Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The old fall back: blame people of color

Yesterday morning I received the following e-mail with the subject: Come on smile.
They said that a black man would be president of the United States when
pigs fly.....well, 100 days into Obama's administration.........

Swine Flu.

(Swine flew)!!!
I didn't find it funny at all, and was disturbed that the person (a white person) who sent it to me had suggested (in the subject line) that I should find it funny.

This is the response I wrote to the person who sent me this e-mail:
I went back and forth about sending this e-mail, but I think it needs to be sent.
Please note that I do not want to sound hostile, but the concerns I am going to voice may come off as offensive. So I apologize ahead of time.

I guess first of all I think I should explain that since I have been at college, I have learned to be very aware, not only of sexism, but of racism, ageism, ableism, etc. whenever it is thrown around, be it in jokes (like this e-mail seems to be) or in media (music videos, "reality" TV) or in government (pay practices, etc.).

I have come to realize that humor is often not simply "just a joke." It is very often a means of perpetuating the problems that Americans still have not come to terms with, problems we would like to kid ourselves into thinking are in the past.

For example, this "joke" that you send me via e-mail. It proves very much that America is not as "race-blind" as we would like to think it is. The "humor" in this e-mail is based on a longstanding form of racism in which white people blame all the ills of society on people of color (especially black people, who were and often still are characterized as lazy or vicious or rapists or sexually promiscuous). In this case, the connection between the "humor" and the racism is especially clear because there is no real reason to associate America having a black president with the outbreak of swine flu. The fact that this "joke" chose to frame the problem in this way (and that people find it funny enough to forward it so others can read it) illustrates that America is still not free of racism that uses the color of one's skin as justification for blaming them for all of this country's problems, even the ones that cannot be remotely attributed to people based solely on their skin color.

You have sent me similar e-mails in the past, and I have always wondered about your motive. If you disagree with me politically, that's one thing. But sending me things like this just to get under my skin is not really appropriate because of all the other regrettable implications.

Forwarding an e-mail may not seem like a big deal. It probably doesn't feel like you are contributing to a problem at all. But until we all can call out racism, sexism, ageism, etc. when we see it, even in the little ways like in "jokes," we are all doing our part in maintaining an unequal society.

If you feel I have misunderstood your intentions, please e-mail me back.


I received a quick response to my e-mail, and the person said they appreciated my response and valued my opinion, but they saw the original e-mail differently than I did. They said that they were originally drawn to the pun and they were not thinking in terms of politics of race. They also apologized for offending me.

They didn't acknowledge that my criticism of the e-mail was legitimate, however, which was additionally troubling. I understand that a lot of times, when I am talking to white people about racism, their white privilege gets in the way of them seeing the point I am trying to make. That's not an excuse for their refusal to call out racism, but it's a true problem that needs to be dealt with. Even I only first began to acknowledge my white privilege when I started to study feminism.

Overall, this was really upsetting to me. Racism, even this kind that is meant to be "funny" is really harmful, and is one of the many ways our society is structured to keep certain people down.


Anonymous said...

Hey Amelia,

FWIW, the "swine flu" joke seems to be circulating in other contexts as well (for example). I think people just wanted to connect the "swine flew" pun to the administration because it's at the top of their agenda right now. Probably a more tasteful and sensitive way to tell the joke in that forward would be "They said Obama would get elected when pigs fly" or something like that.

That said, I do think you have a legitimate criticism here, and it makes sense that you'd be disappointed that your friend didn't acknowledge that.

INTPanentheist said...

But aren't we all white here?

If the level of amusement that can be attributed to a joke falls whenever a member of minority group is present, perhaps the joke should go through some serious rethinking.

Anonymous said...

I still can't believe the amount of fail involved in assuming this meant "Swine flu happened because of a black president!".

How could you manage to misread it so badly as to think that?

It's a simple pun based on "pigs flying" (swine flew) using homonyms. Sheesh. Nowhere in it does it blame the disease on black people.

Anonymous said...

i do not think that the joke was meant to blame president obama for the swine flu and nor does the joke refer to blaming the disease on black people.

instead, as i read it, the joke was referring to the fact that people once thought that there could never be a black president in this country full of racism, where segregation was the norm a generation or two ago, and if there was one (thus, the pun) - pigs would start flying, and therefore the reference to swine flu (flew).

Amelia said...

I understand what the "joke" is supposed to mean, but that doesn't free it from its racist connotations, be they intentional or not.

a fellow knox student said...

the fact that you are going to such lengths to scream 'racism' is wrong. the joke was referring to the fact that there were people (including me) who did not believe that it was possible that americans would turn out in the majority to vote for an african-american. i sincerely believed that america was simply incapable of electing obama - not because i am cynical about him as an african-american (and i know that would make me a racist) but because i was cynical about the american society in electing a black man. that is what the joke says and that is not racist. going to this lengths of political correctness is rather troubling (i do not speak of that lightly as i am from an ethnic minority in this country)

Amelia said...

@a fellow knox student:

First of all, thanks for putting a name to your comment. I was getting sick of not being able to differentiate among the anon. comments.

Second of all, yes, I understand that a lot of American's didn't believe that our country was ready or willing to elect a person of color to the presidency. I'm not denying that.

But when you look at this e-mail, there are certain things that are being emphasized: America has a black president and there has been a break out of swine flu.

I understand the word play that people seem to be enjoying in this e-mail. But what does swine flu have to do with America having a black president? If you strip the joke of its (IMO) un-clever attempt at a pun (or whatever the correct term is) you are left with two unrelated parts. And the fact that Obama's race is seen as expendable, as something that can be taken lightly and turned into a joke in the same line as something decidedly NOT funny, I think it says more about the condition of racism in America than it does about me not being able to take a joke, or pushing political-correctness too far.

lindsay said...

I think since the writer chose Obama's election as the main gist of the "joke", it's clearly a commentary on race. What about other current events that have happened since then? What about Iceland electing a lesbian as leader?

Plus, since the flu started in Mexico, it just shows the American-centric view some people have. To some people living in America, everything that happens in the world has to relate to us somehow.

Just my opinion, but I think it clearly shows a racist underpinning or assumption, plus it's a bad pun anyway.

Anonymous said...

"plus it's a bad pun anyway."

Is there really such a thing as a good pun? :-)

Doctor Plog said...

I am SOOOO with you on this, Amelia. I found it so offensive when it appeared in my inbox, especially since the senders were white South Africans. Thank you for making such a coherent argument against it.

Anonymous said...

"The "humor" in this e-mail is based on a longstanding form of racism in which white people blame all the ills of society on people of color"

I completely disagree. I think someone noticed the pun, and connected it with an extraordinary happening (and a nonwhite person being elected prez is extraordinary).

A racist joke stops making sense when you take out the race and try to replace it with something else. Since that rule works here applicable here, I'm going to argue that this isn't racist.

And, although I don't know who you were addressing, you could have written a two-sentence email that contained all the info you wanted to convey. Instead, you wrote a little academic piece, going so far as to state your academic credentials. That's... a little unnecessary. And putting it up on the internet to be applauded for it is a little odd.

I don't have any accounts, so I'll just sign this @non.

Amelia said...


We can agree or disagree about this being racist. I will concede that your explanation has its logic.

The fact that you feel I could have expressed myself in a few sentences and that I stated my "academic credentials" and posted this "academic piece" to be "applauded for" is incorrect, and I don't really understand how you came to such a conclusion.

First of all, I mentioned that I go to college. That is a fact. It is also very relevant because if I had not come to college, I might not think about things (such as the e-mail I received) the same way as I currently do because it has been experiences in college that have shaped my world view, which helped prompt my response. It also, perhaps, helps explain the difference in views between myself and the e-mail's sender.

Second, I don't feel that I could have adequately explained my feelings in a few short sentences. This e-mail was very upsetting to me, and in order to make myself clear, and make sure the sender understood exactly why I felt the way I do, I had to go into detail. Anyway, when someone sends you an e-mail that they expect to be light-hearted, it would be rather rude to merely send a short response that reads "This isn't fucking funny!!!!"

Third, the idea that I put this post on my blog as a means of being applauded is laughable. If I were a blogger merely for praise, I would have given up already. The number of hostile comments meant to bring me down not only as a writer but as an individual who makes my opinions known via this blog vastly outnumber the comments of support that I get. I do not know how that idea occurred to you, to be honest.