Why your violent racist joke isn’t funny

In the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump’s election victory, incidents of racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic nastiness are increasing. I’m seeing people reporting on Facebook that their kids are witnessing other elementary schoolers taunting Hispanic kids (“You’re gonna get deported! You’re gonna get deported!”). I’ve seen news stories showing swastikas painted on shop windows in downtown Philadelphia. A colleague just told me that a student got spit on and told, “I hope you they send you back to your own fucking country soon” when she jokingly said, “Merci” to somebody who held a door for her.

I’m willing to accept that there are people who voted for Trump who are appalled by the direct expression of bigotry coming from some of his supporters. I hope that in very short order, those folks will begin confronting the bigots and racists forcefully. If you see somebody in a MAGA hat waving a Nazi flag around, SAY SOMETHING! If you see people bullying a woman in a hijab, or somebody in a turban, or a wheelchair, or…, SAY SOMETHING! If you want to dissociate from that crowd, you have to do more than say “Not it!” and run away. Over here on the left, lots of us are working to fight back against that kind of hate and violence. You’re welcome to join us.

To those of you who have done or said things that advocate or normalize violence (like the t-shirt advocating the murder of journalists; the Obama in a noose costume at the U of Wisconsin football game the other weekend; etc), and then when called out respond that they’re “just joking,” that people like me “should lighten up” and “stop being so politically correct”: there are two reasons why those kinds of “jokes” [sic] are bad. First, they’re just plain offensive. Second, and more significant, if you’re nervous about the increasing likelihood of violence post-election, it becomes impossible to tell when a threat is real when it’s among a bunch that (you claim) aren’t.

How am I (a Jew) supposed to know that your Nazi flag is “just a joke?” How am I supposed to know that the neighbor who’s waving it (no–I don’t really have this neighbor, but some of you do) doesn’t actually want to kill all my people? Why would my Hispanic neighbor believe that whoever spray-painted “Make America White Again” on a dugout at a nearby park doesn’t mean it? As more people report acts of real violence, how are we supposed to know who might really do it and who’s just kidding?

I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish enclave in Atlanta. Some people in the neighborhood were actual concentration camp survivors/escapees (tattooed ID numbers and all), I’d guess as many as 30-40.

Around 1980, a bunch of local teens cruised the neighborhood one night painting swastikas on mailboxes–not all of them, just a seemingly random bunch. Imagine being one of those concentration camp survivors, walking down your driveway at 7 am to pick up the morning paper, and seeing a swastika painted on your mailbox. Or the one right across the street. Just take a second to imagine that. I’ll wait.

No big deal? Tell that to the the concentration camp escapee who had a heart attack and died on the spot.

Because of a “joke.” He should have just “lightened up,” not been so “politically correct.”

You may not mean to hurt anyone when you trivialize hate and violence. But chances are, it’s not trivial to people who see it. And it becomes increasingly difficult to discern real threats from “just kidding” when the people who pose them don’t know or care about the difference.


2 Responses to Why your violent racist joke isn’t funny

  1. Dayna says:

    The free speech part of this issue has been searing through me all week. I think the answer that best represent reality for me is “because, in America, you are innocent until proven guilty.” I concur that It is a scary leeway.

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