By Kyle Price-Livingston
America is often described as a melting pot, and that’s a load of crap. The melting pot metaphor suggests a goal and process by which everyone blends together until we are all indistinguishable, which I don’t think is actually what anyone wants.
(Sub question: has anyone ever heard the word “melting pot” used in a sentence that wasn’t describing a cultural process? Do people have and use things they call “melting pots?” I mean, I know fondue is a thing, but aren’t those called “fondue pots?” I think it’s a term that is only in use because of the perpetuation of a metaphor, which is really weird if you think about it.)
To combat the melting pot narrative, some social theorists have said that the nation is actually more like a salad bowl, with individual ingredients mixed together to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts. I’m not really sold on this one, either. I guess what I most object to about it is that it doesn’t involve free will.
Both metaphors imply that we’ve all been thrown together by chance and are subject to irresistible cultural forces of which we aren’t even aware, and that’s wrong. We are all aware of the differences between cultural groups in our society, and at the end of the day, most individuals can choose how much of their personal culture they’d like to hold on to. In either of the above metaphors, this would be represented by cheese deciding how much to melt, or a tomato deciding how much like lettuce it wanted to be…see? They don’t work!
One of the downsides of the awareness of our differences is that it allows people to discriminate based on perceived differences. In short, awareness isn’t the same as tolerace, and it certainly isn’t antonymous with ignorance. My grandma, for example, knows Latinos exist, she knows, intellectually, that they’re just people like her, but she still makes terrible, racist jokes about them.
The racist joke is sort of oxymoronic. On the one hand, jokes are usually held up as benign, as being “just jokes.” Sticks and stones and all that. On the other hand, they are often said with malicious intent, and definitely contribute to the racist undercurrents that continue to impact our society today. Can something be benign and malicious simultaneously? I don’t really think so.
Often, when calling someone out on racism (particularly online), people are told not to take it seriously, and that the speaker doesn’t actually believe what they’re saying, they’re just trying to be funny, and we all need to stop the PC fascism. But is that really true? Do people say racist things they don’t actually believe just to be funny? And is there any truth at the heart of the stereotypes on which these jokes are based? This is the subject of That’s Racist, Mike Epps‘s psuedo-documentary exploration of the ideas and motivations behind racist jokes.
At first, I was worried that this premise was just an excuse to get some cheap laughs and make shallow “people x do this, but people y do this!” observations, but I’m happy to report that I was totally wrong. Mike centers each episode on a single joke involving a common stereotype (Black people love fried chicken, Jews are cheap, Asians can’t drive, Muslims are terrorists etc.) He then divides the remaining time between a round table discussion with an ethnically diverse group of comedians, Man-On-The-Street interviews with average people, educational/historical segments hosted by college professors, and discussions with members of the group targeted by the stereotype.
The results aren’t groundbreaking. The obvious answer to each racist stereotype is “some but not all people are like this”, and that’s certainly the conclusion drawn in each episode, but what makes the show great is the honesty and humor with which it’s approached. There’s no anger, no shouting, nothing mean spirited, just groups of people thinking about their own cultures and the way that culture is seen by others. It’s introspective, observational comedic education, and I actually think that, by discussing these issues in a way that encourages dialogue, this show provides an important service beyond simple entertainment.