"Really?" I ask. "Was the kid telling the joke black?"
"Nope. He's white. He started to tell it, but another kid stopped him. Then the whole table looked at me, like they were asking if it was okay to keep going. I guess I was the closest thing to a black kid at the table."
"Wow. So how'd you feel about that?"
My son shrugs. "I didn't care. He told the joke; it was kinda funny. Want to hear it?"
"No," I say firmly, and go off into a riff about how wrong it is to tell jokes about a group of people when you're an outsider, especially a white person telling jokes about black people given the particular history of the relationship between those races.
My son takes it in, but I can tell that part of him is thinking: Lighten up, Mom. It's just a joke.
Hey, I'm a big fan of humor, but this unspoken advice is hard for me to accept."Lightening up" seems impossible given the planet's abysmal history when it comes to race. What's the point of ethnic jokes, anyway? Margo Varadi of the Toronto Star, in Race is the New 'Sex' in Today's Pop Culture makes the case that teens are using them to build intimacy:
Ryan (Hearst), 19, says he and his friends will often make racist jokes towards one another. "A black friend of mine will take my keys or something and poke fun at himself for stealing," Ryan says. His Asian roommate is also fair game ... Laughing at each other just shows how close and comfortable they all are... "We couldn't go to people we don't know and make those kind of jokes, because who knows how people will react? There always has to be lines. Without lines and rules, there's chaos."According to the article, the trend, like the current season of the television show Survivor where teams are divided by race, is a backlash against the heavy-handed politically correct absolutes that have ruled our culture. Humor is apparently this generation's tool to bring the issue into the open and build connections between people instead of dividing them.
To me, it's still important who does the telling. It's one thing if an Indian friend waggles her head and jokes about outsourcing using a fake Indian accent, but if a white person did the same thing, I wouldn't laugh, no matter how tight we were. My son, however, might. But despite all of their so-called "lightening up," he and his buddies do have some absolutes when it comes to joking about race -- like the no-no of a white person calling a black friend the "N-word." In any case, no matter where we draw the lines about what's funny and what's not, it does feel like the culture is undergoing a significant shift when it comes to race. I just hope it's in the right direction.