Pretending that the world is a place where race doesn’t matter is pretty bad. You see this on the Daily Show, where some hapless (but who should know better) southern white congressman just doesn’t understand why everyone can’t agree racism is dead. You also see it in Silicon Valley, with those who proclaim it a meritocracy and claim that any racial imbalances are a problem with the education pipeline and not some issue with hiring or culture.
I’m not here to talk about that. Instead I’m here to talk about what happens when well-meaning people overcompensate about this issue and vocally point out racial ’truths’ when it’s not really appropriate. This is inspired by tales of various run-ins with the law a bunch of (male, white or asian, privileged) coworkers and I were sharing at work. Whenever someone would say “it was pretty lucky that the cop was called off because of a robbery on the other side of town, otherwise he’d definitely have taken the time to book me” or similar, a particular coworker would make a remark joking that the only reason that the person got off so lightly was because they were white. The intent of the joke was to point out that the situation might have gone differently based on the storyteller’s skin color, and to remind that there is privilege while at the same time laughing at an uncomfortable truth. The joking was a little too gleeful, aggressive and repetitive, however, and I’ve been trying to figure out what exactly bothered me about the jokes.
I suppose it almost became a joke made at the expense of a lot of human suffering, as opposed to a check on your privilege. Not everything revolves around race, and to suggest otherwise seems to charicature-ize those who have to deal with oppression. It becomes “oh, if you’re X then you’re just totally fucked, that’s how it is”. It’s no longer a tilt of the hat to a group of humans whose struggles you are empathizing with, but instead a further exploitation of an imbalance in power for a laugh. It has gone beyond a simple acknowledgement of privilege to almost a celebration of how much more leeway your privilege gives you in the eyes of the law. This exploitation is furthered due to a motive to maximize laughs instead of a desire to educate.
What made the joke funny in the first place? A sort of dark (dare I say it?) Kafka-esqe humor about the injustice and arbitrariness of the world, perhaps. I can see that humor, although anything race-based is pretty edgy to put forth at work, even after regular business hours.
So where does it cross the line from acknowledgement to exploitation? I think when you are no longer empathizing with and ensuring privilege does not go unchecked, and instead are going for the laugh and rushing to exaggerate what might actually happen in the situation. In either case, it’s a pretty awkward conversation to have when you actually have black/latino coworkers. While perhaps it might be appreciated that someone is pointing out privilege, likely the reminder that the person telling the joke has more power in our unjust Justice System would not be appreciated. It’s a higher stakes version of telling a short person and a tall person at the same time about how each inch taller corresponds to greater earnings over a lifetime- depending on the coworkers, pretty awkward, and probably not appreciated.
However, it also seems like there is utility in pointing out true instances where there was privilege in daily conversation (for instance, if we are talking about Justin Bieber). This may even extend to personal anecdotes about run-ins with the law, which are being told at work. I think there is still room to check the privilege, you just should really be self-critical of why you are making whatever remark- it should not be to get laughs, but instead as an actual reminder if needed.
Anyway, given how dangerous it is to say anything on this subject, I almost did not post this. However I hope I have not offended and if I have, please let me know.