My sister and I have pendants inscribed with the words “knock knock”. After a lifetime of “Hu’s there?” jokes, we decided to embrace the pun-worthiness of our names and make that laugh our own.
As I imagine is the case for many of my classmates, racial humour (and yes, I will insist on spelling it with a “u”) has always been a presence in my life. I applaud last week’s Wharton Journal article for raising the issue of racial objectification permitted through behavioural norms, and agree that the use of humour as micro-aggressions should be part of a larger discussion. However, it is important not to condemn and therefore suppress all forms of racial humour; when wielded appropriately, it can provide the very 20% of Wharton whom it seeks to portray with the means to engage in a conversation that affects everyone around us.
I come from a land where not being able to laugh at yourself is tantamount to a crime—where we do not discriminate in our discrimination.Being Asian is as much a part of me as my predilection to burst into song at inopportune moments, and has informed just as much of my personality.
We cannot deny that certain aspects of ourselves may, for better or worse, fit quite neatly into widely held stereotypes. Yes, my eyes are medium-sized at best, and usually only in moments of surprise; and yes, I do turn a vibrant shade of puce when confronted with even the smell of alcohol.
These characteristics both stem from and feed into our cultural identity, and as immutable truths, should be able to be the subject of a similar level of candid discussion and jovial jibing as the weird white hair on my arm that just won’t stop growing. By refusing to joke about our race, we send the message that it is an indecent, improper or indifferent part of our identity.
This cannot be the norm.
Humour can be an incredibly powerful tool. It can bring into the limelight issues that otherwise seem too difficult or sensitive to address, and has a powerful capacity to help reclaim language and identity. As my hero and mentor Fat Amy from Pitch Perfect once said, taking ownership of a label can turn an involuntary subject into the active protagonist in his or her own story (I may be paraphrasing).
I have found that Asian jokes made by Asians can not only be damn funny, they can also provide a perspective and insight into issues hitherto dominated by the white gaze. Comedians such as Chris Rock and Margaret Cho have constantly used their routines to distort, debunk and decimate racial stereotypes. We too can use humour to make our voices heard in a conversation that would otherwise be dominated by others.
Of course, one immutable fact remains: if Ying Yang makes a quip about bad Asian drivers in a dimly-lit club, this is humour; if a white male were to do so in a passing conversation and limit her to this trait, this may be racial stereotyping. Some may call this a double-standard, but the distinction lies in the intent behind such characterisations, and whether one can see beyond the boundaries of the stereotypes portrayed. Compare 2 Broke Girls’ short, asexual and work-obsessed Han Lee, who serves only as a 2-dimensional foil for the lackluster humour of his white female counterparts, to the nuanced, humanizing and first-person perspectives presented in Fresh off the Boat.
Of course, racial humour, just like with any form of satire, is liable to abuse or mistreatment. Having personally perpetuated a number of such jokes through events such as Dance Studio, I admit that there are times when we cater too much for the easy laugh. For this I am sorry. But the answer is not to stifle all such dialogue; rather, we must appreciate that the issue is nuanced and contextual, that racial humour can be both divisive and empowering depending on the underlying intent, but nevertheless a powerful and important aspect of this conversation.
I have always embraced my heritage and the characteristics this entails. And I will staunchly defend my right to make fun of myself in the same way that I will defend my right to laugh at ugly babies.
Humour is critical in ensuring that issues of race and ethnicity are not relegated to formalistic diversity workshops, but rather discussed and challenged openly in day-to-day conversations. I trust that my classmates at Wharton, like so many of the people I have been lucky enough to be surrounded by, acknowledge and appreciate my race as an integral but by no means definitive aspect of my identity.
We need to continue this discussion in all aspects of student life, while still bearing in mind that there is a role to be played by humour. As the famous philosopher A. P. W. B. Dumbledore once said: “Fear of a name only increases fear of the thing itself. We cannot be afraid to laugh about something simply because we fear others will use it as an instrument of their own limitations.”
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- Colors of the Wind: Thai Ambassador to the US at Wharton by Sirin Akaraphan WG ’15