How to Joke About Race (And How Not To)

12/05/2012 01:55 pm ET | Updated Feb 04, 2013

A photograph of the Penn State Chi Omega sorority chapter's "Mexican-themed" party, originally found on the student-run blog Onward State, is circulating after being picked up by other websites, including Jezebel and Gawker, sparking a discussion about racial insensitivity and what's funny.

I'll get into my thoughts on discussions about or portrayals of race in comedy, I promise. But first, something unfortunately needs to be said: the picture of the individuals in the Chi Omega sorority in stereotypical version of Mexican garb is utterly, distinctly unrelated to the heinous crimes of Jerry Sandusky and the administrators who have been indicted on charges related to covering up those crimes. It is completely inappropriate to mention those events in the same breath as one mentions this picture, because to do so is to trivialize the suffering of Sandusky's victims.

That aside is addressed to about a third of the people who commented on various articles about the picture. Another third expressed disgust at the image and disappointment in the girls who participated. I agree with them; I think it's pretty obvious that this is an offensive image and that it's problematic that these sorority sisters either didn't get that or didn't care, so I don't have much to say to this group of commenters. Yet another group, however, responded with variants of "lighten up" and "It's a joke; it's funny."

Here's the thing about "funny." It's subjective. Everyone has their own philosophy on what subjects can constitute "funny," and what is distinctly unfunny and is off-limits in any comedic setting.

Personally, I don't think that any entire topic should be crossed off of the list of potential joke topics. I subscribe to the Stephen Colbert philosophy of why humor is valuable, which I think can be summarized with this quote:

"You can't laugh and be afraid at the same time -- of anything."

That's true. Like my grandmother would say in Spanglish, "I laugh for not to cry." Humor is a powerful tool. Rapier wit can weaken an enemy as effectively as a bayonet to the chest. It can revitalize. It can trivialize. It can elevate. It can heal. It can hurt.

So is race off-limits for comedy? No, I don't think so. I think it's okay, probably even beneficial, to joke about race. But there's a caveat, and the caveat is that the target of the joke must not be the race depicted or mentioned, but the racist person or idea.

For example, there was some controversy over Jon Hamm's pseudo-blackface on 30 Rock last April. Yes, Jon Hamm wore an Afro wig and smears of black makeup. But in context, the skit was about racism in the past, when white actors would don blackface rather than allow a black actor to play that role, and the depiction of the "black person" was always negative. The people 30 Rock made out as fools were, rightly, the people in the 1920s who made Amos 'n' Andy, the show the skit was satirizing, who were being ludicrously racist. The punch line isn't "black people are terrible and stupid," it was "racism is terrible and stupid."

It's a fine line, and ironic or hipster racism is often dressed up as intelligent satire as it fails to make the right people the butt of the joke. But when good satire aims true and hits the right target and observers incorrectly interpret it as a vindication of racism anyway, that's on the viewer.

As far as whether or not this picture is offensive, let me translate the idea into an analogy that I'm comfortable with to explain. Imagine offensiveness is instead the abstract idea of influence. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are often asked or told about the political influence they have, especially on younger viewers. It's often done accusatorily, either implicitly or explicitly telling them that they should adjust their behavior or accept responsibility or blame for more than they have shouldered. Come on, many journalists love to say, admit it. You're trying to influence whom your viewers vote for.

I think Stewart and Colbert have mastered the way they (I say they because examples of this can be found in joint interviews, not because their shows operate the same way or because they are indistinct from each other in other ways) respond to this idea. They say that if someone tells them they were influenced by The Daily Show or The Colbert Report, that is valid. To deny that is to accuse the person of lying. If they say they were influenced, then they were, which means that whether either show is influential (or not) depends not on the viewer receiving it as such (or not), and not upon the people who make the show.

That doesn't mean that Stewart or Colbert set out to influence, it just means that people were influenced by the shows, and that the shows therefore are influential. The implications of that are in the hands of the influencee, to coin a word, not the influencer. Additionally, that's not to say that some people aren't inordinately or inappropriately influenced -- if someone watched a Daily Show segment about unequal wealth distribution and said that it influenced them to rob a bank, the responsibility for that outrageous, irrational action is obviously not on Jon Stewart.

Similarly, the girls who took this picture don't get to decide if it's offensive or not. They can say that they didn't intend to offend. But the people who receive the image, especially the Mexican and Mexican-American people who see it and are either offended or not, get to decide whether they did. And in this case, the Mexican American Student Association gave a statement that indicates they found it offensive:

The Mexican American Student Association is disappointed in the attire chosen by this sorority. It in no way represents our culture. Not only have they chosen to stereotype our culture with serapes and sombreros, but the insinuation about drug usage makes this image more offensive. Our country is plagued by a drug war that has led to the death of an estimated 50,000 people, which is nothing to be joked about.

No, that doesn't mean that this offends all Mexicans. No, Internet commenter I already anticipate, saying that it's offensive based on this statement isn't just as bad as the picture because that's generalizing how Mexicans feel.

Look. Walking this line can be a little like walking a tightrope over Niagra Falls. It's tough, and the consequences might be grave. But if I've learned anything in celebrity sociology professor Sam Richards' Soc 119 class this semester, it's that the world of race relations is difficult to navigate. There are never any broad rules for behavior that is guaranteed to offend nobody. But it's important to discuss violations of expectations for behavior as they occur, and especially what makes them violations, if we are ever to truly build strong bridges over the chasms between different groups of people rather than throwing a mat over them and acting surprised when people fall in.