White Life #1: Obama Jokes

Months ago, I remember several unfunny boobs all stressed out that the Obama campaign would be the end of comedy because satirizing Obama could be offensive to some audiences. All I heard was, “wahhh wahh wahhhh but it will be HARD! wahh wahh wahh”

I shouldn’t talk though because I don’t know the first thing about stand-up. For real. I’m like that guy who has the 2 rap CDs that came free from Columbia House and throws them on when he wants to get “urban” at a pool party. That said, I can’t seriously do White Life without talking about comedy. Many of the bizarre things I hope to recount here are couched inside of humor. Jokes provide space to explore difference and tackle the strange, dirty, and uncomfortable topics that inevitably pop up when we live among other people. Yet they can also be miserably degrading, alienating, and offensive.

Lately, I’ve been watching clips from the Emmitt Smith Charity Roast trying to understand why Doug Williams (left) is such a brutal FAIL while Jeff Ross (right) seems hilarious.

Curiously, the person who posted the only clip of Michael Colyar titled it, “Is this joke racist?” Several viewers post responses in the comments for the video. Seems I’m not the only one struggling with the ephemeral tango of comedy and difference.

Althought I am obviously a tenderfoot Potter Stewart when it comes to explaining my reactions to blue humor, allow me to recount an unpleasant experience regarding racist Obama jokes.

After stuffing myself at a cookout, I sat on my hosts’ back porch with a group of friends and family of a variety of ages. Though people have different ethnic backgrounds, we’re all white. We’re sipping drinks, picking at cookies, and trading jokes and stories. One friend, who I’ve just met a few hours prior, offers to tell the “scariest joke in the world.” It goes like this,

Knock, knock.

– Who’s there?

Eyes yore

– Eyes yore who?

Ise your new president.

Classic White Life moment: the racist joke. This one is particularly bad, though. And by that I mean, it is a terrible joke – a groaner. Everyone at the table voiced disapproval and several were clearly taken aback by the racial connotations but no one (including myself) would interrupt the party vibe by calling out the teller. The weakness of the humor allowed people to reject the joke without confronting the teller if they felt offended. (Full disclosure, when I heard the punch line, I looked down at my plate with a half-smile and shook my head saying, “That is not a good joke. That is not a good joke.”)

The interesting part of the exchange was that the younger kids on the porch didn’t understand the joke because that characterization of African-American slang (”I’s a whatever…”) is so outdated that they do not recognize it! Various adults at the table stumbled over each other to try to explain the joke without either endorsing it nor making the teller look bad. “Well… you know, it’s about Obama and … – BUT! it is not a good joke… it’s bad…” To explain the joke revives a dying stereotype while not explaining the joke stymies racial curiosity.

The majority of the group clearly did not approve of the racist joke yet no one verbalized their disagreement. My reason is that I was the youngest adult at the table and I was just meeting some of these folks for the first time. I didn’t want to challenge someone and create an awkward situation to ruin the time for everyone else. Of course, I sat there much more quietly and less engaged following the joke than I had been prior. Did other people at the table feel the same way?

What do you do in these situations?

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