Recently, I was asked to meet some administrators to explain the cartoon
that depicted swastika graffiti. Other issues aside, one thing was clear:
it was easier for me to get away with the cartoon because I am Jewish.
We live in a culture where political correctness is at odds with a growing
amount of racial humor and discussion. In the middle of it is the question
of who can say what.
Look at recent television. Dave Chappelle’s show was always jam-packed
with race jokes, including a skit about a 1950s white sitcom family named
“The Niggars.” It involved the family’s name in every historical variation
of the racial slur, worked in as innocent remarks about the family itself.
Curb Your Enthusiasm recently took on Holocaust humor. Larry David’s rabbi
tells him he is bringing a “survivor” to his dinner party. David invites
his father’s friend, a Holocaust survivor, only to find out that the rabbi’s
friend is a former cast member of the CBS’s show Survivor. An uncomfortably
heated argument breaks out between the two characters about who
is a true survivor.
I, and many others, found these TV moments funny. But could Dave Chappelle
get away with his skit if he wasn’t black? Could Curb Your Enthusiasm
get away with the Holocaust discussion if Larry David wasn’t Jewish? And
should they get away with these jokes at all?
It is legitimate that groups can play with their own stereotypes and histories.
Some black people address each other with the N-word, or use it
in music. While doing so doesn’t have the magical ability to destroy the
word’s foundation that some claim it does, it can be empowering, or at the
very least, bonding. Similarly, my Jewish friends and I often throw around
the word “Jew” (in the “bad” way). It is natural for members of a group to
embrace the words that could hurt them in other contexts.
It is not always accepted. Recently, there has been debate over a proposed
N-word ban. Some want to ban it because they are personally offended,
whether it is in conversation or a Kanye song. Others complain
that they themselves are confused about when it can be used. To those
who are personally offended by the word, you can’t expect everyone to
stop saying it, and you certainly can’t enforce it. You can explain how
it makes you feel, or simply avoid it. No one is making you listen to rap.
And to those who are confused, I would suggest that you are overreacting.
While nobody is perfect, I don’t think it’s difficult to figure out that singing
along to “Thong Song” in your car is okay, and spewing the N-word at a
Laugh Factory audience member is not.
Of course, there is still going to be confusion in the middle. Two years
ago, I was at a party, attempting to throw a ping-pong ball into a cup.
Upon missing, I made a joke about my peoples’ athletic ability, playing
off the old stereotype. Moments later, an acquaintance of mine jokingly
told me to “concentrate...like concentration camps.” At first, I was wildly
offended, and had I more athletic ability, I might have punched him.
Then I realized that I was the one who started the Jewish jokes. If you set
the precedent that you are okay with certain words or jokes, you can’t
expect everyone to know which ones are silly and which are hurtful.
It is unfair to give yourself a pass to say anything and then completely
close the door to others, even if their jokes are tasteless.
I also think that nobody, regardless of their background, should feel
that they can say everything. I have never been comfortable with Holocaust
“oven jokes,” and I think even someone playing the “I’m Jewish”
card should refrain from ever telling one of those.
Members of groups will always use “their” words, and that’s okay.
Those who do it need to be aware that just because they are entirely
forgiven for saying certain things, it doesn’t mean others who say
the same things don’t deserve some level of forgiveness. If someone
makes a faux pas, don’t overreact. Overreacting to a bad joke only
makes it mean less when you have to react to actual hate speech.
I pulled that concentration-camp kid aside for a moment and calmly told him,
“That’s not right.” Then we went back to partying. If we could all stop getting
so hung up on who’s offended by what, we could all party together
The opinions expressed in the Views section are solely those of the author.