From an outsider’s perspective, college students must often seem like coddled babies, afraid to face the world’s grit and realities. We received our fair share of criticism this summer — everyone from Bill Maher to Jonathan Chait weighed in on the issue.
I think this perception of the typical college student as a hypersensitive, politically-correct crusader is the result of disproportionate media attention to the extreme ends of the spectrum. It’s inaccurate and ultimately prevents discussion of what’s really needed on college campuses.
I’ll be upfront: I’m not particularly offended by Asian jokes. Growing up, my friends and I would make fun of each other consistently, and since most of my friends were white, my race frequently came up. Maybe I should have been more bothered by it. But, in the context of humor, it didn’t rustle any feathers.
I don’t lecture my friends about microaggressions when they make those types of jokes. Frankly, I just don’t really care and it’s not worth the trouble.
Oddly enough, I often feel more uncomfortable when I hear jokes made about other races than when I hear jokes made about Asians. In June, Bill Maher pointed out the absurdity of a few white people at a comedy show taking offense at a stereotype of an African-American woman, while African Americans in the audience weren’t offended. I understand why it could be confusing for me, an Asian American, to feel awkward or uncomfortable in that situation.
First thing’s first: I’m not sure that the word “offended” is the right term. I’m not “offended” when I hear a joke directed against another ethnic or social group, and I don’t think most people are. Rather, I think that most people in that situation feel awkward or slightly uncomfortable. They let out a forced chuckle followed by an attempt to change the conversation.
Why do we feel this way? Some think it’s because we’re coddled and can’t take a joke. But, considering the fact that I’m not bothered by Asian jokes, that can’t really be it.
I think I can attribute my discomfort around jokes about other groups, which I never really experienced until college, to meeting new people. Growing up in white suburbia, my friend group wasn’t diverse, and none of us were ever offended by jokes.
But after coming to college, my friend group diversified immensely. I became close with a few people who, unlike my friends back home, would be upset by certain jokes about certain races, genders or sexual orientations due to their personal history — a history I was never exposed to in the Indiana suburbs.
So while I still wasn’t bothered by those jokes, I came to know people who justifiably were. As their friend, I wanted to help create a world in which they felt comfortable. The slight enjoyment I may have gotten out of racial jokes simply didn’t hold up to the desire to see my friends happy. After all, even if the African-American audience members Maher described weren’t upset, it’s very well possible that other people were.
I don’t really attribute my sense of awkwardness regarding certain jokes to broader notions of education, enlightenment or moral progress. Rather, it’s just the result of me feeling protective of my friends. When dealing with my friends, I’m more likely to err on the side of caution. That makes sense — I know my limits, but not always those of others.
So, the critics do have one thing right. We are protective. But, I don’t think I’m protective of myself. I don’t care what I’m exposed to, or what jokes I hear. I’m not shutting myself off from the world, nor am I hiding from things because they scare me.
I don’t have direct insight into exactly what would and wouldn’t bother my friends, so I tend to play it safe. As their friend, when I hear something that could potentially upset them, I naturally feel uncomfortable, not for my sake, but for theirs.
While I do think self-protectiveness can be harmful, and we should be open to new, potentially discomforting, ideas, I don’t really feel the same way about protectiveness of others. Paradoxically, I think the protective attitude that has been criticized for limiting the diversity of ideas is the natural result of the diversity of those same college campuses. We protect our friends who are different from us because we care about them, not because we’re hiding.
Leo Kim is a junior in Trumbull College. His column usually runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .