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A sense of humor can help racial understanding

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Four different reactions to this story

Four different reactions to this story

WBEZ/Bill Healy

Often when we talk about race, it’s a serious conversation that can open up painful memories. But it doesn’t always have to be that way. Sometimes, being able to laugh about certain situations can ease the tension and open up the possibility for honest discussion.

To be clear, this isn’t a story about racist jokes. It’s about what happens when people try not to be racist. But despite best intentions, things don’t always go so smoothly. These encounters are what we might think of as awkward racial moments.

Here’s what I mean:

I walked into this small candle shop one Christmas and the lady at the register said to me,”You’re back already?”

I shrugged it off and went about my shopping. When I was ready to check out, the same woman said, “Is this all you’re getting? You’ve spent so much money here today. Why don’t you go ahead and take this for free?”

It was clear the woman mistook me for another Asian woman who’d been there earlier. I paused, figuring out what to do next and then I said, “Wow, that is just so kind of you. Merry Christmas.”

I’m not the only person with a story like that, where it’s obviously a racial situation and no one is intending to be malicious.

So I put out a call to people around Chicago. I got a lot of humorous responses, including a number of stories about mistaken identity.

Emma, who didn’t want to give her last name, sets her story up at a bar.



Saleem Hue Penny is a 32-year-old living in Hyde Park.

"I’ve been told that I look like Bill Cosby, Doug E. Fresh, Charles Barkley, Will.I.Am," he said.

His story of mistaken identity takes place at a music festival in his neighborhood.



Then there are people who want to show how comfortable they are with a person of a different race by showing off how much they know about another culture.

Josh Lerner, an elementary school teacher, describes hanging out with a friend at a Puerto Rican restaurant.



Grace Yi, a 30-year-old marketing director,  says sometimes men use her race as a pick-up line.



It’s important to recognize that these moments are remembered with a laugh.

Andy Rojecki is a professor at the University of Illinois Chicago. He studies race, politics and media. He
says people tend to put others in impersonal social categories.

"In the absence of any personalizing information, all you have are visual markers, like female, skin
color, so on and so forth," he explains.

Rojecki gives an example of a white person who might try to change their behavior around a black person who they fear may think they are racist.

"That’s what starts the cascading interactions, and humor can completely break that down," he said.

Luis Perez, a host for Vocalo, says sometimes people put him in a social category when they use his race as a way to befriend him.



Leila Noelliste had a similar experience. She grew up in Jamaica where she said she didn't think about racial identity. Moving to the United States was a big transition for her.

She explains that she was very uncool as a kid in Jamaica.

"I was a pariah in my high school. I didn’t have anyone to eat lunch with. And I wore very corny clothes. I was just not cool," she said.

But when she came to the U.S. for school at Wheaton College, a mostly white campus in the suburbs, she says, suddenly, she was very popular. Noelliste didn’t understand why. So she pulled a friend aside and asked what was up.

"And she was like, ‘Oh my gosh, you are one of the few black girls on campus and on top of that, you’re from Jamaica and everyone knows that Jamaicans are so cool.’ And she was saying it like it was a compliment and it was very confusing to me," she said.

Noelliste continued to hang out with the cool kids for awhile, but that brought on certain race-based expectations of her.



Luis Perez, who had the story about people calling him amigo, says he sometimes brushes that off because it’s usually said with good intentions. It seems to be pretty common to let things slide and not have the awkward conversation.

But once, Perez did talk to a friend about it. And this is what his friend said:

"I totally called you amigo. And you’re right, it’s because you’re a Latino man and I didn’t know how
else to connect with you. But I thought you were really awesome, and I need to find a way to get in with you so I called you amigo," Perez recounted. "You know, those conversations are good."

"Well, I think you have to have the ability to engage in creative laughter," Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr once said.

King saw the importance of humor and laughter even during a time of great racial inequality.

Here’s what the civil rights leader told oral historian Studs Terkel during an interview in 1964.

"I think humor is most important in getting at truth and getting people to understand and often to rise above the despair which can surround them," he said.

Humor can open the door for honest discussion, but it’s up to us to walk through it.

(Thanks to the Chicago History Museum and WFMT for archival tape.)


Just for fun, here are a few TV clips that dramatize awkward racial moments.

1. Everybody Hates Chris - This is a montage of one teacher showing that she knows a lot about Chris's culture.


2. King of the Hill - White Texans meet their Asian neighbor.


3. The Office - Michael Scott tries to lead a seminar on Indian culture ahead of the Diwali holiday.

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