Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 10
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Laugh till you cry, humor’s role

Heard any good jokes lately?   Were they potentially offensive?   Have you heard any humor recently that wasn’t offensive?
We live in a culture where it seems that the more offensive the humor, the more it is considered to be cutting edge.   Except at Whitman, a student told me recently, where if you tell a joke that’s not PC, there has to be a symposium.


The problem, some students tell me, is not that the Whitman faculty and administration want to raise campus awareness and sensitivity about diversity.   The problem is how we go about it.   There’s something about the approaches we have taken so far that is producing a backlash.   The efforts are being greeted with laughter.   Or sneers.

Or an attempt at satire.

Last week, The Pioneer produced its annual April Fool’s edition.   The insert was dubbed The Native American, which would logically seem to be the opposite of a pioneer.   So perhaps it was in that spirit that some Pio writers took aim at Whitman’s sometimes clumsy efforts around diversity.

And the Whitman approach to diversity makes an easy target, after all.   There is something uncomfortable if not downright funny about well intentioned but mostly upper-class white folks trying to talk about diversity in a meaningful way.

And everyone likes a good joke at the expense of the powerful.   Unfortunately, the Pio writers took aim at their powerful target by using racist stereotypes about a disempowered group, Native Americans.

Not everyone was laughing.   Native Americans on campus were hurt, offended and angry.   The Pio writers involved were desperately sorry but also defensive and shielded, they felt, by their good intentions.

That they meant no offense is certainly a good thing.   Nonetheless, I am reminded of a passage in Patricia Williams’ “The Alchemy of Race and Rights,” which we have just finished reading in Critical and Alternative Voices (better known, unfortunately, as Alternative Core).   Williams describes a group of white people touring Harlem on Easter Sunday, eager to go into the churches to see how African Americans were celebrating the holiday.   When it was pointed out that perhaps people would not appreciate having their religious rites gawked at by tourists, the group protested that they meant no harm.   Williams comments wryly, “No one existed for them who could not be governed by their intentions.”

Gabrielle Arrowood is certainly not governed by others’ intentions.   Gabrielle is angry, and a good part of that anger comes from the reaction, or lack thereof, from the Whitman community.   She suspects that people are not outraged because they basically don’t take Native Americans seriously.   She contends that had the target been African Americans, or Jews, the response would likely have been akin to the “black face” firestorm last year.   And she’s probably right.

Here’s the thing:   Humor that hurts powerless people is not funny.   It constitutes a form of abuse.   It is a further exercise in abuse to insist that the injured party has no sense of humor or is wrong or should just lighten up.   You can’t hit me and then tell me it didn’t hurt and I shouldn’t mind.

But here’s the problem:   How do we get people to see that those jokes are not funny?   That they are based on hurtful and demeaning stereotypes?   That it doesn’t matter whether the joke was told with irony, or as part of a satire?

And here’s the catch:   We do not solve the problem by forbidding people to tell these jokes, in whatever form they appear.   We can and should prohibit hate speech, intended to do harm and foment violence.   But we cannot censor bad jokes any more than we can censor ideas that we find offensive.   That is what freedom of speech is about.   Instead, we should be asking why some people think those jokes are funny.   And why others do not.

So this should be an educational moment, right?   We should be using this dispute to raise awareness and sensitivity.
But how do we do that without our efforts becoming a bad joke?

I fear that the current approach to diversity is failing because many people really don’t want to be told that their behavior and attitudes are offensive.   They don’t want to change.   They want to continue to have the power to decide what is funny about people who are different from them.   They want to continue to have the power to mock, even if: maybe especially if: the power to maintain the exclusivity of their space is gone.

They don’t even want to listen to the hurt or the anger of the powerless.   They don’t recognize their own power, even as they insist on maintaining it.   And if they have to listen, then they want it done in a way that doesn’t make them feel bad about their own ignorance and insensitivity.   After all, they had the best of intentions.

It is yet another abuse of power to insist that the feelings of the abusers matter more than the feelings of the ones abused.
And whatever we do, we shouldn’t raise the issue with a tone of outrage.   That’s so over the top.   Or a tone of sincerity.   That’s so corny that it’s laughable.

The very people who most need to hear the message are the ones who are rolling their eyes and sneering at the discussions and the symposiums.

And that brings us back to the very problem that sparked the latest controversy.

I haven’t heard any good jokes lately.   At least none that come only at the expense of the powerful.

Julie Charlip is a professor of Latin American history who worked for 13 years as a reporter for daily newspapers.   She is also advisor to both the Pio and to the First-Generation and Working Class group, currently co-chaired by Gabrielle Arrowood.   She has been an active participant in Whitman’s diversity efforts.   She’s been told that she has a pretty good sense of humor.

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All Whitman Wire Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *