On Race-awareness and Sensitivity

In the last few years we’ve seen an increased awareness of racism and sexism in the workplace and elsewhere.  With that comes an expectation of sensitivity toward people who are different from us.  And by us, I mean me, you, and everyone.  But especially white guys.

I’m a white guy.  Well, almost.  I’m Jewish, so a lot of white guys hate me right off the bat.  I accept that as a fact of life.  It’s fine.  I don’t like those people much anyway.  It’s reasonable to expect white guys to stop acting like entitled assholes.  But there’s really no road map for this, so we can only try our best and ask for guidance.

Is being “race-aware” racist?  For example, if the first thing you notice about a person is his or her race/color/ethnicity, is that racist?  As long as you aren’t putting a value on that observation, i.e. someone’s skin color makes them more or less valuable, then you’re not racist.  Of course, if you see a man who is 6′ 10″, you might think he plays basketball, but that doesn’t make him a bad person, even if he doesn’t play basketball, but if he’s that tall, shouldn’t he?  Sorry. Back on track.

Getting rid of racism doesn’t mean becoming one large, homogeneous group. That sounds like one of those scary movies about totalitarianism. People are proud of their heritage, their culture and their history.  They just want to be respected and celebrated for what they are: African-American, LBGTQ, woman, Muslim, Asian, Jew, Native American, etc.  We don’t want to be the same, we just want to be appreciated and respected.  And most of us want to get along with the rest.  But what are the rules?

The new pride flag. I see they added the chevron of color on the left, which I assume represents skin? But I don’t know any light blue people. Dark blue is another matter.

In comedy, there are rules of engagement. Some jokes simply cannot be made, depending on the person making the joke.  These rules change all the time, but one thing is fairly common: you are allowed to make a racist joke but only about your own race.

For example, if I want to make a joke about Nazi concentration camps, or a Jewish stereotype, it might not be funny to everyone. Or anyone, for that matter.  But I can make the joke because I’m a Jew who lost an entire section of my family to the Nazis.  When Mel Brooks trotted out a Nazi-themed musical on Broadway in his incredibly brilliant first feature film, The Producers, people laughed their asses off.  If Mel Gibson tried to make the same joke, well, it wouldn’t be as funny. Yes, the same exact joke.  Of course, Mel Gibson isn’t that funny to begin with.  And did you know that those wacky, inept Nazi characters in Hogan’s Heroes were almost all played by Jewish actors?  And that was just 20 years after the war!

Black comedians (and musicians) can use the N word.  Many African-Americans don’t like them using that word, but they are allowed to.  No one else can use that word, even to reference it as something bad or to quote someone else using it.  We don’t say the N word.  We just say “the N word.”  Right?

Extremist factions can be even more sensitive.  For example, a cleric might issue a fatwa on a cartoonist for making fun of a prophet.  (Side note: isn’t it great that our world is so multicultural that “fatwa” is already in spell-check? And that we all know what a fatwa is?  And that I’m not going to say anything here that will induce someone to issue a fatwa on me?  Although I’d be in good company, as Salman Rushdie is an excellent writer.  Now, back to our blog.)

Some Jews are very sensitive about antisemitism, even in jokes.  Older Jews especially. And for good reason.  The Holocaust, etc.  They lived through that.  You know, that wasn’t so long ago, and look what the hell is going on in this country today.  It’s okay to be a little sensitive.

Black people too.  White privilege is a thing, a real thing, and it’s so pervasive that people, even self-described liberal progressives, don’t even recognize it much of the time.  But simply driving down a street in a white neighborhood is a privilege.  A black person driving down the same street has a whole different set of concerns and a much higher chance of being pulled over.

So it goes to reason that there are some jokes, or words, that can only be said by someone in the group being joked about.  Blacks make fun of blacks, Jews make fun of Jews, Asians make fun of Asians (Crazy Rich Asians, anyone?) Etc.  In every culture, there is a comic making fun of that culture from within.

But there are exceptions. For example, it seems fine to make fun of white guys.  Several African-American comedians do great “goofy white guy” imitations.  And let’s face it, we deserve it.  Or dancing like a white man? Hilarious, right?

It’s good to see what we look like to other people.  And some comedians can get away with more.  Like Eddie Murphy does an old Jewish guy character and it’s funny, even to Jews.  Maybe because it’s done with love? Or even if it’s a little bit of a caricature, it feels real and not racist?  Not sure.

Blackface has extremely racist roots, but in the past we’ve accepted it from some comics.  And I mean recent past, not Al Jolson past.  Gene Wilder got away with it (at the time) in “Stir Crazy.”  He got away with it the same way Mel Brooks got away with the N word in “Blazing Saddles.”  By co-writing with Richard Pryor.

Of course, part of the use of the N word in Blazing Saddles was based on everyone in the audience understanding that it’s a very, very, very bad word and therefore audiences accepted the film using it in a funny way.  Howard Stern gets away with a lot of his race and sex-based humor because Robin is a black woman.  If she laughs, it’s okay.  If she knows he’s not a racist, well, then so do we.

Which brings us to the Italians.  And the Irish.  These are the only two ethnic groups anyone can tease or spoof with impunity, no matter your race, religion or ethnicity.  Growing up in New York, we all goofed around talking like Italian gangsters or punks. Fuhgeddaboudit.  Try walking around talking like a black dude or a Latino or a rabbinical student and see where that gets you.  And you can joke about Irish drinking to an Irishman.  No offense.  Why this anomaly?

Is this because many Italians and Irish are members of Catholic Church, one of the largest religious population in the world?  Maybe they’re not sensitive about comments like other groups because they’ve never been a minority? They haven’t suffered institutional and systemic racism?

But this is America.  Everyone suffers discrimination here.   One of the reasons heavyweight champ Rocky Marciano was so beloved by Italian-Americans was that he, like Joe DiMaggio and other athletes, celebrities and politicians of his era, offered Americans a different version of Italians than the stereotype Mafia figures that had been infamously celebrated for much of the century.  Once that stereotype was put to bed, everyone relaxed and we got The Godfather and The Sopranos.  Some Italians didn’t like those portrayals, but not many.  Maybe that’s assimilation in action?

The reason Irish people don’t get their noses bent out of shape over an Irish drinking joke or comment can be summed up in three words: Saint Patrick’s Day.  Okay?  Everyone knows that the entire purpose and goal of St. Patty’s Day is to drink a lot and get very drunk, and sometimes even throw up.  So, it would be kind of disingenuous for an Irishman to be insulted by an Irish drinking joke.

This makes sense, but it makes me feel sympathy for recovering alcoholics who are Irish.  But in my experience, even they don’t mind an Irish drinking joke.  Make no mistake: the Irish were horribly discriminated against when they came to America.  And then they took over all the police departments and everything was fine.  Stereotype?  Look it up.

So what have we learned here?  Not much, I’ll admit, except that it’s time to listen and use some sensitivity and understand that just because we don’t mean to offend, doesn’t mean we don’t.  How you speak is kind of like how you smell.  You might think you smell great, but what really matters is what other people think.  We’ve also learned that some groups have it much worse than others and are constantly being judged, and so they deserve even more sensitivity.

Smoking in Bed clocks in at 414 rollicking pages.  My goal was to tell an exciting story with a lot of plot twists and turns, and some naughty bits, all the while providing a lot of laughs.  Oh and no ethnic jokes, except the protagonist is half-Jewish, half-Catholic, and 100% full of guilt. Stereotype?  So sue me.

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