So, I heard a story the other day:
Two female friends were waiting for the bus downtown. A black man is yelling behind them, “hey, excuse me,” repeatedly. Thinking he was yelling at her, one of the women, who is white, turns around and says, “I don’t have any money!!” (The area she was in is notorious for being asked for money or cigarettes constantly.)
The man was just running for the bus.
Immediately realizing her mistake, the woman was absolutely mortified and clearly felt terrible. I don’t know if any words were exchanged after the realization.
After hearing this story, my mouth was agape, hand over mouth. Then laughter. We were laughing at her totally, inarguably (even while unintentional) racist display, and just thinking, Wow, I can’t believe she did that… In my mind, I considered how mortified she felt, the rage and embarrassment the man must have felt, and just felt so sorry for everyone involved. The reaction I had to that was to laugh.
I don’t know. When I posted this before the edit, I got comments indicating that it wasn’t something that was okay to laugh at. I’m not sure I understand why, though. I figure, I was laughing at her, in a mocking, rather than approving, way. I wasn’t being a jerk and calling her names or anything, but I was clearly laughing at her expense rather than his (obviously) or anything else. Why would this be an inappropriate response? I don’t really understand the perspective that says I shouldn’t laugh at her for what happened.
I’ve been trying to mentally reverse the situation with something I can reasonably compare it to, like a man making a blatantly sexist remark (or briefly behaving in a blatantly sexist way) without realizing, and I was the victim of it. Would I laugh if I knew it was innocent and just momentarily forgetting his male privilege, if he realized his mistake right away and was genuinely sorry and embarrassed at the mistake? What if I heard a story about that from someone else, about another woman? Would it be funny then?
I think the answer to both of those is “yes.” But I don’t necessarily think that’s a universal truth, and that it varies between “potential victims” of negative stereotypes and ignorant assumptions. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.
Melissa McEwan from Shakesville says in a post about humor,
I make jokes about “off-limits” subjects all the time, by drawing on irony. Women aren’t funny. Gays are deviant. Immigrants are lazy. But in those jokes, the “off-limits” subjects aren’t the butts of the joke—the people who marginalize them, who believe those things about them,
I think that quote pretty much describes the situation and the reason for the laughter. I wrote about my feelings on the “off-limits” for humor lists the other day.
Moral of the story,