Tuesday, September 27, 2011
A few nights ago, a hockey fan threw a banana at a Wayne Simmonds, a black hockey player, during a game at the John Labatt Centre here in London Ontario. The symbolism of it was probably intentional, and it's a disgusting act of racism. I hope the perpetrator is caught and brought to justice (even if justice is just a mischief charge and humiliation).
But let's put this in perspective: nobody died. No bystanders saw the banana and thought "hey, I never thought of the connection between black people and monkeys! I think I'll become a racist now!" The hockey player himself blew it off as silly. Also: we are having serious discussions about something referred to as the banana incident.
That is hilarious.
Many people see the humour in it. I joked about it with some people on Twitter. In one reply, @famousandfave and I made racist comments about black and white iPhones; I referred to black as the "lesser colour," because my phone is white.
A few hours later, someone saw a snippet of this conversation and retweeted it with the comment "lesser colour? #UNFOLLOW". For good measure, she included London's hash tag, so that the whole city could be informed of my racism. Against black iPhones.
Of course, she failed to even read the context of the conversation, and when people pointed out that I was talking about Apple products and not people, she refused to acknowledge the mistake or apologize for publicly accusing someone of racism due to her failure in reading comprehension. She just called it #notfunny.
Some people share similar sentiments. That nobody should joke about racism, since it's such a serious issue. "Discrimination is not for jest," said one tweeter.
Respecting an issue and being able to joke about it are not mutually exclusive. They are, in fact, often complementary.
I can't believe I'm sucking all humour out of this by explaining it, but here is an example. By sarcastically applying racist stereotypes to iPhone colours, it is humourous, because it is taking a serious human issue and unexpectedly applying it to mundane inanimate objects. But it also serves the purpose of respecting the issue, by demonstrating that discrimination based on phone colours is just as arbitrary as discrimination based on skin colour.
Pointing out the absurdity of racism is both funny and in service of the greater good. This isn't a new idea; satire has been around since we were writing on papyrus (thanks Wikipedia).
Plus, ignoring all that, bananas are funny. They look a bit like weirdly bent dongs, and the word is fun to say ("banananannanaaa" lolz). As Freud would have said, sometimes a banana is just a banana.
If we discourage joking about racism or awkward racist incidents, either by blatantly saying "you shouldn't joke about that" or by failing to appreciate that a joke is a joke, the racists have won. Why? Because intolerance thrives best in the shadows.
Today, that's where racism lives. All decent people (and most people are decent) realize how irrational intolerance is. The remaining bigots, then, must remain hidden to thrive. They weasel around behind the scenes doing damage when nobody is looking.
We can't let them get away with that.
If we refuse to allow decent people to express themselves about racism—and that expression includes humour, sarcasm and satire—then we're only empowering the racists. We're allowing the dirtbags to keep dinking around in the dark, instead of draggin them into the light, sometimes dressed in a clown costume.
If you don't find something funny, the appropriate response is to not laugh. Telling people what they can or cannot joke about, or trying to publicly shame them, is its own form of intolerance. Meanwhile, the rest of us will continue fighting bigotry while somehow managing to enjoy life along the way.