Here’s something I still haven’t at all figured out — perhaps it’ll be a nice contrast to last week’s post about things I feel I have (for the moment) somewhat figured out.
How do you “take a joke” that’s a slur aimed against a group to which you belong?
As someone who often inflicted a cyanide sense of humor on others, I grew up thinking I had an obligation to “take it well” when a joke was aimed at me. Of course most of the time when this happened, it was because the “joke” was a slur against women.
I also lived in a highly racially-charged area for a time, and we all had our own opinions about people who put their feet down and said “hell no, that’s not cool” when they felt a racial joke had gone too far. Those opinions varied, but they were mostly negative, as were everyone’s opinion (including mine) of women who spoke up about gender-related slurs. (There are also plenty of other groups that are or have been victimized in different ways, and are put down using jokes/slurs — many different minorities (and some majorities) have suffered this way. I mean no disrespect by including the ones I have in this post, and failing, where I have, to include others.)
I dealt with gender slurs for most of my life by pretending they didn’t apply to me. Those often uncomfortably nasty “jokes” were, I told myself, targeted at, not women-as-a-group, but women-who-are-dumb or women-who-are-sluts or women-who-don’t-like-sex or what have you, and I wasn’t a member of ["bad" women who deserved joking about]. I was a smart, physically-active, technically-competent woman who had male friends and didn’t ever make people uncomfortable by being unable or unwilling to “take a joke”. Therefore I didn’t deserve any of those slurs. Therefore, I told myself, I could safely ignore them.
I also figured, mighty conveniently, that when people said that women were “overreacting” to negative comments and nasty jokes, they were right — “good” women, ones like me, were overreacting, since the slur wasn’t aimed at us anyway. This let me say on the “right side” — the winning side — of some very brutal condemnations of women in general and some women in particular.
Of course, I was a kid then, and I was a nerd and frequent bullying-victim who was terrified of being one of the ones “everybody picked on”. That’s not an excuse, but it is, I think, understandable that people would choose to think that way. An African-American who says “some blacks really ‘are niggers’, but not [the good ones]“, is distancing hirself from having to feel the sting of a hurtful slur, just like I was when I told myself that gender-slurs only applied to [bad women]. But this is a defense mechanism, and it ignores the truth that a slur has the underlying intention and/or effect of spreading a malicious untruth about the group as a whole.
(It also mischaracterizes people in an oppressed class as having a clear choice about their behavior, which is also unfair: It’s not cool to call a woman a “slut” in a society that doesn’t give her room for healthy sexual expression; and it’s not cool to blame blacks for being poor in a world that conspires to disproportionally make them, and keep them, that way.)
In fact, maybe this is the best way to differentiate between a slur and a genuine joke. It’s not a joke when you show a picture of a naked woman on her hands and knees being used as a coffee-table, and the caption “KNOW YOUR PLACE, BITCH.” That’s a slur, because the point of it is to reinforce a damaging untruth about all women. (Not just “quote-unquote ‘slutty’ women who would take their clothes off for a weird artsy picture”, as I’m sure some men AND some women might prefer to believe.) Similarly, a movie that “jokingly” casts a black man to play a dumb, servile character is (probably, depending on context) making a (false) comment about all blacks, or all black men. Many slurs disguise themselves as jokes, and many good jokes riff off the pain caused by discrimination, so I’m sure the line is not 100% clear between them. But in general, a slur makes a degrading comment that’s intended, even stealthily, to apply to ALL women/blacks/fat people/etc.
Ignoring jokes that may not actually be slurs for a moment….how should one handle a slur that’s presented/disguised as a joke, like the aforementioned captioned picture of the coffee-table woman?
Almost every avenue here seems fraught with Ick, and while I usually look for the “yield to overcome” path when it comes to conflicts like this, here, I’ll confess I can’t find it. The choices seem to be about like this:
If you keep quiet, you feel icky because you sat there and took it. You feel this on some level even if, like my young self, you’ve managed to mentally distance yourself from the targeted group. Because after all, part of the point of why racism and sexism and all that is wrong is because the people who are members of the oppressed group didn’t have a choice about it (or in some other way don’t deserve the slur; choice itself isn’t an excuse for discrimination either). I can be as strong and smart and friendly with men as I like, but I can’t change the fact that I AM a woman (and wouldn’t change it if I could), and therefore harmful slurs against women are, to some extent, always slurs against me. And nobody likes the feeling of being made to eat dirt, and doing it without making a peep.
If you speak up by identifying the joke as a slur against you, you open yourself for branding as a “whiner”, as “oversensitive” or “someone who always trots out [gender/race/size/whatever] to get attention”. If you’re a woman, it’s worse because women are already characterized as whiny, so now you’ve just been a typical “bad” woman on top of it all. (The same goes for black men who yell or fight, etc.) If you fight against this characterization, you will only embed it deeper in the minds of those who have everything to gain by your not being right…and remember that, in modern culture, it’s often considered socially worse and more serious to accuse someone of racism/sexism/etc. than it is for the person you’re accusing to BE those things. On top of all that, by speaking up for the imaginary group of “bad” women (or blacks, Jews, etc.) who “deserve” such comments, you’ll end up being labeled a member of that subgroup, too. A good example of this is the “feminazi” label: when someone says something negative about women who believe in and work for women’s rights (such as that they are ugly, frigid, or hate men), if you speak up in their defense, others are likely to conclude that YOU must be ugly/frigid/hate men, because otherwise why would you defend those people? Paradoxically, being a “good” (socially acceptable) feminist often means allowing people to mischaracterize and attack feminism.
If you speak up without identifying the joke as a slur against you — if you mount the “disinterested defense”, wherein it’s not that the joke hurt your feelings that makes it wrong, but rather the inherent wrongness of all those types of slurs — then you both face a difficult intellectual battle (often with people not really up to intellectual battling) to prove your point, AND you become easy to write off as someone who just “can’t take a joke”, or can’t grasp the “edgy” “humor” that slurs often hide behind. Someone says “God forbid Sonia Sotomayor is on her period while she’s on the bench; death penalty for everyone!” and you launch into a well-reasoned speech about how dangerous and unhelpful it is to perpetuate the myth that women aren’t rational, especially using a woman whose life has been a model of reasoned, rational behaviour as an example…and people tend to roll their eyes, because you’re “ruining their fun”, or “missing the point”, or you must have no sense of humor. This attack is sometimes leveled at people who identify as one of the victims of the slur, too, but there is a defense there–you can say “but it hurt my feelings; it offended me and I don’t care if you thought it was funny, it still sucks”. If you choose not to identify (or actually can’t; i.e. you’re not a member of the target group, but you still want to speak up), then you can’t use your feelings as proof that the joke wasn’t really just a successful joke, avoiding the charge that you’re a boring jerk because you refuse to laugh.
If you return fire, with a slur against men, whites, or what have you, then first of all you’d better have some good original material, because one of the problems with a discriminatory culture is that it doesn’t have a lot in the way of effective counter-defamation, mostly because slurs against privileged groups aren’t seen as funny or “edgy” by definition. Second of all, you’ve gotten down in the dirt with the enemy, which almost always has the effect of getting you dirty: slinging slurs at groups really isn’t a cool thing for anybody to be doing, well-intentioned or not — or maybe it is, but to me it feels prohibitively icky. Thirdly, someone is likely to “call you on” using slurs yourself, under the (misguided, but hard to fight) accusation that your making a discriminatory comment against men or whites or rich people or thin women (etc.) somehow justifies, or grants permission for, any people using any slurs against anybody.
Lastly, if you quit the company you were in and go write a post (or an article or a book or make a movie, etc.) about it, have you really accomplished anything? Or did you just admit that it wasn’t possible to confront the slur and its perpetrators directly, and resort to “preaching to the choir” instead?