It was brought to my attention recently that I joke a lot about white people.
Imagine it: On a Thursday night, I sat gossiping with a friend when a pair of motley white guys asked to share our table. We made small talk, one of them said some disparaging things about the Oklahoma City Thunder (his untruths will not be repeated in these pages). They asked what Emerson was like. “Basically lots of white boys,” we mused. Those two white guys? Not pleased.
In some kind of twisted, socio-economic science, this happens all the time. White privilege and male privilege converge, concocting a hyper-fragile masculinity that stomps and shouts and needs to showcase its knowledge of basketball or rap music until it feels seen. Sometimes it requires more than this, demanding to be fed. See: Trump, Donald J. “Make [white, wealthy, cisgender men] great again.”
My jokes about white people are harmless. They’re declawed by the monolithic whiteness of our world before they even leave my tongue. These retorts come up naturally in conversation: Leonardo DiCaprio won an Oscar, but he’s the real MVP for being the patron saint of flop white boys in cargo shorts. A guy just asked me out on a date, but I text a friend that it’s really his audition to be “white boy holding my purse while I dance.” Every day of my life is a new episode of “how many white people won't get this Patti LaBelle reference I'm about to make.” (Just in case you didn’t grow up with a black grandmother—or even a really cool white one—let me assure you that that last joke was very, very funny.)
What those misguided men in the Tam the other night didn’t understand is that these jokes aren’t malicious. They’re holy, and I’ll fight for them. Joking about whiteness sometimes feels like a revolutionary act, a public suggestion that we’re living a world with inequalities deeper than it’s comfortable to admit. So of course it’s easier to joke about those fleeting months when Rihanna agreed to publicly tolerate Leo. And when I’m deep into my second whiskey sour of the night, it’s a lot more fun, too.
But there’s a double standard here: white people joking about black people joking about white people doesn’t work. Take the girly-but-bro sex comedy Trainwreck, where Amy Schumer’s jokes about white people not having enough black friends fell flat. Earlier this week, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio suggested that it took him so long to endorse former New York politician and current presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton because he was on “C. P. time,” a phrase widely understood as meaning “colored people time.” De Blasio’s joke was meant to play with this connotation, as he then suggested that he was really on “cautious politician” time.
For the record, a white man making a joke about “colored people time” doesn’t go very well.
The crux of joking about whiteness is that we live in a society built on white supremacy. In the give and take of social constructions of race, whiteness is its own reward. Black Twitter’s jokes about white people are mostly impersonal—the punch line isn’t Taylor Swift or Birkenstocks or “I was told by AppleCare,” they’re meant to poke fun at whiteness itself. Taken literally, Schumer’s clumsy quips about not featuring people of color prominently in her work only implicate her in her oversight—it suggests that it’s “enough” for her to see what experiences she ignores. Our laughter allows her—and others who make these jokes—to continue to actively ignore them. With his joke, Mayor de Blasio was peddling a white version of a black thing. I don’t doubt his earnestness—he does, after all, have a mixed-race family. But that joke didn’t poke fun at the underlying agents that empower it. It only proved his whiteness.
Jazmine Hughes, an associate editor at The New York Times Magazine, wrote about this singular sacredness of people of color joking about white people for The New Republic. The linchpin, she argued, was that these jokes have to be made with the understanding that it’s really the same punchline over and over again: Racism is a very bad thing and our culture is the worse for it.
“White-people jokes don’t punch up; at best, they punch sideways, but usually, they punch down,” Hughes wrote. “This doesn’t mean that white people can never tell them. But I do believe that anyone who tells a white-person joke really has to understand what they’re doing.”
Save yourself the eyeroll when you catch me walking down Boylston Street chuckling to myself because it’s truly so much fun to tease white people about Coldplay. This is a coping mechanism. My deep, throaty cackle is its own revolution in a small, meaningful way.