videos in Lebanon featuring racist jokes about domestic helpers. There are 200,000 foreign workers in Lebanon, most of whom are Sri Lankan, Filipino, and Ethiopian. Many of these workers suffer abuse by their employers due to racism. The series has helped expose the ridiculousness behind ethnic stereotypes directed at these domestic helpers.

Recently, several students published an op-ed criticizing The Voice for propagating a false image of Asian Americans. I beg to differ. I think that the post on The Voice’s blog does quite the opposite, as it reveals what the false stereotype of Asians truly is: just a joke.

The root of racism is ignorance. Jokes can do a lot to expose the ignorance behind many of the stereotypes that persist in our society in a safe, non-violent way. Through humor, we can reveal these stereotypes for what they really are—unfair expressions of frustration against minority groups. I, along with many other Asian students here at Harvard, am definitely guilty of “self-racism.” Cracking jokes about ourselves and our ethnic stereotypes shows the racists that we are comfortable with who we are and that their ignorance has no effect on us.

Heather L. Pickerell ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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