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Thursday, February 19, 2009


Measure Twice, Cut Once (or how not to tell a joke)

So maybe you haven't heard, but some cartoonist had a poor idea for a joke, and the NY Post printed it. Or maybe you did hear about it, but, like me, didn't hear about Travis the chimp until after reading about the ill-judged cartoon. And like me, maybe you got into conversations about it with friends; and also like me, maybe you were slightly surprised (or maybe not so) to hear that some of them took more offense at Rev. Al Sharpton's outcry than at the cartoonist's poorly aimed satire.

I agree that Al Sharpton has made himself into an opportunist who jumps at any chance to sensationalize anything that comes anywhere near being racist, but I do believe that at the very least, the printing of this cartoon was in poor judgement, poor taste, and rather irresponsible.

The question was put to me, "What if the president were [sic] white would the cartoon be racist?"

If John McCain was the president, of course this wouldn't be racist. The context would be clear. There are those who feel that "the stimulus plan is so poorly written, a monkey could have written it." It's an old, hackneyed phrase that most people are familiar with, and the joke would be clear. But we have a black president, and the context becomes less clear because of our collective, cultural memory of blacks being equated with monkeys. Add to that the fact that many people believe Obama is the author of the legislation "that a monkey could have written", and the subject of the joke becomes even less clear. When people think of the poorly written bill, they don't think of Travis the chimp. They think of the man who's signature goes on it. And right about now, I think more people have the economy (and the man they are expecting to fix it) on their minds than a crazed chimp that had to be put down. If the cartoonist's intent was not racist, then it was a poorly executed joke, and I do not fault Al Sharpton for jumping to the conclussion that many Americans jumped to on their own.

Then I was asked, "If Bush were president and they made references to him being a monkey would it be racist?" If this cartoon was drawn during Bush 43's office, it wouldn't have been racist--but it would've been even more difficult to discern the subject of the joke, since he was already so often compared to a chimp for his ineptitude and appearance.

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Anonymous Alison said...

You make some good points. Nicely written, E.

5:21 PM  
Anonymous thematically fickle said...

I used to use the term "slave driver" without ever thinking twice. Then, I said it once as a joke, referring to the fact that I was expecting my 18-month old black daughter to do her own dishes. "I'm a regular slave driver" were the words I uttered while holding her in my arms, and which brought the conversation amongst a group of 10 adults to an uncomfortable and abrupt halt. You can be assured that I do not use that descriptor any more

My point is that context is very important. The context in which this cartoon was published reveals an insensitivity by the editors and cartoonist at the very best, and is a thinly disguised--and too often apologized for--racism still prevalent in our culture at worst.

8:25 PM  

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