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Racist Humour: A Touch Of No Class


Sep 24, 2004
Racist Humour: A Touch of No Class

A Sikh friend got drawn into a fairly predictable situation recently. He was at a largely Indian function celebrating Divali somewhere in Middle America.
After the evening's concluding piece - bhangra - the master of ceremonies came on with patter that connected bhangra to the usual pointless drivel and jokes on Sardars and Sikhs.

My friend - not the only Sikh in the audience - was offended but kept his peace.

We all know that Bollywood has largely inured us to this and that it is nothing new. Should we just shrug it off and continue to burn and fester on the inside as we have always done? This thoughtful Sikh consulted a small coterie of friends in his town; I got drawn in by default.

He weighed his options. Should he write a strong condemnatory letter, or was there any legal recourse to such "racially" laced humour? The matter, of course, is not entirely racial.

Someone in his consultative forum of friends wondered why Sikhs even attend such functions knowing full well that inane remarks - clothed as humour - will inevitably surface, accompanied by loud and lewd guffaws.
Whether in India or America, for Sikhs such venal humour has a long disgraceful history. It is widespread in India and, until very recently, was a sure laugh getter in Bollywood that inspired this downward spiral in the quality of humour. Being barely two percent of the population in India sometimes we fought it, but more often it was grin and bear it.

We know that a pioneer Sikh-American, Dalip Singh Saund, could not land a teaching job in North America because of the turban on his head but later, sans turban, became the first Asian to be elected to Congress. We also know of the poignant reality of post 9/11 America in which a Congressman (John Cooksey of Louisiana) could make vile jokes about Sikhs as "towel-heads."

Such vicious humour is nothing new and pretty much universal. It is widely seen in school yard bullying, in blue collar pubs and taverns, even in the sophisticated ivied halls of academia. We all know the profanity women walking by on the streets unfailingly face from lewd construction workers on their work-breaks in the sun.

Many of us grew up in this country on racial epithets about Blacks and about the purported ineptitude of Poles (or any one of the other minorities) in changing a light bulb. Such barn humour is not all innocent fun; it cloaks a violent streak which usually, but not always, stays hidden just beneath the surface, and cuts like a shiv in the back. Blacks and gays have long been at the receiving end of such "humour" that, at times, turned to violence and even lynching. Women have often been taunted in public space by sexual innuendo that was sometimes followed by sexual crimes.
But the idea that "boys will be boys" usually provided an efficient cover. And society often laughed off such loutish behaviour.

Things are achanging and at a rapid pace.

Schools are now starting to enforce a policy of zero tolerance of bullying. In the work place nobody now laughs at religious, sexual, racial and ethnic innuendo. Perhaps gay jokes are the last to go, but they are unquestionably on their way out of our consciousness and vocabulary. This type of behaviour is not humour; it is plain and simple discrimination - a hate crime. The new mantra is "Don't be a bystander if you see someone being picked on."

I remember when admission officers would laugh off women applicants to medical schools in this country and admit barely a handful. I remember when women rarely applied to a surgery program for training, not because they didn't want to become surgeons, but because only a rare one would get in. Why even try when the odds are stacked up against you?
Change is coming - and has come, particularly in the last decade or two. Perhaps the largest leap forward occurred when women started joining the armed services. No society can continue to demean and diminish those who fight and die for it.

Ironically, Sikhs are in the rare and unenviable position of having been India's dedicated defenders in its periodic wars against all enemies, foreign and domestic - having died for the country - and yet becoming the butt of vicious humour in Indian society and its film industry.

How best then to deal with the situation that I described above? To sit quietly, even applaud and put up with it is to be masochistic. The stiff upper lip and a forced smile is not what life demands or expects of us.
To boycott such events might salve our ego but it really would not advance our cause all that much. A head-on protest is fine and could be useful; but it is not always feasible. To always turn the other cheek is not the advice I unfailingly want to follow. And history tells me that perhaps matters are already on the other cheek by now.

So what we often do is to turn inwards, get into a siege mentality, circle the wagons, batten the hatches and refuse to engage our perceived enemies in any manner except by the message of stony and silent seething. A demeanour of icy aloofness was advised to me by many of my Sikh friends after 1984 when every other day one or the other VIP came from India to sell another chock full of lies. I was often warned by my Sikh friends that to engage with our foes in such dialogue carried the risk that I might get brainwashed. I thought there was little danger of that but if it happened Sikhs would be able to write me off with good reason.
It is good to know what the enemy is up to and what kind of ammunition he carries. The tactic of isolation seems the least profitable. It is useful only if the foe is sensitive to our pouting demeanour - in which case he wouldn't be doing the dumb and offensive things he is doing.

Those who fear the danger in our being brainwashed by such insidious contact perhaps should take heart that there is another potent possibility. Perhaps such contact - open hearted but clear headed and determined - might work on our foes and erode their viciousness instead. If nothing else, it would put them on notice that we can take them on in their own turf.
This would be my view no matter who the perceived enemy is: Agents provocateurs of the Indian government, scholars like Hew McLeod with whom we might disagree on specific issues, Bollywood icons, or half-baked emcees and comedians on the rubber chicken circuit.

Not all such situations are amenable to the same treatment. Some situations can be cured, others are only managed; some are not easily manageable or curable. How to turn such events into teachable moments is the question.

Many cases come to mind. Not in the too distant past it was not uncommon for beards and long hair to be raised as issues in job discrimination. I remember such cases at the university level and at employment opportunities in the New York Telephone Company around 40 years ago. We were able to turn some of these situations into teaching and learning opportunities. Some were easily faced head on; others required a more subtle and drawn out strategy with very different tactics. Similarly for the many opportunities for dialogue in interfaith symposia; some were progressive and useful, others not quite so.

Of course, we now have SALDEF, Sikh Coalition and United Sikhs and their dedicated lawyers to step in and invoke protection of the law. They help us define and mend our relations with the society around us.

I am reminded of a most recent occurrence where a Black, Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. of Harvard University, coming home late at night and fiddling with the lock of his door was arrested by a White police officer in Boston and suspected of breaking in. It seemed that the White officer, the Black professor and even President Barak Obama might have made some off-the-cuff, unthinking and insensitive judgmental remarks about Black or White behaviour thus inflaming racial tensions in our society that has yet to get beyond colour and race.

The incident exploded into a full blown opportunity for the likes of Rush Limbaugh to spew racial invective and nonsense on the air for a few days. Finally President Obama addressed the nation on it, transformed it into a teachable moment, hosted a meeting of all those involved at the White House and largely laid the matter to rest.

What was important was to transform the circus into a teaching opportunity on where we are in such matters now in the 21st century.
Another case in point headlined the news just days ago. Two prominent lawmakers in North Carolina made some thoughtless remarks about Jews being chintzy penny pinchers in an op-ed piece in the local newspaper. Their comments were universally interpreted to be demeaning to the Jews and now the politicos are backtracking with apologies.

I know that in the midst of an ongoing function, there is not always the opportunity to intervene. But in the matter of the anti-Sikh joke at the Indian function, there is a limited response we should be able to make.
I think now at this late date, a carefully and firmly worded note to the President/ Secretary of the society and "comedian" would be appropriate. It should point out that the world has changed in the past decade. Such insensitive remarks do not sit well - be they about Sikhs, Poles, Jews, Blacks, Women, Gays or even Hindus. These are rightly seen as hate crimes under the law now.

Every tradition and all people can be treated as buffoons - no matter what gender, color, race, religion or ethnicity - but that only indicates a paucity of imagination and a lack of sense and sensitivity in the person who thinks he is a star for being tasteless and uncouth.

And, of course, it needs to be said that the bigmouth lays himself open to whatever he dishes out. This helps neither the individual nor society. We would be just as offended if the joke was at the expense of Hindus, Muslims, and Jews, Christians or any other group of people.

As immigrants, we need to be mindful that many Indians are also at the receiving end of such remarks that go under the rubric of "humour." Recall that not so long ago, the Indian community in the USA was up in arms when George Allen, the sitting Senator from Virginia, used a racial slur - Macaca - to deride an opponent, S.D. Sidarth an immigrant from India.
Surely a better and meaningful sense of humour can and needs to be cultivated by the purveyors of such sick sense of what is amusing.
And, of course, the threat of a boycott of such functions should be clearly apparent. The most effective weapon is often one that is aimed at the pocket book.

To bend an adage, I suppose I should add that humour, like beauty, lies in the eye of the beholder. In the human eye there are a couple of chambers; the contents are referred to as aqueous humour and vitreous humour - now called vitreous body. In teaching anatomy I often quip with students that some of us carry three kinds of humour - aqueous, vitreous and vicious.
Clearly the third kind is no humour at all but is pure poison of human relations. A hate crime needs to be seen as such.

P.S. A letter along the lines suggested here was drafted and sent. Matters are moving along but not yet entirely laid to rest.
November 8, 2009
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