Just like with the interracial family Cheerios ad controversy, my mailbox promptly filled up with friends wanting to know what I thought about Paula Deen, her allegedly racist remarks, her mea culpa tour, and her subsequent exorcism from TV, cookbooks, etc… (Once again, I understand why I’m most people’s go-to-person for such issues.)
Unlike with the interracial Cheerios ad controversy, however, in Ms. Deen’s case, I know very little about the story beyond what I summarized above. I haven’t followed it except via unavoidable headlines, and so I really have nothing to say.
But, it did get me thinking. So, so many things get me thinking. (There was a saying in Stalin’s Russia: The less you know, the sounder you sleep. Explains why I’ve never been able to do so, I guess.)
When my mother and I returned to the USSR in 1989, 13 years after my family first emigrated to America, I met with some former friends of mine, now in college. One of them explained to me how the African students that were brought over to study in Soviet universities were “no fun at all. They don’t want to party or have a good time. All they care about is hitting the books and getting their university degrees.”
Years later, I told my soon-to-be African-American husband that story, and he couldn’t stop laughing. Growing up in the States, that was certainly one stereotype he’d never, ever heard applied to black people. It quickly became one of his favorite sayings, and a private punch-line between us.
When Barak Obama was first running for President and every biography included the tale of Obama Sr. abandoning both mother and son to get his M.A. at Harvard, my husband and I exchanged smiles and said, “Well, you know how those people are. It’s all they care about.”
But, it was okay. Because he’s “allowed.” And, anyway, we were doing it ironically.
My husband earned the same privilege in reverse. He gets to make Jewish jokes. Like when he finds a particularly good bargain. “I was a good, Jewish husband today!”
Because I’m “allowed.”
And because we’re doing it ironically.
But, do our kids know that?
That’s what the whole flap over Paula Deen made me think of. We know what we mean–and how we mean it–when we exchange our little quips (having in-jokes is one of the perks to being married; being with someone you don’t need to explain your weird sense of humor to). But, what are our sons and daughter hearing?
They’re just-turned-14, almost-10, and 6. If children supposedly don’t have the advanced cognitive ability to understand sarcasm until about the age of 7 or so, what about irony?
Because that’s what the ethnic jokes are in our house. They’re deliberately ironic tweaks on age-old, stereotyped perceptions. We’re making fun of people who think that way.
But, is that coming through?
It’s so tough to know what’s going on in a kid’s head at any given time. How much they truly understand versus how much they pretend they understand. What they’ve absorbed of the Very Important Life Lessons we constantly try to cram into their heads, and what they’ve completely misinterpreted, even despite our best efforts.
Children supposedly learn best by example. We think we’re showing them how to laugh at stereotypes. But, what if we’re actually teaching our kids to laugh with them?
Diversity is THE buzzword these days, especially in education. When people tsk-tsk us about sending our sons to a school “with so little diversity!” we point out that as Jewish, African-American boys mingling predominantly amongst WASPs, they are surrounded by people who are, in fact, different from them (i.e. diversity). And then maybe we crack a joke about it. Because we’re–say it with me, now–doing it ironically.
I think my 14-year-old gets it. He’s taken a few jabs of his own lately that I thought were in keeping with family tradition.
But, what about the almost-10-year-old? He’s so literal minded, he even has a hard time with idioms (prompting his sister to periodically mumble, “Expression,” under her breath when she senses him getting confused).
And the 6-year-old who goes to a Jewish Day School? Do I really need her repeating some of the things she hears–unironically? Do I even want her thinking them?
And yet, I’m not convinced that simply cutting out what passes for humor at our house is the correct solution, either.
Just like many groups have “reclaimed” hurtful words or symbols in order to make them their own and strip away their power (not that I always agree with which ones and how it’s done), I believe our joking around serves the same purpose.
We make fun of those who make fun of us as both a defensive coping mechanism and as an aggressive offense against those who aren’t kidding around.
That’s very Jewish, no?