In social justice circles, there has been a recent, common acceptance of the idea that jokes targeting privileged people never count as unkind. This isn’t the argument everybody sets out to make, of course. Many people make a sensible distinction between targeting privilege and cultural institutions, as opposed to targeting groups of people. But the pervasive attitude is that complaining about jokes that come at the expense of a privileged identity is uncool. Privileged people should always be able to shrug them off.
I think this is a flawed attitude. First, I think any joke told in an unkind spirit is automatically unkind. An unkind joke aimed at a person of privilege probably won’t be as institutionally damaging as one aimed at a marginalized person, that much is true, but if the intent was truly mean spirited and hurtful, the teller of the joke still bears the responsibility for intentionally being an asshole to another human being.
But there’s also differences in the underlying structures of privilege, and the messages people send with common jokes. I am white and male. When a Black person teases me for being white, the dynamic is starkly different from when a woman pokes fun at me for being male.
For one thing, racial jokes typically poke fun at attributes that don’t especially matter. I’m quiet. I’m an awkward dancer. My tolerance for spicy food leaves something to be desired. These are traits that are so irrelevant, in the grand scheme of who I am, I can’t possibly imagine them being made fun of with a real intent to do harm. It would take a remarkably thin skinned person to find them genuinely offensive.
But when I hear a woman start saying, “ugh, men,” I flinch, because I expect to be hit somewhere that will actually hurt. They do generally cut to something that goes deep under the surface. For example, crying. I’ve known a lot of strong women who mock men when they cry. This comes in two ways, often from the same people. One minute I hear men torn down for being insufficiently emotional. The next second I see men who complain when they are sick or hurt or sad called “crybabies.”
The stigma against men crying is tied to a lot of sexist ideas about emotions and weakness; ideas that harm both men and women. Women are allowed to express most of their emotions, with the exception of anger, whereas for men anger is often the only avenue permissible. Really, all humans should be allowed to feel and express the full range of human emotions. Feminists are good about reclaiming anger for women, but not all of them are actually comfortable with men reclaiming things like joy, pain, grief, embarrassment, and sadness. Expressing pain and sorrow is critical to processing it, and the pathological effects of men not expressing it is actually documented. Men are less likely to seek help when sick, and thus more likely to die of treatable conditions, and while women attempt suicide more often, they are far more likely to engage in the hesitant, cry-for-help sort that leads to lifesaving treatment. Men are significantly more likely to hold off on any mental health treatment until they are absolutely beyond a shred of hope. Then they actually kill themselves. The rate of successful first-time suicide attempts for men is much, much higher.
In contrast, white people don’t eat as much spicy food because we came from areas without as many spicy plants. So we grow up with more mildly spiced food, because that’s what’s in the family recipe book. It’s not exactly a big deal.
And yet, I feel as though, if I point out the distinction between these jokes, somebody is going to lump me in with the people who pretend we’re in a free speech dystopia just because sometimes privileged people are being mocked too. That’s not it. That’s not it at all. I don’t mind jokes that don’t come with a mean spirited intent, and that aren’t targeting a genuine source of pain and trauma.
I just want activists to take a moment to think about which category their joke actually belongs in.