Monday, June 23, 2008

Subversive Racism?

I've always wondered about a couple of crude phrases often used among men to announce the need to go to the bathroom. One is, "Well, I need to go drop the Browns off at the Super Bowl." Tame enough, I guess. But when this phrase is mentioned, a similar phrase usually has to be mentioned in turn: "Need to go drop the Cosby kids off at the pool."

Is this racist?

I had never thought it was until, in idle wondering while driving with the radio off yesterday, I just asked myself that very question. It could certainly be construed that way. Think about it: that the kids on Bill Cosby's sitcom are little more than like "pieces of crap." And that the only "pool" worthy of those "pieces of crap" would be a toilet bowl.

I've never used the phrase because I thought it to be sort of crude. And now I'm glad I didn't, because I'm now convinced that it's racist. And I'm going to discourage my friends from using it.

And I can sense the push-back. "Its just a joke." "Its all in good fun -- don't take it so seriously." I guess that's what everyone says when the joke isn't on them. Racism & discrimination are real. And I don't think that racist language has a welcome place in our culture's in civil discourse, much less coming from Christian lips.


Justmatt said...

Good thoughts man! I was actually thinking the same thing on Friday as I went to... well you know.

I do agree - it is a tad racist.

Lloyd said...

Before I begin my response, let me say that I appreciate your comments and will think twice next time before choosing from my vast repertoire of poo jokes.

I think, somewhere back in the recesses of my mind, I recall having that reaction when I first heard the "Cosby kids" joke. Since that time, I've done some thinking, and I'd like to share those thoughts here.

One brand of humor constructs the element of comedy by infusing the punchline with somehow shocking or ironic elements. In this case, the irony is that the color "brown" is being used for something other than its literal intention. The result causes imagery of little kids coming out of someone's digestive tract and being dropped into a toilet, which is so shocking as to elicit humor.

Usually, the statement, "I need to defecate" or some other literal approach does not solicit wild laughter. (NB, in some circles this is more than enough to do so.)

The problem we encounter is that sometimes, such a shocking punchline may be associated with a history in which an element designed to be shocking turns out to be real. Let's go ahead and continue our theme here with Cosby. This joke would be perfectly acceptable in all circles IF we did not have a history of black people having been oppressed or disenfranchised by white people in this country. However, due to that history, we now have to deal with repercussions, including both the perpetuation of racism by unimaginative types, and also the paranoia of racism by the over imaginative types. Unfortunately, the latter tends to spawn the former, which then generates more of the latter. Vicious cycle, and all that -- you know the drill.

The larger issue here is that racism has effectively experienced a redefinition. Merriam Webster currently defines racism as "a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race". At this point in time, nearly any mention of racial distinctions leads us to assume that racial discrimination has occurred. May we be honest, and admit that races are called races because they have distinctive traits? On a macro level, these traits are described by elements related to pigmentation or geography. On a micro level, there are other distinctive features, including bone structure, height, and even consistency of ear wax.

Let us, for a moment, pretend that we live in a world where racism has never been an issue. In this world, we could use the Cosby joke and it would be genuinely funny. In that world, we could try and say "I'm dropping the Simpson kids off at the pool.", but it would not be funny. The reason is that human feces are not (naturally) yellow. Only a family whose pigmentation resembled the color of feces would work, because otherwise the color does not lead us to the shocking punch-line where we imagine tiny children being dropped into a toilet. In our imaginary, racism-free world, a hostile interpretation would not be open to us because racism would not exist.

Our plight is that our world's history does contain many examples of racism. Therefore, if a joke may be interpreted to either include or exclude a punch-line inspired by racism, we often assume the former. Thus, racism has killed off some of our humor, and also denies us full access to our own language. We have to go out of our way to avoid usage that could be interpreted as racist, and so we loose many analogies and sometimes an entire end of the light spectrum.

Frankly, I'm losing patience with our tired obsession with racism. I believe that we will not see a country where racism is truly extinct until we begin to act like we already live in one. This includes ceasing our ridiculous notion that "we are all the same". We are decidedly not all the same, and I'm the happier for it. I love seeing God's artistry in the human palette. We need not assume that any mention of our pigment must carry with it centuries of discrimination, or the notion that our external differences imply differences of inherent worth. By doing so, we cede victory to that sad tradition.

Whether the Cosby joke found its birth in racism or only in irony, I do not know. I would like to give it the benefit of the doubt and assume the latter. In this vein, we better be careful about taking the Browns to the Superbowl as well. After all, they were originally intended to be the Brown Bombers, after boxer Joe Louis.

Nonetheless, I take comfort in the fact that I may still build a log cabin, dispense some soft-serve, drop a deuce, have some alone time, lose a few pounds, and make a sacrifice to the porcelain god. If I happen to be at Harding, I might even take a trip to the Bible building. Best toilets on campus.

III said...

Bravo, floydius. You have outdone yourself.

I think that your ultimate conclusion is dead-on -- there is an sense in which sin (in this case, our history of racism) eternally taints our overall enjoyment of life. You can't make Jew jokes without pausing to think about the Holocaust. And you really can't make jokes about Cosby kids & toilets without remembering centuries of racial oppression. Sin will always leave us with a sense of sadness & mourning for the suffering others experienced at the hands of wickedness in the past.

John says there'll be "no tears in Heaven." I just don't understand how that could be...