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Mar 01 2012

Have to laugh, or I’ll cry

Strictly speaking, there’s nothing funny about racism. The existence of racism in our society means that black people are paid less, have poorer health outcomes, are more likely to be harassed or murdered by law enforcement, are less likely to be educated or employed… the list goes on. None of that is a laughing matter, which is why I really don’t care for racist ‘jokes’ that make light of the issue. I think we can derive a lot of humour from pointing out racism, in the same way that we can find humour in pointing out hypocrisy or vice or any other folly of the human condition. It helps us learn about ourselves, and draws attention to issues we might otherwise ignore or misunderstand.

That being said, reading this story made me laugh my ass off:

Chief U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull on Wednesday admitted to sending a racially charged email about President Barack Obama from his courthouse chambers. Cebull, of Billings, was nominated by former President George W. Bush and received his commission in 2001 and has served as chief judge for the District of Montana since 2008. The subject line of the email, which Cebull sent from his official courthouse email address on Feb. 20 at 3:42 p.m., reads: “A MOM’S MEMORY.”

The forwarded text reads as follows:

Normally I don’t send or forward a lot of these, but even by my standards, it was a bit touching. I want all of my friends to feel what I felt when I read this. Hope it touches your heart like it did mine. A little boy said to his mother; ‘Mommy, how come I’m black and you’re white?’ His mother replied, ‘Don’t even go there Barack! From what I can remember about that party, you’re lucky you don’t bark!’”

Cebull admitted Wednesday to sending the email to seven recipients, including his personal email address.

GET IT? Because the president’s mother is a wanton slut who conceived him at an orgy where she might have fucked a DOG! GET IT?

Yeah… that’s not the funny part. This is:

The judge acknowledged that the content of the email was racist, but said he does not consider himself racist. He said the email was intended to be a private communication.

Now THAT’S comedy! “I know that instead of having a normal human reaction to something extremely racist, I thought it deserved to be spread to my friends. That doesn’t make ME racist though!”

The depths of moronity to which people will sink in order to prop up the “I’m not racist but…” meme never cease to amuse me. There’s even a website about it. It’s entirely understandable, too. It comes from a flawed understanding of what racism is and how it works. Racism is not a personal character flaw that is obvious and detectable through casual self-scrutiny (or, at least, not most of the time). It is an attitude, it is an idea, it is a stance. The extent to which an individual agrees with or accepts those ideas can be revealed through analysis of behaviour, but that doesn’t make the person “a racist”. It just means they have racist ideas.

The funniest, and paradoxically least funny, aspect of this story is that this man is a high-ranking judge. This is a person who is well-trained in critical thinking, appraisal of evidence, and a man upon whose judgment the interpretation of law rests heavily. Whether or not he thinks that the racist content of the e-mail is acceptable (and he says he doesn’t), he thinks that it is sound judgment to forward the message along to others. Even he knows how stupid it was:

“This is a private thing that was, to say the least, very poor judgment on my part,” Cebull said. “I did not forward it because of the racist nature of it. Although it is racist, I’m not that way, never have been.”

Judge cites self for act of poor judgment. You’ve got to laugh – the alternative (seeing it for what it really is) is, frankly, too depressing.

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33 comments

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  1. 1
    Cafeeine

    The problem with that joke wasn’t that it was racist, its that it was racist and unfunny.

  2. 2
    Crommunist

    Disagree. It wouldn’t have been any less problematic if it had been funny.

  3. 3
    MichaelD

    That animated gif cracks me up for some reason :P

  4. 4
    Crommunist

    Like dis f u laff evry tim

  5. 5
    James Sweet

    See this is why I’ve been more and more steering away from describing people as racist (except in the most egregious examples) and instead describing words and actions as racist. The judge admits he forwarded a racist joke. He should also admit that that was a racist thing to do.

    Is he “a” racist? I dunno, what’s the threshold? How many racist actions must one accumulate before they become “a” racist?

    I just think it’s a distraction at best, and at worst you get something like this, where the guy, for the sake of his own self-image, is not fulling owning up to what he did. I’m not keen to proclaim that “I am a racist”, for example, but I am fully willing to admit I inadvertently do racist things from time to time, and I probably have some unexamined racist attitudes. Just being able to admit that is 90% of the way there, and having this idea of whether that makes me racist or not just detracts from that.

  6. 6
    Cuttlefish

    Chief U.S. District Judge.

    Fuck, that just makes it worse.

    My sister is a judge (hell no, not at that level!); I had thought, maybe, you had to have the functional equivalent of a working brain to be a judge. I frankly hope I’m wrong. It would be better to think, comfortably, that W nominated a fellow moron to the position, and that he was simply displaying his moron credentials. The alternative is, there are people with functional brains who think like this asshole does.

    Glad you are laughing, Crommie. Someone ought to.

  7. 7
    Crommunist

    Words and actions are definitely better deserving of the label “racist” than individuals are. The next step is learning to see how institutions and policies can be racist, even in the absence of a sentient agent guiding the racism.

  8. 8
    David

    It’s racist for only one reason though: if it hadn’t specifically singled out one black person (ie, Barack Obama), if it had just been random black kid with random white mom, I don’t see it as being racist; the joke then becomes the situation, not the characters. Remove the name and it has the makings of an honest though crass joke.
    On the other hand, it’s not funny for several reasons.

  9. 9
    Crommunist

    Um… the answer to “why am I black” is “I fucked a lot of guys at that party” and you don’t see that as being racist unless it involves the President?

    You need to take a time out.

  10. 10
    HFM

    Seriously? The joke’s premise is that a white woman would shag a black man if and only if she was drunk enough to also shag the family dog…but that’s not racist unless the white woman is the president’s mother? *head scratch* That’s…interesting.

  11. 11
    carlie

    That’s true, but I would also say that the threshold is 1. You do something or say something racist because you are racist. Everyone is racist. There is not a single person who has grown up in a racism-free environment and not absorbed some amount of racism. I’d rather people stop acting like they’ve been convicted of murder when they’re called a racist, and instead admit that yeah, they are, and they’re trying to get better, and this was one lesson on the way to eliminating their racism as much as possible.

  12. 12
    Jaketoadie

    Now see, I didn’t see this as all that racist, at least not the overt, “we don’t like yer kind round here, boy” racism that usually gets the label.

    To me the child’s race (whether it be Barak Obama or just a generic child) isn’t the point, it was just used as the vehicle to make the child ask the question about why he was visibly different from his mother. I don’t think the main point of the joke (that the mother was intoxicated and exceedingly promiscuous at the party where the child was likely conceived) would have changed all that much if the child had been a white (or any other race) child with a characteristic that was plainly different from their mother.

    Say the joke was: “Mommy, why do I have red hair while yours is brown?” and the mother replied with “Don’t even go there Ron! From what I can remember about that party, you’re lucky you don’t bark!”

    The joke isn’t significantly changed. The only thing is now I am making fun of Ron Howard’s mother, and by extension Ron Howard, rather than Barak Obama and his mother.

    It is still not especially funny, and it would still not be a good idea to forward on to your pals, especially if you are a judge, but I don’t think that anyone would call the joke racist.

  13. 13
    Crommunist

    Hoo boy. Didn’t think we’d be having this conversation…

  14. 14
    slc1

    Aside from everything else, this non-joke is an insult to both Ms. Dunham and Mr. Obama Sr. It should be pointed out that both of them earned PhDs at reputable universities, which ain’t chopped liver.

  15. 15
    Anthony K

    To me the child’s race (whether it be Barak Obama or just a generic child) isn’t the point, it was just used as the vehicle to make the child ask the question about why he was visibly different from his mother. I don’t think the main point of the joke (that the mother was intoxicated and exceedingly promiscuous at the party where the child was likely conceived) would have changed all that much if the child had been a white (or any other race) child with a characteristic that was plainly different from their mother.

    Are you kidding me? The joke relies on anti-miscegenation sentiment as the child’s motivation for asking. See, kids from proper families don’t have to ask these questions, but kids born from interracial marriages—it just weighs on them that their parents aren’t the same colour, like the regular kids. So they ask the tough questions. And then, of course, Mom has to admit: if she weren’t so drunk and wasted she’d never have consented to sex with a black man. But she’s such a slut, that she’ll let anybody nail her, even a dog.

    The joke relies on these stereotypes about the types of women who would have an interracial relationship and the troubles their poor mixed-race kids have to deal with (because anti-miscegenation, like all anti-marriage equality, is about the children) to make any sense whatsoever. Replacing the kid with Opie and insisting that the message remains is completely non-sensical.

  16. 16
    Crommunist

    Not to even mention the fact that, even as a kid, Barack Obama knew who his father was. But hey… it’s nice to pretend, right?

  17. 17
    James Sweet

    The next step is learning to see how institutions and policies can be racist, even in the absence of a sentient agent guiding the racism.

    Agree completely, and I thank you for the ways in which you have helped to expose this. I was already comfortable with the idea that a policy could be racist without intention, but your blog has been very useful at helping me to spot that.

    @carlie:

    Everyone is racist.

    So don’t take this as harshly as it sounds, but… I find that statement to be useless at best, and counter-productive at worse. I recognize others disagree about that, and I agree whole-heartedly with everything else you said, i.e. what you mean when you say “Everyone is racist” is something I very much agree with. I just don’t like the statement, I think it does more harm than good. I’ve heard the arguments otherwise; I just don’t find them convincing, so I suspect we’ll have to agree to disagree :) Just my opinion…

  18. 18
    James Sweet

    In fairness to jacktoadie, I find the joke more misogynist than racist… The racism is in the undertones, it’s not explicit. It doesn’t say that a white woman having sex with a black man is tantamount to having sex with a dog, it just very strongly implies it. By contrast, the misogyny is waving it’s slut-shaming dick around for everyone to get a good look-see.

    Bah, it’s such a vile joke, I think trying to pronounce exactly which aspect of it is most objectionable is a futile endeavor.

  19. 19
    Anthony K

    I think the joke pretty heavily relies on both sexism and racism. Neither are subtle, but the joke probably falls more into dog-whistle territory on the racism side.

    But yes, I can see that someone who doesn’t normally find humour in such tropes might not immediately see that they’re there.

  20. 20
    Jaketoadie

    Brownian, Crommunist:

    I have to admit I didn’t even look at that aspect of the joke. I guess I stopped at the misogynistic message of “Let’s call Obama’s mother a whore!” and skipped over the rest of the implications that might be there. I assumed that the child’s race was really only set to give him a reason to be asking why he was different in general, and in specific because that was the case with the people that they chose to make the joke about. I figured this was a stupid joke trying to smear the mother of the president who the judge appears to disagree with politically (FSM knows I’ve heard a number of these, some far more racist than this)

    In hindsight I would be willing to bet that if we took Obama and replaced him with Ron Howard, and everything else was the same except he was the product of two white parents then the joke would never have existed. Which shows that everything you mention about the stereotypes is, at least to some extent, true, and I simply ignored all of that as I brushed the joke away as unfunny and not worth deeper thought.

    I never even considered the possibility that the joke was trying to say that the white woman would only consider banging the black man unless she was so drunk as to be willing to also bang the dog. I also did not consider it that it was trying to say that any white woman who would have sex with a black man would have to be such a slut as to be willing to have sex with a dog.

  21. 21
    James Sweet

    Good on you for recognizing it now that it’s pointed out to you. I admit there was probably a point when I would have missed the racist aspect of this joke too.

    Ironically, sometimes an innocent lack of prejudice can wind up making one more insensitive to hidden forms of said prejudice. An example is the way that a lot of kids today will use “gay” as a pejorative without recognizing that it’s inherently homophobic to do so, because the idea of actually thinking LGBTQ people are inferior is so foreign to them they don’t even consider it. That doesn’t make it okay — using “gay” as a pejorative is still hurtful and still propagates harmful stereotypes. But it’s interesting that we have a generation of kids who are blind to that reality, not because they are prejudiced against gay people, but because the idea of prejudice against gay people is so ludicrous to them that they are unable to see its manifestation in their own language.

  22. 22
    David

    Hmmm, hadn’t considered it that way. I saw the black child as a stand in for “obviously not like the mother”. Could have been anything and the “joke” would have been the same, not unlike how Jay Leno used the Golden Temple in a joke last month: it could have been anything, he just needed a big gold house to make the joke. So too, there is nothing in this joke saying that the white mother would only have sex with a black man when drunk, just that that particular night was crazy, and the fact that the kid was black is only relevant in so far as it makes him ask why he’s different from mommy. By mentioning Barack by name, it is no longer just any gold house, the joke now relies directly on that specific gold house.
    That was my thought process anyway: removing the name means you’re “laughing” (still not a funny joke, just to be clear) at the mother’s actions (who could also be something other than white and the joke would have still been complete) instead of at the characters directly. It still makes sense to me in this way, too, though you obviously disagree.
    HFM’s attempt to misinterpret what I didn’t even say aside, what am I missing? Is it simply that we’re talking about people, and stand-in people are racist in ways that stand-in buildings are not? I think I could see that. I’m hoping that’s it, otherwise I’m missing something very big and important and I don’t like that.

  23. 23
    David

    Ahah, that’s the missing piece. I probably should have read more comments to see someone else with the same “not-sure-why-racist” response. :P
    The “nice families don’t have to ask” wasn’t even part of my thought process. If presented this joke again, years from now and having forgotten it, I can’t say it ever would be: that’s a much deeper interpretation to any joke than I think I’d ever go regardless of the content, but I’m glad it was pointed out here.

  24. 24
    Brian Lynchehaun

    That was my thought process anyway: removing the name means you’re “laughing” (still not a funny joke, just to be clear) at the mother’s actions (who could also be something other than white and the joke would have still been complete) instead of at the characters directly. It still makes sense to me in this way, too, though you obviously disagree.

    You don’t appear to have taken a timeout.

    The joke hinges on the fact that the mother and the child are racially dissimilar. The joke hinges on the fact that the woman didn’t care about who/what she was having sex with. The response of the woman indicates a tier of racial preference: there is her race, followed by the child’s race, followed by the dog.

    You can insert any races you like in there, but because the joke hinges on there being a tier of races, the joke is racist.

    You should really go take a timeout. Go read some of Crommunist’s other posts on related topics. There’s a little blue link at the bottom of the post (it says “posted in …. “).

  25. 25
    David

    No, I don’t think so. I read all of Crommunists posts, there’s nothing new to be gained from a time-out. As Jaketoadie also pointed out, it could have been hair colour. Or eye colour. Or height, nose shape, ear lobes, curly hair, anything that would make a distinction would have still had the joke make sense in as far as it did to us.
    The problem for both of us was that was as far as we were reading into it. The level of depth others went is not something I put into jokes, regardless of their content, it just isn’t how I think about them. Telling me to take a timeout and go read some more posts on racism is like telling someone to go read up on calculus when the problem is they’ve forgotten how to multiply: it wouldn’t actually have helped me in any way to understand what the problem was. If I am wrong about something and say “this is what I think, why is this wrong?” simply telling me “you’re still wrong, go sit in the corner and think about what you’ve done” is not likely to lead me to a correct answer in every situation. I’ll just continue wondering what was wrong with my equation which looks so perfectly correct to me when all along it was simply that I wasn’t able to multiply 28*53 correctly. Sometimes it might, like if I have a vague idea of multiplication and I keep at it until it clicks what the right answer is. On the other hand, if I think I have an understanding of how math work such that 28*53 always comes up as 10, then it always will come up as 10 until someone tells me why it is wrong, no matter how strong my other math skills may be.
    (Concepts of racism being calculus and looking for deeper meanings in jokes being multiplication, in this analogy)

  26. 26
    P Smith

    To quote from the movie, “City Slickers” (where Bruno Kirby’s character is frustrated by Daniel Stern’s character being unable to figure out how VCRs work):

    “He doesn’t get it! He will never get it!”

    I think that sums it up about idiots like the judge who “think” insults are funny and don’t show themselves as bigoted.

    To lighten the mood, here’s a popular anti-racist joke from 2008. Please turn on your irony detectors:

    Q: What do you call 20 white guys chasing one black guy?

    A: Formula 1.

    In case some people reading don’t get it, Lewis Hamilton is black. Being F1 champion means he was the best and fastest driver that year, which is hardly an insulting thing to say.

    .

  27. 27
    mynameischeese

    Oh my god, speaking of being in denial about racism, have you seen this: http://www.xojane.com/sports/espn-fires-writer-racist-headline

    That article will make you laugh, cry, puke or all three at once.

  28. 28
    John Horstman

    My very favorite anti-racist joke-

    Q: What do you call a Black man flying a plane?

    A: A pilot.

    A brilliant subversion of one of the most common forms of identity-based ‘jokes’ – I wish I could claim credit for coming up with it.

  29. 29
    Celeste

    The joke is both racist and sexist, but no one is calling the judge out on the sexism because, right now, sexism is in fashion, particularly with conservatives.

  30. 30
    Leni

    It doesn’t say that a white woman having sex with a black man is tantamount to having sex with a dog, it just very strongly implies it. By contrast, the misogyny is waving it’s slut-shaming dick around for everyone to get a good look-see.

    Almost all jokes “imply” something without directly saying it, don’t they? That’s why you have to “get the joke”. There’s some unspoken context that we read into it.

    It also only “implies” that she’s a slut by implying that she’d sleep with dogs too. Neither the racism or sexism are explicit, at least in the limited way you’re using it here.

    This is probably overkill, but just in case you don’t get what I’m saying:

    Q. How do you get a black man to get ready for work?

    A. Hide his foodstamps under his work boots.

    ***

    This doesn’t explicitly say that black men are lazy, either. It just strongly implies it.

    Obama’s mother is a slut because she slept with a black man.

    That’s inescapable no matter how you frame it. Two sides of the same stupid, nasty coin.

    Making a distinction about explicit or implicit in this case is just, it’s really over-thinking it. It’s pretty plain to see what the joke means and there is no good reason to downplay one or the either.

  31. 31
    P Smith

    I find it very hard to buy her claim or the claim of the “in the armor” author that they were so insulated from the world, or so incurious of things or oblivious to the media that they had never heard such terms.

    Unless one grows up in a religious enclave or in a jungle like the Leakey family, it doesn’t fly. I lived in small, conservative Canadian towns (under 25,000 people) until I was 14, with hardcore catholic and sexually repressed parents, and I had heard and knew pretty well every epithet George Carlin says in his sketch, “They’re Only Words”. I just don’t buy it.

    .

  32. 32
    tim rowledge, Ersatz Haderach

    It’s funny because it’s so damn stupidly racist and sexist that you can’t help but laugh at the sort of idiot that thought it was funny in the first place.

  33. 33
    SallyStrange

    Dude. The joke was fucking racist. Searching far and wide, reaching for ways in which the joke might be considered as a not-racist joke, in the face of the obviously racist implications of the joke, is basically racism-denialism. “Maybe it’s not racist! It could be something else! What else? I’m not sure, but I’m sure I’ll come up with something… anything… ANYTHING BUT RACISM!!”

    Here’s a hint, champ: racism-denialism is a racist action. Cut it the fuck out.

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