N**ger Jokes

January 29th, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments


When I was a youngster growing up in the South I was exposed from my father to something called “N**ger” jokes. It was one of the ways that whites used to reassure themselves of their superiority, cementing Jim Crow both in law and spirit. The humor in these jokes was in the portrayal of black people as stupid, lazy, dishonest, lecherous, and of little value as human beings. By example I learned that they were funny, and that telling them was a good way to socialize.

I was born in 1955 so I came of age during the Civil Rights era. But as a child the momentous changes the nation was experiencing meant nothing to me. I grew up in an age of terrible conflicts ignited by race, but I was insulated from them beyond what I could see and not understand on the television news. Stupid people burning down their own neighborhoods, as my father would remark. Though whites and blacks lived side by side in the South, they might as well have lived in different worlds. I came through my teenage years and into early adulthood saddled with the burden of an inherited racism I didn’t even know I possessed.

When I was 18 I joined the Navy. The tensions that were tearing the nation apart were reflected in the armed services and the Navy took steps to ensure that military efficiency would not be compromised because of issues of race. One result was that I was compelled to attend a number of classes and workshops aimed at addressing race that my civilian contemporaries probably were not. So when I left the military in my late twenties, though my heart was not integrated, I at least knew that I could no longer be openly and publicly racist. I could still tell N**ger jokes to my white friends, but I had to be careful.

I do not know why but in the late eighties I read a book titled We Are Not Afraid about the murder of Civil Rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in Mississippi in 1964. This is the case that was portrayed, not completely accurately, in the 1988 Gene Hackman film “Mississippi Burning.” Reading this book transformed me because it’s not really focused on the case but on the Civil Rights Movement in general, with the case as a backdrop. And it was only then, in the late eighties, that I became aware of what the Civil Rights Movement was really about.

Reading that book motivated me to read other works about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement, and as I learned more about the injustices that many people endured and their heroic efforts to overcome them, I acquired a profound appreciation for the Civil Rights Movement and the necessity of seeing my black brothers and sisters as equals. And I came to see that the racism that had been instilled in me as a child still plagued me, that the wall of separation in my heart between myself and others based on skin color was still very much intact. But as I recognized it was there, I also recognized it was wrong. I had to deliberately acknowledge my own racist impulses and denounce them, in word and deed.

I was in my thirties when I realized I could no longer tell N**ger jokes. I could no longer tell them because they weren’t funny, and because they were symptoms of a great evil in our society, and by telling them I was perpetuating that evil. Though I wasn’t much more than a nominal Christian then, I knew too that the racism represented in those jokes was a great sin in God’s eyes. In the bigger picture I had come a pretty far distance from the racism I had been raised in, but even then I was still not really a champion of racial justice. I know this now because, looking back, I can see that while I personally would no longer tell N**ger jokes, I would remain silent when others did, giving my assent to the practice by my failure to speak.

In honesty I am not sure that anyone can completely overcome racism once infected with it. I think it is more likely than not that the ways I relate to black people today still are tainted by racism which I try mightily not to act out. But I am sure that someone who was once so soaked in racism that they could not even recognize it as wrong can learn to respect and speak out for the dignity and humanity of those he once held in casual contempt. I know this because that is my experience. And though I cannot claim to be race blind as I would like to be, my attempts to act as if I were are genuine.

Racism is one way of making a distinction between ourselves and whole populations of others. It is blind, inaccurate, and based on stereotype. Racism doesn’t see people as individual reflections of the image of God; racism categorizes people in a way that presents as the norm the worst attributes of what may be the tiniest minority. Racism is a lens over our perception that causes us not to see the humanity of the other, but a monstrous caricature. By stripping individuals of their human identity we relegate them to a mass. With racist eyes we can no more detect the differences between individuals of the “other” than we can differences between cockroaches. And as they are all ugly, they are all enemies, and deserving of whatever contempt, scorn, ridicule, oppression, and even violence we can visit upon them.

There are other ways of dividing people that are just as destructive. Hitler tapped into an ancient and vicious anti-Semitic strain in Europe to identify Jews as the great enemy of Germany. The British were able to capitalize on a centuries-old animosity between Hindus and Muslims to divide the population of the Indian subcontinent in a cynical attempt to prolong their colonial rule. In Ireland, Protestants and Catholics define each other as enemies and viciously attack each other in the name of the Prince of Peace. The Japanese before World War 2 saw themselves as racially superior to other Asians and practiced a degrading racism against Koreans, Chinese, and others. And let us not forget the famous observation of U.S. General Philip Sheridan, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” There is much more to this practice of setting people apart than skin color.

Today is the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz Nazi concentration camp by Allied troops. Many of the remaining survivors are gathering there to remember their experience. There is a solemnity about remembering because when we remember the joy and triumph of liberation we must also remember the evil that these few were liberated from. The death camps reveal the depths of human depravity. And although after the war Germans pretended they didn’t know what had happened, they knew. And they acquiesced. And by their acquiescence they became accomplices.

We will do well to remember that the Nazis didn’t invent anti-Semitism. Rather, they tapped into a well of race prejudice that already existed – that had existed for centuries. They tapped into something seemingly innate that wants to lift ourselves over others. The familiar attitude of racial superiority, the kind that manifests itself in the likes of N**ger jokes, paved the way for the horrific final solution. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of the few Christian theologians who spoke out against the Nazi Jewish Laws: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

I am writing this because in spite of all the pain and destruction and horror that has been experienced by all kinds of people throughout history based on this casual dehumanization of the other, we continue to practice it. We are still telling N**ger jokes. And even if we, personally don’t, if we see it and don’t speak against it, we promote it. While on the one hand we are quick to denounce the Nazis and the KKK, on the other we still rush to affirm an easy prejudice against those who are culturally different.

If our collective criminal history (no group is guiltless) teaches us anything, it is that we must learn to recognize the humanity of each individual, no matter how lost they may seem. We must condemn the acts of criminals but we must at the same time affirm the dignity and humanity of each and all who are not criminals, as we demand for ourselves.

When we take the time to get to know the other as people, we will discover that each of them is flawed, as we are, but also that each of them bears the image of God, as we do. We will find there is more that unites us than divides us. What unites us are the things that are real; what divides us are the things that are added on. When we come to know this, we will begin to see that we are all brothers and sisters. And that not only can we no longer tell N**ger jokes, we must not tolerate them.



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