Newest Chart: Can a joke just be a joke, please?

January 29, 2021

By Ekta R. Garg

These days we’re all encouraged to be more aware of different cultures and lifestyles. It’s everywhere. The other day, the kids started watching the old version of Lady and the Tramp, and they said the movie opened with a message from Disney about how some of the attitudes shown in the film might be racist. Instead of pulling the movie, Disney decided to leave it up so it could start conversations about how we can find common ground.

It’s an admirable idea, and I know they’re not the only ones doing it. In the last year, people have started having uncomfortable talks with one another so they can try to understand different viewpoints. George Floyd’s murder, and the murder of so many others, was wrong and unnecessary and shouldn’t have happened, but maybe people of privilege will start listening a little more closely now.

That’s the idea anyway, right?

I wonder sometimes, though, if it’s possible for us to be overly sensitive. To start walking on eggshells because we’re too scared to say anything. Too scared to make a joke or to speak without thinking.

Twelve’s school, which goes from K-8, is using a hybrid model these days. After Christmas break, everyone was online for three weeks. This week only the middle schoolers went back to the school building. Next week, they’ll go online for a three-week period while the elementary kids get to be in person.

Naturally, Twelve and her friends were thrilled to see one another face to face. They spent a lot of time talking and laughing, albeit while socially distanced, and the teachers took advantage of the extra space across the school (because the middle schoolers are using elementary classrooms in addition to their own) to assign a few group projects. Twelve thought she hit paydirt when she got to work on a social studies project with some of her best friends.

When I picked her up from school on Wednesday, she was fighting a frown. She explained that the groups were required to write a skit and be prepared to perform it. Her group was assigned an incident between Christopher Columbus and Native Americans where the Native Americans serve Columbus a meal.

“Guess who had to play the Native American because she was the only non-white person in the group,” Twelve grumbled.

I was taken aback. Honestly, I didn’t know how to respond. I lacked full context—the tone of voice used when someone suggested she take on the role of the Native American server; Twelve’s answer to the question. I also know that Twelve would do anything for her friends. Her loyalty to them runs deep. That means she’s willing to put her own feelings aside for them, even if she gets hurt in the process.

(It’s a challenge she’s had since kindergarten; I bet, in fact, that the kindergarten teacher wouldn’t even bat an eye if I told her that Twelve still did this.)

“How did that make you feel?” I asked, not really knowing what else to say.

“Well, it kind of bothered me,” she said, a half question in her voice. It was as if she was wondering aloud whether it should bother her or maybe to what degree it should.

But it didn’t end there. As the group was practicing lines and Twelve went through the motions of acting out serving the meal, one of the kids said to the child playing Columbus, “Don’t take that from [Twelve,] because that food is too spicy for white people.”

So much to unpack here. First, the student who made the comment is, again, one of Twelve’s closest friends. They’re known in the friend group for an off-the-wall sense of humor, and I’ve known this kid long enough to know they’d never hurt Twelve on purpose.

Also, it was interesting that the student was making a comment about how much spice “white people” could tolerate.

The biggest thing—the most practical, I would say—is that the friend was talking about the wrong kind of “Indian” when it comes to spicy food, at least stereotypically. The stereotype says that people from India are the ones who eat foods that’ll make your eyes water. Some of them actually do; it really depends on what state you’re in there in India. The food varies widely from one state to another, north to south, east to west.

The comment was a casual one, a joke. It stuck out, though, in part because we’re all supposed to be enlightened these days. We’re not supposed to make “culturally insensitive” remarks. But given the context, the situation, and Twelve’s reaction to it, can the comment really be considered culturally insensitive?

I raise this question, because I know that within our family we make jokes about cultural issues. Outside of our house, in public, people not understanding the context might wonder if we were being ignorant about other ways of life. We’re not. We’re just catching on to the humor of the moment and going with it. So isn’t it okay for others to do the same?

That night at dinner, Twelve was telling the rest of the family about the incident. Like me, no one else really knew what to say. I tilted my head in thought.

“If it bothers you—”

“No,” Twelve said, holding up a palm and grinning. “Whatever you were going to say, no.”

“I was just going to say maybe you could talk to [your friend] privately about it.”

“It’s good, Mamma. I’m fine with it.”

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Yeah, I’m sure. It doesn’t bother me. I’m over it.”

I was glad to hear it, glad that she was able to make a decision on how she felt about it and move on. As the kids get older, it’s harder to know when to intervene and when to let them work things out. And maybe the fact that her friend’s comment did make me pause is evidence of an increasing awareness in me too. It’s funny, I didn’t consider myself a minority until recently. I always just thought of myself as a person. Maybe a situation like this will help me be aware of other people’s awareness so that if they say something they think might offend me or anyone else in the family, I can assess the situation and answer honestly.

In my experience, most people don’t want to hurt others. They say things and move on. And while it’s important to be aware of the privilege that reinforces and informs casual comments, it’s also important to remember that sometimes a joke is just a joke.

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