I Deal With Racism By Making Jokes About My Race

It helps me come to terms with my insecurities by turning them into punch lines -- before anyone else can turn me into their punch line.

Jul 8, 2013 at 11:00am | Leave a comment

Read more from Charlene over at our sister site, xoVain.

I spontaneously signed up for an improv class one summer, and to this day, it’s probably one of the best classes I’ve ever taken. As a quiet, soft-spoken introvert, improv challenged me to step out of my comfort zone.

As it turns out, I’m horrible at improv. Still, I had my shining moments. Take this one exercise. The class would name a city or landmark, and you and a partner would then riff off of that location. Playing a tourist, I demurely asked my partner if he could take my picture, then proceeded to pose for it by holding up two peace signs.

In another exercise, the class had to recount a bank robbery from the bank robber’s point of view. Where one person left off in the story, you would have to pick the story up. When it came to my turn, the robber was about to make his grand escape. I concluded that he (I) then sped off in his (my) getaway car only to run into a parked one. HILARIOUS.

OK, so those jokes don’t actually sound very funny, but I swear, I got some laughs. If you didn’t pick up on the racism, then I give you props for not being an asshole like me. But, I think it’s pretty clear that the intent of those jokes was racist.

Just like that time my co-workers started an email chain in which each person argued, “I have the best dog!” When I responded with “I had the best dog! In China. Combo meal #3 with fried rice,” it was pretty clear I was being racist.

Just last month, I wrote a tweet: “People tell me I look just like my Dad and I get angry like what, cause all Asians look alike?!” Again, racist.

In another tweet I wrote: “If I ever say, ‘I ran into your mother the other day,’ I meant I literally ran into her. With my car. #AsianFemaleDrivers.” Racist. And true. I’m a horrible driver.

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Driving badly.

Case in point: a lot (not all, but a lot) of my humor is racist. But, why? Why do I feel the need to “poke fun” at my race?

If I were to cut myself some slack, I’d excuse my behavior as progressive. “Don’t beat yourself up,” I’d say. “You’re ironically racist! Also, stop talking to yourself.” If I take a harder look, I’d see that I’m just looking for easy laughs. And yes, those laughs often come VERY easily. But as I’ve recently considered, what if my racism actually stems from insecurity?

I grew up in a small town where we were one of very few minority families. My parents, who speak broken English, had a harder time with racism than my English-speaking sister and me, but they still managed to shelter us from any negativity about our race. We grew up proud of our heritage, and all our friends seemed genuinely interested in learning about it, too (the limit, though, as I’ve learned from a particularly queasy pal, is deep fried chicken feet).

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Tripe, too, for that matter -- both pictured here.

I was a perfect blend of my Asian and American cultures, and I spent my childhood without giving my race or ethnicity any overanalyzed thought. Inevitably, though, I grew up. And my racial awareness has since heightened. I don’t want to admit that I often feel different because of my race.

There are still times that I’d honestly forget I’m a minority in America were it not for people lined up to remind me otherwise.

A psychic once stopped me on the sidewalk to claim that she knows all the dirt on my Japanese ancestors (I’m of Chinese descent). Only after I excuse me'd her, she backpedaled to clarify that I’d been lied to my entire life. That, she swears, I’m really from Japan, and for just $50 she can tell me why. Before you jump to her defense, let me add that if she really were a psychic, she would’ve known I didn’t even have $20 to hear her bullshit.

Another time, a man asked me with thinly veiled suspicion where I was from. He wasn’t satisfied when I said California. “No,” he shook his head. “Where are you from?” Refusing to give in, I repeated, “California.” He didn’t drop it. “Where are your parents from?” he asked.

My parents are actually from Hong Kong, but I’m stubborn, and I didn’t want to give this man any ammunition. So I said, “California.” This back and forth proceeded until I established that even my great grandparents were from California, which finally satisfied him.

“Oh, so you’re REAL American,” he said. And then he congratulated me.

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My "Californian" grandmother.

In all honesty, though, this evidently recognition-worthy American rarely encounters malicious racism. But, even those seemingly innocuous comments can still be construed as racist. From the guy who hollered “konichiwa” at me from across the street, to my co-workers who teased me because I couldn’t talk my way out of a traffic ticket from a “fellow Asian” cop, I’m constantly reminded that I’m not just another person. I’m an Asian one.

Every one of these instances makes me acutely aware of my ethnicity in a way I’m not entirely comfortable with. I feel vulnerable when I’m differentiated and stereotyped because of my race. Believe me, I want to celebrate my uniqueness, but I want to do it on my own terms. I don’t want other people to point out my “uniqueness” when really they’re just identifying with the color of my skin.

For these reasons, it has occurred to me that perhaps I’m compelled to preemptively joke about my race. You know, before anyone else has the chance to bring it up and before I have the chance to really get angry about it.

I used to get into arguments a lot, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that it takes a lot of energy to be truly angry. I don’t always have that energy anymore, and frankly, it’s not worth it. So, if I make a joke instead, address the issue on my own terms, I elude that awkwardness/indignation/straight up RAGE when someone else singles out my race.

I often turn to self-deprecating humor because, for me, it’s extremely cathartic. It helps me come to terms with my insecurities by turning them into punch lines –- before anyone else can turn me into their punch line. But, I should probably stop telling self-racist jokes because, at the end of the day, I’M BEING RACIST.

I’m sending the wrong message to myself: that my race is something to mock. But most importantly, I’m sending the wrong message to everyone else: if I make fun of my race, so can you!

The truth is, I feel conflicted. On the one hand, I know racism exists, whether I like it or not. And making racist jokes, even if they are ironically/self/hipster racist, sends the message that it’s not such a big deal when it really is. It’s like that asshole who constantly makes snide remarks to undercut any valid point you might be making. Racist jokes are your douchey ex-boyfriends.

And sure, in the hands of a non-racist person, a racist joke may just be a joke. But that joke is then heard by non-racist and racist people alike. All of a sudden, those same words, in the hands of a racist person, morph into something quite malicious –- even if that intent wasn’t there. Jokes, in the hands of a clumsy person, are offensive. And we ironically racist joke tellers probably bear some of the guilt by essentially giving our thumbs up to racist jokes.

On the other hand, it’s not easy dealing with the sadness and depth of hurt as a victim of racism. Hyperbolizing and joking about race can ease an otherwise sensitive issue. I DO feel uncomfortable in the face of racism, and laughing about it helps me evade that ickiness in the pit of my stomach whenever someone else, however casually, points out my race. I empower myself by making fun of myself before anyone else can. Humor gives me catharsis to an otherwise angry, defeated, and desolate feeling.

But as someone with a voice, I want to use my words, and send my message, responsibly.

Complicated? Yes. Controversial? Definitely. But then again, if everything were black and white, well, I wouldn’t exist.