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By Jef Catapang
The funniest joke I’ve ever heard goes like this, maybe you’ve heard it:
Q: What do you call a Paki priest?
(Pause with a shit-eating grin.)
A: HOLY SHIT.
I can’t even remember how young I was when I heard that joke or who it was during recess that told it to me, but I do remember hyperventilating with laughter. I tried repeating it to other people and it never got the desired reaction. I assumed it was my lack of comedic timing, but probably it was just because, racism aside, it’s a pretty lame joke.
At this point in my life I had never even met any Pakistani kids, let alone any brown kids. (I’m from Mississauga, so obviously that would change quickly and drastically in the coming years.) I just knew that “Pakis” existed and that everything about them was mind-blowingly hilarious. Don’t worry, I got over it.
Maybe because I was one of the few Filipinos in a class of predominantly Italians and Portuguese (I was told numerous times by classmates that I would end up marrying the one Filipina in my class, and I was so worried about it I avoided talking to her for years because I assumed she was in love with me by the sheer power of DNA), but I’ve been obsessed with race since an early age. This regard has taken on many forms, from my probably-curated-on-purpose multi-culti crew of friends, to my weird high school fetishes (ALL OF THEM), to my anti-racist activist phase in university, to my long-standing love for hip-hop culture.
It’s also manifested itself in the things I find funny, and yes, I laugh all the time at racist jokes. As anti-racist as I am, I am always confused by the sensitivity we sometimes have towards comedians who dare to dig deep. One, because of that old refrain that it’s their job to do it — which isn’t totally sound but also shouldn’t be totally dismissed — and two, if I’m not able to laugh at this shit sometimes, I think I might go crazy. I’m not convinced we all already haven’t. As important as it is, I don’t think talking seriously about race all the time is that healthy. It fucks up how you see the world, and all of a sudden you’re seeing things that aren’t there or obsessing over things that don’t matter. Excuse me if IDGAF about whether or not they put Asian kids in The Hunger Games. (Akira though is another story.) (Yes, there’s a difference, and no, I don’t want to talk about it!)
Everyone should draw their line somewhere, and I realize comedy is a tricky business, but I find it relatively easy. First: is the joke actually funny? Or is the punchline lazy? As Chris Rock might put it: is the joke about what somebody does, or is the punchline just about what somebody is? More broadly, it comes down to intent, and I’d like to think if you’re clear headed you’ll know it when you see it.
And once we’ve done the requisite soul-searching on why things are funny/not funny, guys like Dave Chappelle won’t have to have mental breakdowns and run away to Africa, and we can get back to enjoying jokes about grape drink.
It catches me off guard when I’m with new-ish people who don’t know me well and I say something racy or laugh too hard at a left-field Sarah Silverman punchline and I can see it in their eyes. They think I’m ignorant about race. I hate those moments because I want to get all serious and be like, listen, I’m more concerned about race issues than you ever will be. It’s ALL I THINK ABOUT. Let me have my laughs.
Aside from finding race hilarious, though, my other brushes with racism have come from travelling. When I spent some months working in Malawi one of the stereotypes I initially struggled with was Africans being lazy. (Yes, I am one of those people who says things like “that time I worked in Malawi.”) I knew this couldn’t be true, and yet I found myself constantly annoyed that Africans were always being lazy. My office mates would start the day with customary small talk, then have a long lunch break, which would be followed later by a long tea break, followed later by some dancing, and then we’d all go home early. Not to mention the occasional desk naps.
Here’s the truth of it, though. One, it was friggin’ hot over there, and it wasn’t long before I realized that taking a siesta or a long tea break filled with laughter or dancing worked wonders for overall productivity. Two, sometimes there just wasn’t any work to be done. Over here, we always do our best to act busy and glorify the fact that we’re “grinding,” or whatever, but really, we’re just playing solitaire or hitting refresh on Twitter. My co-workers had no bullshit about perceived workloads, and really, they accomplished just as much as I did, if not more, with half of the stress or printer paper waste. I don’t know if that’s a Malawian thing or not, but that was my problem anyway, looking really hard for Malawian things.
Here’s what I did wrong: I was so concerned, being in a new environment, with being culturally sensitive that I totally lost my sense of humour. Once I settled myself and learned to find things amusing again, my experiences became clearer, not everything was about race anymore, and life returned to normal despite the fact I was nowhere near to home and everything was different.
So yeah, some of the things I laugh at are problematic. You win. But I think without that I’d have probably grown up to be a flat-out racist. (Not sure against whom. Probably against white people.) Yuk it up once in awhile, my fellow race-obsessives. Because otherwise, you know, holy shit. Trouble.