As a brown-skinned adoptee, growing up in a small town gave me my fair share of racism and hurtful comments. For a long time, I thought this was normal and I tried to live with it.
Up until I went to school in my small town, many racist things were said and done, which hurt like hell, but I ignored my feelings about it. Then, when I was 14, I started art-school in Brussels and racism was replaced by funny comments, like casually being called a little cotton-picker. I went along with it and laughed, because they didn’t treat me badly and everyone else was laughing, so I didn’t see any harm in it. This atmosphere made me create my own coping-mechanism by trying to stay ahead and making these types of comments myself. For instance, when the dress-code for our next concert was black, I would say: “Well that’s convenient, I can show up naked on stage.”
Though this gave everyone a good laugh, I created an open door for similar comments on their part and this became my new normal.
Don’t get me wrong, it can be funny, but only under the right circumstances with the right people. When someone makes a joke like that in a group of my own trusted peers, it’s often hilarious, but in another environment it’s simply embarrassing and awkward. Then again, I created that open door, so I understand people not seeing the difference.
The most basic humor is making jokes at the expense of others. Think about the old slip over the banana peel. When someone falls, most of us will react by laughing as a natural response (hopefully followed by helping the person get up).
Not offending people has become a big thing. We have to be politically correct and we can’t say anything anymore without getting hit by a bunch of opinions and criticism.
I admire comedian, actor and writer Ricky Gervais endlessly for being the funniest man alive with actual thorough, substantiated and logical arguments about humor and I’ve thought a lot about one simple phrase in his opening monologue at the 2020 Golden Globes: “Remember, they’re just jokes (…)”, while he’s warning the audience they will be having a laugh at their expense. When it comes to people criticizing jokes he also has a significant response that makes sense to me: “It’s not because you feel offended, that it actually is offensive.”
I agree we shouldn’t be taking everything too seriously and the old saying laughter is the best medicine is an important one. I think the problem for me occurs when the joke hits my trauma. It seems only natural not to make jokes or laugh about obvious trauma. So maybe it’s because adoption and discrimination aren’t seen as traumatizing experiences and is that why people don’t know there are some boundaries to it? Though I agree with Ricky Gervais’ response about offensive jokes, I often think: “It’s not because someone doesn’t mean to be offensive, that it can’t feel offensive to the person they’re saying it to.”
I think people can mistake intent as a free pass to say or do anything, regardless of the result. Your good intentions, or lack of bad ones (big difference), don’t automatically clear the impact on someone else.
That being said, let’s not be tiptoeing around any subject with anyone because oh dear we might offend them. Let’s just live, laugh and die with a big smile, because life really is so much better with laughter as its best medicine.