Ethics: August 2007 Archives

Race and Humor

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I was going to link to this a while ago, but I never got around to it. Someone who goes by the online name "tstorm" has put together an excellent short documentrary on race and humor, which you can find at Racialicious. It's been broken up nicely into small components in case you don't have a lot of time at once to watch it. It explores what factors go into evaluating whether a particular instance of racial humor is morally acceptable or offensive. I don't agree with everything he says in evaluating the instances in popular culture that he picks out, and a philosopher might want a more systematic treatment of some of the theoretical issues about what constitutes racism, whether causing offense is automatically immoral, and so on, but I think it's largely an excellent effort that's worth watching and thinking about. He says a lot of things that you might not have thought of, and he's done a good job of sorting through a wide range of issues that come to bear on this question. It's the sort of thing I'd show my students in class or assign for them to watch on their own.

Way Out of Proportion

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A megachurch in Arlingon, Texas canceled a funeral service for someone when they found out he was gay, on the ground that they didn't want to be seen as endorsing that lifestyle. Since when does agreeing to host a funeral service for someone mean you endorse everything that person did? Should a congregation refuse to use their building to provide a funeral for the dead brother of one of their members simply because they guy lived with his girlfriend without getting married? What if the dead brother was a convicted thief or a greedy drunkard who slandered people fairly regularly? What if it was the rebellious son of members of the congregation or an arrogant and boastful member of the congregation?

Two of the most prominent passages that deal with homosexual sex in the New Testament list these other sins alongside same-sex sexual acts. No passage in the entire Bible elevates anything to do with homosexuality on a level that disallows showing love to the family of the sort that would be involved in having a funeral. Somehow homosexuality has become so evil to many evangelicals that we could refuse to do something for the family of a gay person that we'd probably do for the family of a murderer.

It's nice to see that this doesn't affect Dale Carpenter's attitude toward Christianity, but I think that's because he has direct contact with sincere, loving Christians who treat him as a real person with a lifestyle they simply disagree with. He understands that true Christianity is not like this. But when high-profile congregations do this kind of thing, it is all the majority of secular people will ever see. Most people who aren't Christians don't have a lot of significant contact with believing Christians who live out the Christian norm of love for neighbor in a way that demonstrates that gay people are part of that love. This isn't because Christians aren't doing that but because most secular people have little contact with evangelicals to begin with. So high-profile Christian leaders and congregations like this one have a much higher responsibility because of their visibility. Unfortunately, this congregation has utterly failed in that responsibility in this instance.

Carmen Van Kerckove and Jae Ran Kim are criticizing a fairly common kind of statement among white parents who adopt non-white kids. It's not that uncommon to hear parents in such situations saying that they love their kids no matter what race they are, and it sometimes takes the form of "I don't care if they're black, white, green, or purple."

Carmen doesn't indicate why such a statement is offensive, but she quotes something from Jae Ran that is a reason. However, her reason seems wholly inadequate to me. She says it's merely because there are no green or purple kids. But there's nothing problematic about saying you would love your kids even if something were true of them that isn't true of any actual kid. There's no actual kid with six arms, but I don't think it's offensive to say that you'd love your kids even if they had six arms. So something more needs to be said to explain why this kind of statement is offensive. I have two suggestions, but at the same time I wonder if Carmen and Jae Ran are nonetheless being too critical.

1. There’s an ignorant assumption behind this well-meaning expression. It’s ignorant to speak as if color doesn’t matter at all. Color does have an impact. If this statement is supposed to be indicating that the parent thinks race doesn't matter in any sense, that is simply ignorance speaking. Also, it's going to be a rare white parent who is not in some way affected by having children who are not white. Most people imagine what their kids might look like long before they have any, and if that involves imagining white kids who look like them, then there will be at least some level of unmet expectations. If the statement is doing that, then it's a lie.

2. Another ignorant assumption seems to me to lie behind the statement. It treats any racial issues that might be raised by the race of their kids as if they are merely a matter of what color the kids' skin is. Why would it be relevant that the kids could be green or purple unless the mere fact of a different skin color is what might be problematic about race. But skin color itself is only our way of identifying and classifying people according to race. It isn't what causes any actual racial problems. So it's profoundly ignorant to speak as if red or purple skin color, which would be weird but doesn't bring any actual racially-loaded issues with it, is anything remotely like having kids of another race.

3. Some who say this may well be saying something that could be more explicitly put as follows. “I know it’s weird for white parents to have kids who are black or Asian or whatever, but I'd be ok with that weirdness. I don’t even care if their coloring is so weird that no other kid has ever had that coloring, e.g. if they had green or purple skin instead. I’d still love them.” The problem is that such a speech demeans the kids who aren’t white by treating them as ok despite not being white, and that does have a troublesome assumption. I can see how some who say this sort of thing really are assuming something like that. That reveals at the very least a kind of residual racism that sees non-white kids, even their own, as something they have to make an effort to love more than they might be expected to.

Carmen Van Kerckhove has some helpful reflections on how to respond to racist jokes. She gives some good reasons why some responses that you might be inclined toward wouldn't be so good. She suggests of how to respond instead: play dumb to get them to explain it, which will require bringing the racist assumptions into the open, which you can then be puzzled about, asking them to explain why they think that, and they won't be able to defend the assumptions. I kind of like that.

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