What's So Funny About Mocking Latinos?

05/26/2015 12:53 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2016

By now you've seen that infamous photo in a Florida high school's yearbook. The shot pictured six students dressed in ponchos and sombreros and wearing fake mustaches, with one student wearing a shirt labeled, "border patrol."

It's offensive and idiotic, of course. But that's not really the point.

Kids do dumb things, and rather than lambast the students in the photo, it would be better to point out to them that such behavior has no redeeming value. If that doesn't convince them to be a little more aware of the culture in which they live, let them know that thanks to social media, such ill-conceived photos will haunt them for years to come.

No, the issue here is not the kids.

The problem is the adults. I'm taking about the parents who raised their kids to think it's hilarious to embrace racial caricatures. And yes, I'm aware that some of the students in the photo are Latinos. If anything, that's even worse.

And I'm talking about the yearbook advisors who saw nothing wrong with the photo. Hey, I was on my high school yearbook's staff, and our advisor vetoed things left and right. I can't imagine the teacher who looked at this and said, "Eh, a pointless and mean-spirited jab at Hispanics. Whatever."

More than anything, I'm talking about the defenders of the picture, who are out in force on the internet. So, let's look at some of the adult excuses we're hearing over what should be a pretty clear case of foolish, needlessly hurtful adolescent behavior. Here are some of my favorites:

  • It was only a joke. If you've ever said this to justify an insult, you have either never been on the receiving end of a verbal assault, or you are too dense to realize when someone was attacking you under the guise of humor. In either case, you were probably able to shrug it off because you are in a position of social power (racially, economically, etc). It's a tribute to your lack of empathy that you figure everybody shares your charmed life.
  • Lighten up, it was funny. This is an amped-up version of the previous excuse. To any adult who actually thought the photo was hilarious, here are a few pointers about humor, before you really kill 'em at your next stand-up routine. Humor tends to work when it's directed at those in authority (rather than at a demonized underclass). It also works when it reveals profound truths or upends convention (rather than wallow in hackneyed, false stereotypes). In brief, the picture was about as witty as frat boys lighting their farts.
  • I'm German, and people have called me a kraut. I'm continually stunned that people believe all ethnic terms have the same resonance. No one hurls "kraut" as an insult in 2015 America. Now if you were bombarded with this term in, say, 1944, it might be different. In any case, terms that call out your European heritage bounce off a shield of cultural power, based on sheer numbers and societal influence. You can easily laugh them off. But don't worry. In the future, when Hispanics are more than a quarter of the U.S. population, maybe we'll smirk in smug condescension at "wetback."
  • People are too sensitive. Yes, how great it was to live in the good old days, when offensive comments were met with forced laughs and seething hatred. Well, I have news for you. Society isn't any more sensitive than it ever was. But people who gritted their teeth and let it go in the past are sick of your bullshit. So now you're going to hear about it. And I can say -- with a bit or irony -- that if you don't like it, tough.
  • Those kids shouldn't apologize. It's the illegal immigrants who should apologize. Hey, thanks for verifying that your issues with undocumented immigration have absolutely nothing to with race or ethnicity. Nope.
  • Soon we won't be able to say anything out of fear of offending someone. If you mean that you can't pull out tired racial stereotypes and rub them in people's faces, well yes, I weep for your lost world.

Finally, there is the issue that the Latina student who called attention to the photograph, Jessica Morales, has been insulted, denigrated and mocked for her decision to speak up about the picture. To the best of my knowledge, she didn't scream that her fellow students were KKK members or demand a cash payment for pain and suffering or get all histrionic.

Her critics, however, are content to sit behind their keyboards and attack her, mostly under a cloak of anonymity of course.

Yes, kids being unintentionally offensive is bad. But adults being loudmouthed, cowardly bullies is a hell of a lot worse.