An Asian, Mexican, and an African-American sit in a boat. Suddenly the boat springs a leak and the three start to drown. Who wins?
I am Asian American. When I was in the sixth grade I performed in the musical West Side Story in downtown Mill Valley. One day during rehearsals I was told this joke by one of my fellow cast members who was white. I specifically remember him mentioning that I might be offended by the joke. When he told me, I didn’t know how to react to the joke because I did not fully understand the weight behind what it meant. I realized later the significance in what he had said wasn’t the joke itself, but that he had known that it would offend me and that he probably wouldn’t have given this warning to a white person.
Now that I understand the full implications of the joke and what happened, I can find a little humor in it. It’s funny because it is so absurd that there are people who genuinely believe that the United States would be a better place without people of color. It’s funny because of how offended white people get when they see a slogan for a Chinese run laundromat that says, “Two Wongs can make it white.” It’s funny because white people can’t laugh without the “permission” of a colored person to laugh at these types of jokes. It’s funny because if I were to get offended at every joke about race I would never feel anything else but offense. It is funny because deep down white people want to be colored without the consequences. It’s funny because people in the most liberal places like Mill Valley still tell these types of jokes.` `
The problem isn’t the joke itself; the problem is that racist jokes is just one of the microaggressions that people of color have to face every day. Microaggressions are “the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership” writes Doctor Derald Wing Sue on Psychology Today. Examples of microaggressions are singing the n-word in a song, assuming someone’s intelligence and economic class based on their race, telling someone that they look attractive for someone of their race, etc. While one microaggression may not be a hate crime the constant onslaught of microaggressions cause me to constantly feel different from everyone around me. White people need to understand why and how microaggressions are harmful as well as understand that constant microaggressions are the reason for our culture of systemic racism.
I have run into many people who have said racist stereotypes about my race and have made assumptions about people of color and their intelligence or economic standing. I always brushed it off because I didn’t want to create an awkward or hostile environment. However, I started to get increasingly uncomfortable every time I ran into a person who would say things like this to me, grimacing with a forceful laugh to change the subject. Eventually, I started to stereotype myself not as a way to reclaim these racist remarks but simply to avoid others saying them to me.
To phrase it as eloquently as possible, just because you have friends of color does not magically make you a person of color. Moreover, if someone makes fun of their own race it does not give you permission to say racist things to them or about them.
I do not speak for every person of color, but I can speak for myself and my experiences. Instead of making people of color speak for an entire race, learn to discuss race in a respectful and comfortable way. Furthermore, being afraid of saying the wrong thing will only block one from learning.
The last thing I want to say is that if you are white you benefit from racism. White privilege is not something to be ashamed of. However, one should use that privilege and speak out against racism. Most importantly, white people in Marin need to understand that covert racism hidden in the most liberal places makes sure that they continue to have white privilege.