Moving to Yale from the South, the idealistic part of me expected lazy race jokes to be bygones. Yale will be so “woke,” I thought, I won’t have to hear racist humor anymore!
I was wrong, of course; I’m still the butt of light-hearted Asian jokes. I’m not personally offended, though I am becoming increasingly tired of laughing them off. Yet at the same time, calls for policing racial humor make me equally — if not more — uncomfortable. Comedy serves as a space to take risks, to make light of dark situations, to say what is otherwise forbidden.
But are the taboo things being said beneficial to anyone at all? When it comes to outsider-to-insider jokes (e.g., white comedians making fun of black Americans), defending questionable gags under the guise of testing boundaries often comes off as an excuse to hide behind bigotry. These controversies resurface time and time again: Donald Trump with his inflammatory 2017 speech encouraging policy brutality, Al Franken with his long history of off-color rape jokes, The Simpsons with the contentious character “Apu Nahasapeemapetilon” and others.
Now, for every person of a traditionally marginalized group who proclaims to a friend that “it’s okay, I’m not insulted by your racist joke,” there are dozens more who must grapple with casual racism more constantly and therefore aren’t so nonchalant about it, whether it’s because they live somewhere intolerant or because they’re just tired of being popular culture’s punchline. It can be exceedingly exhausting.
That doesn’t mean we should shy away from racial humor altogether.
There’s a fine line between funny and offensive comedy, but we tend to perceive the funny-to-offensive ratio of a joke based only on our own knee-jerk reactions. Race jokes that belie actual racism are offensive, period. Nuanced racial satire that makes you pause to think about the humor’s implications is funny, clever and powerful, even if it appears offensive at first glance. It will always seem distasteful to some, yet this kind of joke is well worth being told.
For instance, all comedians know that self-deprecation is funny. Making fun of your own community is essentially a large-scale form of self-deprecation, and so almost nobody is outraged by a black comedian endearingly poking fun at her own black family. It provides a refreshingly diverse voice to the entertainment landscape. Social etiquette still applies though: When somebody is being self-deprecating, you’re not supposed to chime in from the outside and join in on the fun. If you call yourself fat, no decent stranger would agree that you’re much too fat.
Popular icons like The Onion and “Saturday Night Live” also demonstrate how funny and incisive race-based humor can be. I think less political productions like “The Office” and “Arrested Development” contribute to society’s conversation about race too, in their own subtle ways. Many of the characters in both shows are blatantly racist (i.e., Michael Scott in “The Office” or Lucille Bluth in “Arrested Development”), but they’re idiots as well. Only the characters with serious flaws, the ones that the viewers aren’t designed to identify with, make racist jokes; that is, no young child watching “The Office” would be inspired to grow up to become as insensitive as Michael Scott.
In addition, there’s a whole treasure trove of comedians who capitalize on the humor found in the absurdity of racism and ignorance. From Dave Chappelle and James Davis to Aziz Ansari and Hari Kondabolu, race-related comedy has never been better. Their work stealthily tricks people into the conversation about difficult racial issues, reaching a large audience and sparking dialogue more effectively than any academic journal or class reading.
This new age of comedy is what I expected to find at Yale, and I’m a little surprised that it hasn’t reached us quite yet. Much more importantly, I’m disappointed that America at large has gotten stuck in a quagmire of identity politics, persisting bigotry and so-called “snowflake” culture (hey, us Yale students are apparently famous for it!). We should step into the future, not the racist past. We should subvert the norms, not complain about something vaguely “problematic.” We should cleverly laugh about it, not laugh it off.
So, no — I don’t plan on eating Handsome Dan anytime soon. I’m vegetarian, too.
Kenneth Xu is a first year in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at email@example.com .