It’s Not “Just a Joke”

A recent news segment offers a great lesson in privilege and the dangerous social function of humor based on identity.

Most people can wrap their heads around the “born-with-a-silver-spoon” concept of privilege, but, for some, it’s not as easy to understand privilege as an unearned social advantage. Fox News “political humorist” Jesse Watters—a regular on the The O’Reilly Factor—recently provided a perfect illustration.

As part of his “Watters’ World” segment, Watters interviews residents of New York City’s Chinatown ahead of this week’s presidential debate, posing questions like “Do you like Donald Trump?” and “Who are you going to vote for?” But he also asks other questions that have nothing to do with the election: “Am I supposed to bow to say hello?” To a street vendor he says, “I like these watches—are they hot?” (suggesting they might be stolen). To another resident he queries, “Do you know karate?”

It goes on and on, stereotype after stereotype. Stereotypes that have been used to oppress and “other” Asians and Asian Americans for who-knows-how-long. But “the segment was intended to be a light piece,” Watters has since asserted. The “interviews are meant to be taken as tongue-in-cheek.”

Here’s the thing about political humor: It’s meant to poke fun at the politics, the issues and candidates’ responses to the issues, and to make us laugh about the campaign. More important, it’s designed to make us consider and condemn what is problematic about the politics in question. 

Instead, what we have here are jokes about a culture—so who’s laughing, and what are they laughing about? People in the in-group are laughing at the out-group, but it’s supposed to be OK because it’s “all in good fun.” That is the essence of privilege: “This joke isn’t harming me, so it’s not harmful at all.” 

If the line between satirizing a political figure and mocking someone’s identity isn’t obvious, think about it in terms of this question: Who holds more power in society?

The use of humor by people with more privilege about people with less has a very specific social function. 

North Carolina lawyer and former English professor Jason P. Steed posted a series of tweets about this function of humor after Donald Trump joked that “Second Amendment people” might be able to take care of things if Hillary Clinton is elected in November. “Humor is a way we construct identity—who we are in relation to others,” Steed tweeted. “We use humor to form groups and to find our individual place in or out of those groups. In short, joking/humor is one tool by which we assimilate or alienate.” 

Even more than assimilating or alienating, this particular brand of humor allows people with power to normalize dangerous ideas. “This is why, e.g., racist ‘jokes’ are bad,” Steed points out. “Not just because they serve to alienate certain people, but also because they serve to assimilate the idea of racism (the idea of alienating people based on their race).” 

It is imperative that we—especially those of us who educate and otherwise influence young people—think about the power of our words, even our jokes. As evidenced by “Watters’ World,” the media around us have and will continue to perpetuate ugly, hateful language, ideas and stereotypes. Let’s agree to watch our mouths, check our privilege, speak up for others and treat all people like human beings worthy of dignity and respect.

Bell is the senior editor for Teaching Tolerance.

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