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

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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.


Your being irked by your boyfriend's response suggests not just that you're wired differently for jokes but also that you're extra sensitive to any evidence of how he sees himself in relation to people he deems "different."

An assessment of a person's open- or closed-mindedness, curiosity or dismissiveness, and compassion or lack thereof is something you'd be smart to do with anyone you were dating. And this is a reminder that people in interracial relationships aren't, contrary to popular belief, always extra sophisticated when it comes to racial awareness and understanding of different perspectives. Or at least, this sophistication doesn't happen without work.  


I get the feeling that you two haven't talked about how your backgrounds might color the way you see the world, how you relate to other people and what your sensitivities are. I'd be willing to bet that your concerns over his humor come from the fact that you have a lot to learn about each other.

Are these incidents just reminders that what's "different" to him isn't different to you? Do you think he's narrow-minded? Is it that you're uncomfortable with his seeing whiteness as the default when it isn't for you? Do you have a nagging worry that he doesn't respect the cultures of people who don't look like him?


Or is it that he hasn't done anything to suggest any of this, but you're terrified that he will?

You're scrutinizing him as if he's a stranger, not someone you know, like and see eye to eye with. Which really isn't fair to him. Wouldn't it be preferable to be in a relationship in which you could relax and joke about things without reading into every giggle, feeling confident that, when it comes down to it, you share the same values?


Finding out whether you're compatible in that way will take a few (or more) serious conversations. Until then, I think you have to let him laugh. 

The Root’s senior staff writer, Jenée Desmond-Harris, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life—and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. Follow her on Twitter.


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Previously in Race Manners: “White Woman in a ‘Chocolate City’ Shirt: Is It Wrong?


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