A friend of mine tells jokes—tells them well—and we usually laugh. “We,” being our group that gathers weekly for beverages and low-stakes wagers concerning the relative values of cardboard rectangles.
Recently, he launched into another string, involving the usual rabbi, or old Jewish man on his deathbed, then announced something “not so PC,” and fired off a string of racial “jokes.” I was shocked, asked him to stop. He persevered, telling yet another then grinned: “Oh, someone’s offended.” I demurred, not wanting to start a tsimmis at my table.
Later, I was still disturbed by my friend’s unwillingness to stop despite my discomfort. What to do? I had been offended; I had been a wuss. The next morning, I composed an email. I won’t repeat it verbatim, but I made these observations:
What he was telling, I wrote, were the “nigger” jokes I’d endured as a kid visiting relatives in Mississippi in the 1940s and ’50s. You’re Jewish, I wrote, and in your jokes, the rabbi, the dying old Jewish man, etc., are always the protagonists, the wise guy. They have the final word, the last laugh, even on their deathbed, while in your “non-PC” gags, the black guy is the butt, the humiliated ignoramus, a fool compared the superior white narrator. No black man would tell these joke at the poker table, while no one in our group would laugh at a Holocaust or Matthew Shepard joke.
When visiting my Mississippi relatives, I reminded him, I’d see the “Whites only” signs at the airport, hear my uncle’s ugly remarks about MLK. They lived a short distance from Medgar Evers, later assassinated, and I had been the same age as Emmett Till when he was brutally murdered. And yes, I had been offended.
I’m sharing this, not to show off my sterling behavior, but because I realized, to my chagrin, that if it was that difficult to protest something offensive in my own home, how much greater a burden it is for others to speak out publicly about far greater injustices. To say, “Stop!” or, “Me too!” But perhaps small is a way to start. I will be less hesitant the next time, I will dare to raise my voice sooner—perhaps to some effect.