March 10, 2015

What we laugh about when we laugh about race

A racist joke at the Mr. U Pageant reflects a University-wide trend of passively accepting microaggressions

As someone who is in no way affiliated with Greek life, I was highly skeptical that the Mr. U Pageant was going to be a fun way to spend my Thursday evening. But it was supposed to be a ridiculous night, so there I was, laughing and enjoying myself surrounded by a community I almost never associate with, and having a surprisingly  great time. And if I’m being totally honest with myself, most of it was really funny. Mr. University, a pageant essentially dedicated to the glory of frat boys making fun of themselves, wasn’t supposed to be taken seriously anyway. That’s why I was caught so off guard when one contestant, Mr. AEPi, portrayed George Bush for his talent portion and “forgot” that his fellow fraternity brother was impersonating Obama, pretending to confuse him momentarily for Tiger Woods.

To the room’s credit, people didn’t really laugh. There was a forced chuckle, however, followed mostly by the audience’s collective “whoa” over the fact that a Mr. U contestant made essentially an “all black people look the same” joke. And then the show continued like nothing happened. I felt frozen. These kinds of racially insensitive things happen often, but rarely in such a public forum. Those around me could see I was visibly uncomfortable, but I didn’t want to say something for fear that they might think I was overreacting when nobody around me seemed to give a damn. This wasn’t just an “Obama looks like some random black celebrity” joke; it was an “Obama looks like the golf professional whose personal infidelity scandal went rampant” joke. Since this comment was made in a large group, there was no way to directly confront the speaker when it happened. And as a result, the 800 undergraduates listening virtually disregarded his insensitivity. It is incidents like these, sanctioned microaggressions perpetrated by members of our community that create a confining atmosphere on campus, that force me to question what the UChicago community sees when they see me, a black individual. Do people overlook me as a person, just as they overlook these incidents of microaggression? Am I, as a black student, supposed to disregard insensitive comments against myself and others of the black community? Is that what is expected of me? Is that the “right” thing to do?

Some people might dismiss this claim of racism by stating that Mr. AEPi was actually making the joke that George Bush is the one who “mistakes all black people as being alike,” and that he was just joking about how Bush is, to simply put it, stupid. But let’s be honest here. There are other ways to make George Bush look stupid by not offending a large minority on campus. It doesn’t matter what you say; dressing up and impersonating someone is never an excuse to say something offensive, regardless of whether the person you are impersonating said it or not. George Bush, stupid or not, was a president of the United States and deserves the respect of having been that. To even think that George Bush would have said something so fundamentally racist in front of an audience is absolutely absurd. He was the president and had both a reputation and an image to upkeep. Dressing up as someone doesn’t give you free reign to say whatever you want, and Mr. AEPi cannot hide behind his impersonation.

Our community needs to stop letting occurrences like this go unchecked and unnoticed.  The same people who say I’m overreacting about instances like this act surprised when something more direct and significant flares up, when their very actions are the ones that lead to the continued prevalence of racism on our campus. When we don’t call people out for smaller incidents, we are creating a culture where these instances seem OK. In a Viewpoint written by Jenn Jackson earlier this year about creating a space for black women in academia (“Making a Space for Black Women in Academia” 2/20/2015), the author discusses how, as a black doctoral student, she found herself constantly battling presuppositions about why she was studying African-American politics, and spent an entire quarter trying to cover that up before truly embracing it. In some ways, our situations are similar. Whereas she felt she had to justify her studies because of her race, I find myself having to justify my anger at consistent minute forms of racism.

We need to accept that racism on this campus is alive and well in small ways every day. It’s time we stop passively accepting it and start calling out speech like Mr. AEPi’s racist “witticism” for what it is: bigoted, out of place, and unacceptable in a community striving for inclusiveness.

Darien Dey is a first-year in the College majoring in public policy.