Laughing at accidental racists?

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,

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6 Responses to Laughing at accidental racists?

  1. April says:

    Rather than editing the post yet again, I thought I’d add something in the comments instead:

    I know I’m mostly just defending my right to laugh at that, but I wanted to kind of further explain something:

    I’m not really asking people whether or not they would also laugh at the situation, at the expense of the woman who made the comment. I’m wondering why it would be offensive or otherwise wrong to do so. Would it be because the victim in the situation isn’t being directly considered first in the reaction to the story? I can see how that could be a consideration. But in the context in which the story was told, I (the person who laughed) wasn’t there at the time of the situation, and was thinking first and foremost of the person that I knew, and her involvement.

    Hmm. Now that I’m conflicted about it, I wonder if that isn’t just an indication that maybe it isn’t something to laugh at. I don’t know whether I’m still holding onto it because I really believe that it isn’t offensive to laugh at it, or because I don’t want to admit that I did something potentially aiding and abetting in the dangerous stereotyping by not focusing on the victim himself instead of the person unintentionally perpetuating the stereotype.

  2. I don’t think she was necessarily acting in a racist manner. If she’s constantly being asked for money in that area and somebody else is yelling at her in the same area, her saying, “I don’t have any money!” doesn’t mean she’s acting racist.

    • April says:

      I don’t mean to come off as though I’m angry with her or was being hostile in laughing at her. I certainly don’t think she’s racist in the commonly-thought of sense, where she just has an acknowledged dislike of black people.

      I think if you were to have that situation where a white man is yelling, another white person may assess more about the white man than they would about the black man before reacting in that manner. In the situation of a black man behaving like that, a white person would see the fact that he’s black and that would increase the likelihood of a negative reacting, due to stereotypes of black men being loud, aggressive, or poor. What happened only seemed to perpetuate the stereotype, but since we all know that she isn’t “really racist,” it becomes funny because her response makes it seem as though she actually is.

  3. David K says:

    I think I’m in agreement with akinoluna, I wouldn’t say that your friend was necessarily acting in a racist manner or from a racist impulse: would she have assumed the same thing about a white man in the same situation, or a woman? You might read that as more classist situation.
    On the other hand, from the point of view of the victim himself, or any on-lookers, it would definitely appear to be racially motivated and it is insulting.

    hmm…
    I’ve been thinking about this post for a while now and I can’t seem to come up with any coherent thoughts. Here’s was I have so far…
    Prejudice is silly, it’s absurd. This makes it funny, and dangerous when taken seriously and acted upon. It’s not wrong to mock it, to laugh at manifestations of it, because that is a necessary part of de-legitimising it: even with the knowledge that it does cause real harm to people who are it’s victims. However weather or not it’s appropriate to laugh at it in a given situation does depend on the degree of harm it causes in that particular manifestation, the time and context ect… in this you just have to give yourself over to the guidance of your own good taste and good conscience. In this case you were laughing at the failings of your friend, not at the suffering of the man who was the victim, so I don’t think you need to feel bad. I think the best response you can have to this story is simply to try harder not to entertain prejudice in yourself, and try not to inadvertently hurt others – lamenting your own gut reaction to laugh at the story seems a rather pointless (and silly, and just a little funny.)

    When thinking about this I am drawn to the ‘Only An Excuse’ Gorilla sketch:

    which ironically dances over the intersection of racism, sectarianism and football, and skewers bombast and pompousness by appropriating commercial imagery for comedic purposes…

    • April says:

      On the other hand, from the point of view of the victim himself, or any on-lookers, it would definitely appear to be racially motivated and it is insulting

      I think that might be the line right there. It looks racist to onlookers, it feels racist to the man, but because she’s not what anyone would describe as a racist person, it’s funny.

  4. Shenikay says:

    Yesterday I was judging a high school debate tournament, and the final topic was airport security. An opposition speaker was talking about raical profiling – “Not only is it prejudiced, it’s ineffective! Statistically, security personnel just can’t identify terrorists that way, and terrorists make a point of getting around it – they shave off their beards, they whiten their skin…” and then a look of complete horror came over his face as he realized what he was saying. Everyone burst out laughing, myself included, but me and the other judges expressed concern over whether the laughter had been appropriate. I think you’re right, though – there was no doubt that we were laughing at this boy’s inadvertent racism ironically within his speech about why racial profiling is bad, not laughing at the racist reality of profiling.

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