Learning to Take a Joke

When did I stop being able to take a joke?
Publish date:
October 14, 2014
Human Parts

“Learn to take a joke,” he says to me after I respond too critically to something as banal as a comment on the weather. Men are really into how you take things. Can you take their cock? Dirty talk insists on asking if you can take it, if you can take their force, if you can withstand the impact. It’s laughable to hear a guy use the same voice to ask if you can learn to take a joke. I always think “My family and I have withstood forces stronger than your impotent satire, but sure. It’ll be my very next Wikihow search.”

It’s really all too imperialistic for my decolonized blood. What if I don’t want to take it? What if I can acknowledge something without wanting to own it? I don’t want to plant a flag in everything I see. I don’t need to mark it all with my scent. I’m jealous enough as it is, and I don’t want to harbor ill-will toward jokes that stray from my gaze.

When did I stop being able to take a joke? When did I start thinking too much? Hm. If I could take a seat in a chaise lounge and analyze myself, I would date my overthinking back to being emotionally paralyzed by trauma in my childhood, which lead me to overcompensate cognitively where I lack emotionally.

Haha, just kidding, maybe.

I’ve always thought I had a good sense of humor—a mix of gutter and refinery that helps me pass in day-to-day watercooler chat. But it’s come to my attention that I am not longer equipped with a sense of humor. It’s evolved into something that won’t survive Darwin’s 5k race for survival.

Perhaps my sense of humor has had an update pending for years, but sometimes updates just make life harder. They’re building off of already antiquated and messy things. Not all updates are created equal. I worry about this a lot when I’m asked to update my sense of humor to regressive programs that still include transphobia, homophobia, and racism.

I imagine my sense of humor as a bug-riddled app, started by four earnest and sex-denied dudes with a desire to connect. I want to connect. I swear to God, I do. I want to connect with you.

I just don’t know of a time when I needed someone to explain to me the definition of satire in order to laugh. People remind you it’s satiresanctimoniously, in the same tone they’d use to remind you to finish your meal because someone, somewhere is starving and your dislike of liver and onions is “tough titties, honey.” I’ve longed to write “tough titties” for years and here it is and boy, am I satisfied.

I don’t know when I started to say “that’s funny” aloud, to acknowledge that I found something humorous even though no chuckle escaped my lips. Jokes are now filtered and screened. Maybe it’s when I started dating men (a choice I labored over greatly before reluctantly deciding it was high time I grew a pair and learned to deal with men outside of reblogging pictures of them sleeping).

Of course, being a black woman, I’ve always thought the hallmark of my people—besides being invulnerable sartorial badasses—is that we’re funny. We have a humor that’s dark, introspective, observational, and sometimes cruel. But men have made me think otherwise. White people only enjoy being mocked when they’ve consented to it, when they’re in on it. You look at minorities being mocked and made a spectacle of—indigenous persons showcased at carnivals and museums—and you wonder who needs to learn how to take a joke, if it’s you or me.

My friend Adam once described my laughter as “mirthful” and I imagine that it is: a deep belly laugh, a wolf howling to the moon because I was raised to submit to laughter. I grew up discussing race both in a nuanced and polarizing fashion because my family made fun of everything. Laughter is an art, and for my family it was the only vehicle by which real shit was said, if it weren’t in a song or poem.

I am from funny people. Adoptive or biological, I am from people who have always cherished humor. They are dually complex and simple people. Sad people. Hurt people.

I think fondly of my uncle making fun of my aunts as they did my hair, laughing at the fact that we sewed in Indian hair that we bought from the Korean-owned hair store with the money we earned cleaning the houses of rich white folk. My aunt would come home ready to soak her feet in Epsom and lament, “White kids don’t know how to wipe their own asses.”

I’d laugh because not much later, she’d yell at her own sons: they were too grown to act like they didn’t know how to wipe their own asses. Then she’d begin to do the laundry, exhausted.

There’s a lot of cruelty in what we laugh at, for better or worse. Deciding what to laugh at and what to acknowledge is one of the hardest things you have to do as a person. Rejecting forms of humor, forcing people to be conscious of why they’re laughing and what they’re laughing at, is hard. Not everyone sits around thinking about how jokes concerning victims, and minorities, and transgendered people have got to stop.

I was raised to think anything with “gay” as the punchline was hysterical. I’m not even sure my family would understand if I went back in time and told them their jokes are homophobic. They certainly didn’t understand when I came out as bisexual or when I said I was sick of sitting through sermons condemning me and my friends to a life of suffering because of the way we loved.

I’ve googled how to take jokes, how to impress people or make them like me or think I’m less frustrating but what’s the point? No one’s perfect! I’m not. I’m a flawed individual. There’s a lot to find funny but these things don’t have to make you laugh; sometimes the things that make you laugh just aren’t funny. Life’s kinda complex and simple like that.

So sorry I’m not sorry that I couldn’t take your joke.

This story was original run on Human Parts.