It was a sunday at Vinny Testa's Restaurant in Brookline, Massachusetts, a neighborhood of Boston. I sat at a booth with fellow wait-staff, all of us enjoying our comp-ed shift meals and talking about what we were doing the next day. None of us had to work, and school was cancelled for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
"Back at home," I told them. "They had King's Eve, where everybody got together to drink forties and watch 'Boyz in da Hood' and 'Menace II Society.'"
Across the table, my boyfriend Peter gaped at me, horrified.
"That's not the proper way to celebrate the life of Martin Luther King!" he cried.
I shrank back in my seat, tried to laugh off my embarrassment. "So I guess that suggestion's out?"
A new topic of conversation billowed up-as it usually does when I say something stupid. And as usual, I agonized, replayed those words in my head, wishing I'd never said them. You're not in Phoenixville anymore, I admonished myself.
The damage had been done. From then on, Peter referred to me as his "racist girlfriend" and my friends back home were "your racist friends back home." Each time, I protested, "I'm not racist." Sometimes I even went as far as to say, "It's complicated. You're not from Phoenixville."
In Phoenixville, I explained, everyone makes fun of everything. Nothing is sacred. Irreverence, to us, is an art. I recalled late nights at the Vale Rio Diner, sitting around and trying to come up with jokes that offended or grossed out my friends. The point was to offend somebody. The object of the game was to shrug at the offensive remarks, to act like you're not offended.
And then, to further prove my argument, I referenced boys of the local Philly suburbs, gone famous-Jackass and the Bloodhound Gang. In the Jackass movie, the guys dressed up like pandas and skateboarded through Tokyo. It was supposed to be funny when they fell, weighed down in their costumes. It was also supposed to be funny because it's pandas in Tokyo, a stereotype shoved in your face. The point was to upset other people-because when people get upset, it's funny.
Or is it?
When we tell offensive jokes, we refuse to take responsibility for what we say. It's as if we are saying: Well, it's YOUR problem if you're offended. It's as if we shouldn't be expected to be conscientious or respectful of each other. It's as if it's okay to blur the line between humor and hurt. It's as if a good joke is worth another's feelings of self worth. Above all, it helps bad stereotypes prevail. You never know when an idiot is listening, thinking that it's okay to refer to female basketball players as "nappy headed-hos."
So often, we say: "It's okay, as long as nobody gets hurt." That's just not true when it comes to race.
We all know how well that rule holds up. How many people wrote letters to Comedy Central, complaining about the Dave Chappelle show? How many want to ban "Huck Finn" and remove "The Kite Runner" and "Nappy Hair" from school reading lists? Read the Letters-to-the-Editor in the paper this Sunday. Everyone's offended.
Perhaps it's because people are so damn touchy, the tradition of King's Eve lives on?
It's been seven years since I moved from Phoenixville, Pennsylvania to Boston. When I lived there, I was in high school. But studies show that adolescents are more apt to say what is on everybody's mind. Is it a Phoenixville thing? Is it a teenage thing? Whatever is the cause, the effect of offensive jokes is always the same. It's not harmless.