Another stake in the heart of colour blindness »« On the wrong side of justice

Who’s laughing?

A little while ago I got into a silly fight with someone who I used to (before this fight) think was a pretty decent person. Ze had posted a comic that poked fun at people who misrepresent themselves on social media. Because it was the internet, a lot of the panels made fun of fat people. I pointed out that while the overall premise of the joke was funny, it could have made the same point equally as effectively without mocking people for their body size/shape. After all, surely they got enough of that just being out in public?

The discussion quickly devolved (with the help of one of her friends) into accusations of me grandstanding for attention because I was a blogger – a charge that even if it were true would be completely orthogonal to whether or not I was right. One of the recurring themes in the conversation – indeed, in any conversation in which a person is asked to consider the harm their comments make – is that I should somehow forgive the comic because it’s “just a joke”, as though the fact that someone finds it funny somehow makes it not harmful. As though nobody has ever been hurt by being the butt of a cruel joke before.

The very premise itself seems silly, but it’s a depressingly common refrain. And it seems there is no level of depravity in which it will not be pressed into service:

A 65-year-old native man, Adam Yellowhead, was found dead – murdered – in an area frequented by people who drink mouthwash to become drunk. The lead investigator for the Thunder Bay Police Service wrote a fake press release about arresting a suspected killer, intended only for the eyes of his fellow police officers. “Fresh breath killer captured!!!” But then the investigator mistakenly sent out the fake release. Oops.

Police are known for their gallows humour. But then – how did this police force respond to the accidental publication? With what seems to have been apro forma internal inquiry. The officer in question acknowledged he wrote the release. He didn’t mean anything by it. It wasn’t meant as a racial thing. The police chief and then the mayor, who sits on the civilian board overseeing the force, accepted the officer’s word. Case closed. No apology necessary.

And now the police are angry about a human rights complaint about it all from three first nations, represented by the Toronto lawyer Julian Falconer. The police say the natives have broken faith with them. Now that’s funny!

It should not go unnoticed that this story fits a larger trend of anti-aboriginal racism in the Thunder Bay Area, preceding as it does another grotesque crime. It should also not go unnoticed that the assault and rape case quickly went from five investigating officers to a single detective. It should certainly not go unnoticed that these events are tragically not exceptional when it comes to the way in which aboriginal people are treated in Canada, these cases often only coming to light as the result of extraordinary political pressure by activists.

One would imagine, if one were an empathetic and non-sociopathic person, that a man drinking himself to death due to alcoholism would be a sad story. One that would cause us to stop and think what changes we could make to our police services, our mental health services, our addictions and housing services, to ensure that people get the treatment they need for alcoholism. One might think of the loss and sorrow experienced by the community, by the man’s family, by Thunder Bay as a whole, and respond with either gravity or at least an appropriate silence.

But of course, in order to imagine those things, one would have to be functioning in a world in which discrimination against aboriginal people is not normalized, and where victim blaming of colonized and discriminated people does not occur. One would have to envision a world in which the larger Canadian society does not see aboriginal people as objects to be either pitied, dismissed, or assimilated (depending on your political beliefs), but rather as people with agency and value. One would further have to envision a world in which police are not undereducated swaggering cowboys steeped in an insular environment of retrograde hypermasculinity and all the joys that come with that.

I once remarked to Dan Fincke that all jokes are inside jokes. Basically, unless you’re laughing with someone, it isn’t a joke. When you are taking someone’s characteristics – particularly characteristics that a) are beyond their practical control, and b) often put them in a position of being discriminated against – and using those characteristics to set up a punchline, your comments aren’t “just a joke”. You might think of them as a joke, and usually even people who are on the hurtful end of the comment recognize that it was intended to make people laugh (at them), but just a joke? No. It’s not just that.

One thing I hope I am well-known for (at least by people who know me) is my extreme intolerance for any excuses based on “intent”. Kinsey Hope at Genderbitch wrote what I think is the seminal piece on the value of intent – namely that it has no value in excusing the harm caused by unthinking or uncaring behaviours. The reason I feel absolutely no reason for hesitation or moderation in ignoring ‘intent’ as a moderating factor is precisely because of stories like the above. What ‘intent’ could possibly excuse the monstrous indifference and foul racism that created that joke? Do aboriginal people living around Thunder Bay think that the indifference (at best) or outright discrimination (at worse) they face at the hands of the TBPD is funny? Do you think this oh-so-hilarious joke makes them more likely to believe that the TBPD is going to take their problems seriously?

So the next time you find a joke of yours on the receiving end of some unwelcome attention, instead of insisting that everybody recognize that you think it’s funny, maybe you should look around and see who’s laughing.

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Comments

  1. says

    Second last paragraph, first sentence: I believe it should be “extreme intolerance”. And if I may be even further pedantic, right before the blockquote, looks like the final L on “level” got left off.

    Good piece, though. Something I’ve thought a lot about recently with Daniel Tosh and all his unthinking defenders. “I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings!” is not a valid defense, and while “free speech” means you can legally make total dick comments, it also means I can call you a dick for doing so.

  2. says

    It’s probably because I’m not Canadian, but I’m not seeing the racist undertones of the “Fresh Breath Killer” joke. It’s certainly in poor taste. And I’m not saying it’s not racist in anyway, I certainly believe you. I may also be missing something the post and the links. I definitely agree with the substance of the article.

    Basically, what I’m saying is, as a white American, can you give me further context for this to help me better identify racism in a greater variety of situations.

    I may also be fixating on the name they gave the killer. Is the racism in the minimization (or apparent minimization of) the death of a native? Or is it a joke that the mouthwash killed him, not an actual murderer?

    I’ve tried writing this post a couple different ways and I can’t help but feeling it’ll come off as being obtuse, which isn’t what I want but I can’t seem to do better. I know this is a tragic death (what murder isn’t?), and it’s very obvious to me that what the police did was blatantly wrong. I’m just asking for a bit of context so I can fully appreciate how.

  3. says

    This isn’t an “American vs. Canadian” thing. As far as I know, the stereotype about “drunken Indians” still exists south of 49, but the racism isn’t necessarily in the content of the joke. The racism is present in the callous disregard the police force have for the lives of aboriginal people. That one “joke”, on its own, probably wouldn’t seem so racially charged if there wasn’t a long history of such indifference from police to the populations they are supposed to serve and protect.

  4. says

    Gotcha. I was focusing too much on the content of the joke and not enough on the context.

    Unfortunately, while I have family who resort to mouth wash (so I know how horrible that is), I don’t have enough experience with the current issues facing the native population (of America or Canada) to fully understand something like this. It’s something I know I need to rectify, but I’m not sure where to start.

  5. Rip Steakface says

    Confirming that the stereotype of “drunk Indians” exists in the States, but I definitely didn’t “get” the racist undertones of the joke until you pointed out how (namely, the fact Amerindians are routinely ignored by police).

    Something that I just noticed while thinking about this: in school, no one, not even the people around here who routinely make racist comments and jokes, will make jokes at the expense of Amerindians. There’s both an extremely optimistic way and a more realistic way to look at this observation (mind you, I don’t know if it’s true in the wider world outside a high school in the middle of exceedingly white western Washington state).

    The optimistic point of view is that people don’t look at Amerindians in a racist fashion anymore (not sure how to phrase that properly, correct me if possible). The more realistic idea is that people don’t even consider Amerindians in their thought at any point in time anymore, given their population has been segregated to the point of near-complete nonexistence in many areas, and so any thoughts as to their concerns have dwindled with them.

  6. smhll says

    I once remarked to Dan Fincke that all jokes are inside jokes. Basically, unless you’re laughing with someone, it isn’t a joke.

    I’d like to bring back into usage that useful word “putdown”. (But maybe it’s actually two words.)

  7. says

    Basically, unless you’re laughing with someone, it isn’t a joke.

    That’s why the heart of all good comedy is self deprecation. You must invite your audience to laugh at you before you can get them to laugh along with you.

  8. coragyps says

    Rip:
    Read some of Sherman Alexie’s short stories. They deal largely with Amerindians in Washington State, and are well enough written that they may interfere with your sleep at night.

    Ian:
    Excellent post. I hope it will make me think longer before moving my larynx on some occasion in the future.

  9. says

    For the record “Amerindians” isn’t a phrase I’ve heard outside conversations with other Guyanese people. I’m not sure where you picked the term up, but it’s very unusual.

  10. great1american1satan says

    I’m from WA state and “Amerindian” is far from common, but I’ve heard it more here than “aboriginal” … Not advocating it. Just sayin’ most people don’t know exactly what to say and we’ve heard a lot of different ideas. I tend to go with “native,” for the moment.

  11. km says

    I always see having good intentions making it *easier* to apologize for hurting someone–you have no stake in what you said, and if you truly had good intentions, then you’ve screwed up conveying that.

    I always think of it this way… I don’t intend to go around stomping on people’s feet. But I’m a klutz, and occasionally I step on someone’s toes. It doesn’t matter that I didn’t mean to–what matters is that I hurt someone. And I should apologize.

  12. Rip Steakface says

    Read some of Sherman Alexie’s short stories. They deal largely with Amerindians in Washington State, and are well enough written that they may interfere with your sleep at night.

    Yep, I’ve read some. I distinctly remember the physical abuse he received in school, especially since I was reading the stories at approximately the same age he was writing about. In fact, one of his particularly depressing stories was one of the first things I read in an American Ethnic Lit class.

    For the record “Amerindians” isn’t a phrase I’ve heard outside conversations with other Guyanese people. I’m not sure where you picked the term up, but it’s very unusual.

    I use it primarily because I have no idea what I should use to refer to the indigenous folk of the Americas. It doesn’t help that it varies from tribe to tribe and person to person. Some prefer Indian, some prefer American Indian, I’ve seen Amerindian… I just picked one that was fairly short and sounded like a good name. If there’s one that a lot of people prefer and isn’t Amerindian, lemme know and I’ll start using it. If not… well, I’ll try to figure it out.

  13. says

    “Native Americans” is a term that has currency within the USA. In Canada, “First Nations” is the preferred political term. “Amerindian” isn’t bad (as far as I know), just unusual. As Thomas King notes, the problem with finding an accurate collective noun is that there isn’t a real collective to be described.

  14. Rip Steakface says

    “Native Americans” is a term that has currency within the USA. In Canada, “First Nations” is the preferred political term. “Amerindian” isn’t bad (as far as I know), just unusual.

    I usually see “Native American” in the US, but it sounds odd to me… I don’t know why. Maybe it’s some kind of irrational thing where I feel like the people who were here first should have American in their collective noun first. I actually rather like First Nations (it’s accurate, doesn’t use Columbus’ “Indian” and short), but it’s rarely, if ever, used south of the border.

    As Thomas King notes, the problem with finding an accurate collective noun is that there isn’t a real collective to be described.

    I always have this in the back of my mind, too. The one constant I always find is that Native Americans prefer, if possible, to be referred to with their tribe/nation’s name. Other than that, the only absolute isn’t calling them “redskin” or similar words. What would have been nice is simply referring to them by their continent’s name, like everyone else. The native peoples of Europe are named Europeans, ditto Asia and Asians and Africa and Africans. The native peoples of America don’t get to use their own continent’s name since it was already co-opted by the descendants of European settlers.

    …That said, America is nonetheless named for a European explorer, so maybe it’s still faulty. Ugh, colonialism sucks.

  15. says

    The usual ‘rule of thumb’ is to call people what they call themselves.

    Also I wouldn’t lean too hard on this whole “people name themselves after their continents” thing. There are tons of exceptions to that, and most of those identities were foisted upon people by colonial powers rather than voluntarily adopted. “Native Americans” is no exception, but is generally considered okay, as far as I’ve seen.

  16. Rip Steakface says

    The usual ‘rule of thumb’ is to call people what they call themselves.

    That’s what it boils down to.

    Also I wouldn’t lean too hard on this whole “people name themselves after their continents” thing. There are tons of exceptions to that, and most of those identities were foisted upon people by colonial powers rather than voluntarily adopted. “Native Americans” is no exception, but is generally considered okay, as far as I’ve seen.

    Well, I wasn’t trying to claim that people name *themselves* after their continents. However, you’re right – continental names were simply put upon those people, so it’s likely they’ll look at you funny if you’re talking to, for example, a Chinese person, in Mandarin, and refer to them as Asian.

    I just have a problem in that I want things to be simpler, despite the fact we’re talking about complex issues. When you’re doing math homework, more often than not there’s a way to simplify any given expression. When it comes to real issues, simplification only frustrates.

  17. freemage says

    In my experience, in the U.S., “Native American” is best for an opener (though I think I prefer “First Nations”, but I know I’d get a lot of funny looks by my fellow Amurricans, and spend another several minutes/paragraphs explaining it–I still may adopt/co-opt it for discussions on this site, at least). If you’re addressing an individual or group, and they suggest preference for a different term, then you switch over; no offense given, and usually the effort is appreciated.

    On the subject of ‘intent’–the only thing an appeal to intent is good for is buying you the necessary space to issue a sincere apology. It does not fulfill the obligation for the apology, which must address the actual offense. FREX: “Oh, shit, I didn’t realize that particular term was considered offensive. I apologize, and will try to strike it from my vocabulary.” As you note, Crom, too many folks stop at, “Well, I didn’t mean it that way.”

  18. emptyknight says

    I realize that this conversation is a few days old, but I wanted to thank you for the link to the Native Appropriations blog. I was, like Nathaniel Frein, having trouble seeing the racist attitude at play here and realized I needed to do some self-education with respect to Native American/First Nations issues, and that blog seems like a good place to start. In my part of Texas, there doesn’t seem to be much public awareness at all about the ongoing troubles and racism faced by Native peoples other than some very whitewashed history taught in public schools.

    In other news, I’ve never heard the term Amerindian outside of Guyana, until now. Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amerindian) says it’s only commonly used there.

  19. movablebooklady says

    I looked up “Amerindian” in the World English Dictionary and it defined it as “a specialist word, esp. in linguistics and anthropology,” which fits for me as I learned it in anthropology classes (in the US), so it isn’t uncommon to me. I don’t hear people say it much but I see it a lot in writing on those subjects.

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