My story begins at the start of this quarter; one of my classes which I looked forward to taking was titled “Asian Americans in the Media,” a class that I thought would be mostly about watching indie Asian films and critiquing them on plot, casting, film techniques, etc. It just so happens that the class turned out to be more about how Asian Americans are depicted within the media, or a lack of depiction at all. It began to open my eyes to the ideas of racism and white privilege like I had never encountered them before. While racist jokes within the media used to elicit a laugh from me and an afterthought about how funny it is living in a “post-modern” era where racism isn’t as terrible as it used to be, it now reminds me of how often we as Americans overlook the underlying motives of racism that is still thriving within our society. I will not deny that things are, by comparison, better than they used to be; however, that doesn’t deny the fact that, as whites, we do have a huge advantage as we are brought up to look at whites as portraying intelligent, successful and more attractive than other races.
With this new insight in mind, I will bring us to a house party that I attended a few days before Halloween night. It was a group of my closest gay friends; we all dressed up in different costumes and were having a few drinks at my friend’s house before going out for the gay Halloween party downtown. One of us took out a new game he wanted us to all play together. It was called “Cards Against Humanity.” A spin-off of “Apples to Apples” in which each member places a noun, from his choice of seven cards, that he or she thinks best describes the adjective or predicate card in the center of the group. (Except “Cards Against Humanity” is for an adult friendly group.) As we played, I came across cards entitled “keeping Christ in Christmas,” “Steven Hawking talking dirty,” and “The Jews” which happen to be the very mild cards in the set. Needless to say after cocktails and shots of tequila most of our group was in it to win it, playing each card to make the most hilarious combination to arouse cackles out of the other players.
It was about this time during the game that a small wave of awkwardness swept over me, giving me butterflies in my stomach. At first this startled me and was quite surprising; I, too, seemed to be having quite a hoot about the whole ordeal. Looking around the room brought me back to the feelings I get while pondering how white rhetoric about racism in our current era makes us feel its ok to make racist jokes and comments openly in our circles. If there had been one African American, Jew or Asian American would this game be any different? Did it matter that all the players were mostly white and didn’t seem to care that we were laughing about subjects that were usually culturally insensitive? It seemed particularly ironic that this was a group of gay men who are all active in gay pride associations sitting around making light of racist slurs and crass remarks, seeing how we ourselves were supposed to be a minority fighting for our own ‘civil rights.’
It started to make me feel more uncomfortable the more and more I thought about it after that night. Has our sense of humor become so jaded and crass that jokes don’t evoke enjoyment unless there is another group being humiliated? I began to notice comedians these days — Tosh.O off the top of my mind — are more likely to make off-handed comments about extremely offensive things in order to provoke gasps of surprise from the audience, then say something along the lines of “that’s the one where I crossed the line?” in order to bring a following round of hoots and hollers. Does it matter that this makes it that much harder for whites to accept that we continue to use gentrification, stereotypes, and the fallacy of a “post-racist” era to perpetuate our status and privilege today? Am I one in a minority of thinkers in our generation that seems to think this type of “humor” brings us to become desensitized to racism all together?
Tonight, I was in a similar scenario with the same group of friends. We gathered, everyone had a beer or a shot of tequila and sat around the room to play “CAH.” Keeping a promise to myself, I said to the group that I was not going to play the game, feeling uncomfortable with the racist elements. These are guys that I have been close to for most of the time that I have spent in Santa Barbara and I value the friendship that we have shared. Even so, they all seemed more caught up in the “novelty” of the game to take me seriously, eventually becoming upset that I would take it so seriously. Comments like “James thinks he is better than us” and “Please, like you really have high morals or something” followed. Feeling uncomfortable as my friends played a game which I had seriously said I didn’t feel comfortable playing, I watched and thought to myself about whether or not I was taking this too seriously. Perhaps I was taking it too seriously. Perhaps, under the reasoning that in laughing at such events they could relieve the power of the fear and “real racism” that such histories had created, my friends thought it was OK to blatantly joke about such past histories as Auschwitz, Rodney King and lynching in the south.
Either way, I was convinced that it did nothing more than act as a suppressant. As alcohol numbs the emotions, this game seemed to numb us to the seriousness of the realities that these horrors had created. Instead of relieving it of its power, it was, from my perspective, building up an immunity to present and future misconducts of racism. Sickened by the hoots and hollers I stood, grabbed my coat and bid everyone an early goodnight. Perhaps I had overreacted but as I walked out I felt like I was finally doing something that, for the first time in a while, felt right.
James Cobb is a fourth-year global studies major.