Are White Men Allowed to Laugh at Black Men’s Expense?

Race Manners: If you’re scrutinizing your boyfriend’s every chuckle, you probably have more serious questions than whether sagging pants are “objectively funny.”

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Dear Race Manners:

My boyfriend (white) and I (not white) were walking down the street in New Orleans, and I caught him chuckling at the sight of an African-American teen struggling to keep his baggy pants up while carrying a couple of shopping bags. We got into a pretty heated discussion about whether or not this was “objectively” funny and therefore fair game for jokes. He says that I’m overreacting. A couple of days before that incident, I didn’t say anything when he commented on a dude’s “funny hat” (again, an African-American man wearing a floppy knit hat).

Seems to me that he finds things that are different to be funny. I’m not into jokes at other people’s expense at the best of times, but especially not from a white man about another race. Thoughts? —Not Seeing the Humor

The first thing to remember is that there’s not a consensus, even among people of the same race, about who gets to make the jokes when it comes to particular groups, what type of humor is OK and who, if anyone, should laugh.

Just think of the recent debate over whether Stephen Colbert’s use of Asian stereotypes to mock Redskins owner Dan Snyder’s creation of the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation served to brilliantly satirize or shamefully promote racism. Or last year’s widespread backlash against Russell Simmons’ endorsement of the “Harriet Tubman Sex Tape” skit. Or the divide over whether “ghetto” names are hilarious and WorldStarHipHop antics are entertaining.

So there’s no guarantee at all that, even if you and your boyfriend were the same color, you’d feel the same way about humor that touches on race or hinges on stereotypes.

But the complication here is that you two can’t even agree about whether the things he finds funny have anything to do with racial or cultural differences in the first place.

My opinion is that they don’t. I understand that all the criticism we hear about sagging pants is lazy and wildly misguided, especially when it’s focused on black boys who choose this style while ignoring their white counterparts. I can see how the very topic could trigger a concern that you were about to hear a half-baked and bigoted sociological theory. But that didn’t happen. And honestly, if physical humor is your thing, the image of someone sacrificing the ability to walk normally in order to wear his or her preferred style could create a funny image.

Floppy hats seem like even more of a stretch to connect with race. I don’t even know where to go with that, unless there’s an association that I’m missing.

So I don’t think you should be bothered by his laughter at these people. But I do think you should be bothered by the fact that you’re bothered, if that makes sense.