I just had a thought re the recent story of yet another bunch of frat boys videotaping themselves doing something racist. The usual defenses of “free speech” are being floated around, but what I haven’t seen much of in the discussion is the fact that encouraging (even if it’s by ignoring when it happens, or excusing it on “free speech” grounds) this kind of mockery of less powerful people by the elite of our society–white males–leads to a situation that perpetuates racism by engendering an attitude in the jokers that because they’re being defended, that means they are correct to treat other people like garbage.
People “joke” out of fear and to relieve tension, in this case the tension of living in a society that has not come to terms with the crimes of its past or its present unequal situation as regards race. There are two overarching viewpoints dominating this conversation: those who want to think of racism as “solved” and “in the past” and to sweep anything that contradicts this under the rug, and those who know that it isn’t and that we have a long way to go before we can even begin to say racism is no longer a factor in society. One proof that the second viewpoint is the more truthful one is the fact that we allow our up and coming young men, still considered the cream of the population, to “let off steam” with racist parties and jokes and so on. The fact is that this “letting off steam”, while it may be momentarily relaxing, fosters an attitude in the jokers towards its targets (in this story black people and Martin Luther King, in other stories Asians, or Mexicans, or whoever is the target of the racist joke or skit or costume) of contempt, because if they didn’t deserve to be mocked, why were they putting up with it?
The usual formula for this is you should “punch up, not down” with your comedy, as in if you’re already in a position of privilege (which you are if you’re white) you shouldn’t aim your jokes at people with less privilege, because they’re more vulnerable. But asking white college boys in America to make fun of the more privileged means making fun of who? And considering how most white males are raised in this country, making fun of other white males means demeaning them by none other than temporarily forcing them to assume the costume of the less privileged, so we’re back to blackface, or as they did at the pep rallies we were made to leave class to attend in my high school, having the burly male football players dress in cheerleader costumes. And so the idea that everyone else who isn’t a white male is but an object to be used in white male fun and games is perpetuated and the unequal status quo is maintained.
Ed. note: blogging here while my Ghost blog is being fixed.