When I was a little girl the adults around me used to love to tell jokes. Often times the jokes made were made at the expense of African-American or Mexican or Asian people and culture. The N-word was used freely as were ‘ghetto’ or ‘spic’ or ‘oriental’ accents when getting to the punchlines. The other adults at the gatherings would listen and laugh and I would listen and laugh too, wanting to be like the adults that I loved.
I never heard any mention of the impact these words might have on the communities they mocked and I never thought about it myself. Without any real awareness, I took it into my heart that the people groups mentioned in the jokes were nothing more than caricatures to be made fun of. I never thought of them as human beings with souls and histories and lives and struggles because they were never presented to me that way.
Eventually, I memorized the jokes and told them to others in an attempt be liked and accepted. I was a fifth and sixth and seventh then eighth grader who had memorized an entire battery of racist jokes and told them without restriction, especially to other adults that I met at parties and gatherings. Those jokes were indelibly and permanently (it seems) woven into the fabric of my mind.
Every so often, as I do laundry or walk alone or hear laughter in a gathering, one of those jokes will climb their way out of my sub-conscious and flash into my thinking brain. It happened just today. I was driving down the road and a simple question and answer joke that is completely inappropriate to share with you popped in. There was absolutely nothing to prompt it. I was literally driving past a rock quarry on a freeway with only my children in the car and this obnoxious joke just flew into my mind like a wasp at a picnic.
I felt so angry. I feel angry and frustrated and sad at having had that foulness injected into my spirit, into my thoughts. I feel compromised and sullied by it, but there doesn’t seem to be anything I can do to rid myself of the occasional visit from these vile and repugnant one liners that dehumanize and devalue and cut others based solely on the color of their skin and their tone and inflection.
I became more deeply aware today that I feel violated myself by the racist ‘jokes’ (words really) that were introduced into my tender soul during the days of my formation. It was a fail of the culture of the adults around me. It was one of the insufferable things about their generation and the generation before them and the generation before that and all the generations that passed down such language and blindness to the devaluation of human beings.
The only thing that brought me relief was to know that my own children will never tell those kinds of jokes. Or if they do, it certainly won’t be because they heard them from me. Most likely, my own children would be greatly upset by such language today, even as young as they are. I felt reassurance to know there is a generational turning. Their trajectory is going in a better direction, a direction that values rather than cuts and is oriented toward inclusiveness and shalom.
And then I see something like the recent words of Carl Palladino, a close associate of the new President of the United States of America, and I realize that simply not telling those kinds of jokes to my children is not enough. It was not ever enough, really, but in today’s world, where a man with such access to power and influence can get away with that kind of language, be championed for it even, the eradication of racial caricaturing has the chips stacked against it.
If I don’t want my own children to feel the grossness and shame, the soul violation that I do every time one of those awful jokes pops up in my head, I’ve got to actively teach them to value people who might look or sound different than we do. I’ve got to actively seek relationship for myself and my children with ‘others’. I need to teach my kids that racism does exist and that it is vile and it is wrong. It hurts people. It kills people. It makes lives harder. It makes people feel as if there is no hope and it makes them feel like giving up. The truth is, racist ‘jokes’ and words matter very much and there is absolutely nothing funny about them.
It’s not enough to simply ‘not be racist’. If we wish to change course with the next generation we’ve got to ‘be actively inclusive’. We’ve got to speak out and say that though racism exists, racist words are never ‘normal’ or acceptable. And we’ve got to recognize and name racist speech as racist speech, even when the person using the speech says ‘it isn’t about race’.
These powerful men on the news who are saying these things are the generation I listened to tell all the jokes at the parties when I was little. They’re still telling the same kinds of jokes, but now they have enough education and experience to recognize and acknowledge their privilege and how it hurts others. They are literate enough to choose different words and tell different jokes. It is not about ‘political correctness’, it is about common respect and decency toward other people. Don’t let them fool you.
Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.
The bible has a lot to say about what we say. Our words matter very much to God. To normalize damaging racist speech by remaining silent is a choice that dishonors Christ. We are in grave danger now of resurrecting those cocktail party jokes and all the oppression and suffering that come part and parcel with them. Is that who we wish to resurrect? That spirit who sullies and violates? Or do we choose the resurrected Jesus? We can’t choose both and silence is choosing the former. It’s come to that.
Speak up and speak out parents.
Speak up and speak out Church.