Racism is not something to be suppressed for fear of offense, but an ugliness whose expressions betray truth. Making light of racism is a coping mechanism for society’s and an individual’s inability to acknowledge how truly ugly it is. That mechanism is how many cultures have been able to maintain optimism and joviality in the face of overt racism and racial discrimination; when that mechanism causes greater harm to the targets and victims of that ugly truth, you’ve crossed a line.
There is a veritable difference to a joke being made by a person who does or does not belong to the club. This is made obvious by the common defense of racist jokes by the offender who claims affiliation with the offended group if not outright membership.
“Some of my best friends are black.”
“Her husband is Jewish.”
Those explanations are inadequate. They neither excuse the offense nor negate the fact that you have revealed certain prejudices. Despite having grown up surrounded by one race or another, you thought it was all right to say things that those people around whom you grew up find totally offensive.
There is another line to be drawn between genuine observations of cultural phenomena and using language to slyly disparage those phenomena. The repeated mention of those phenomena in humorous or pejorative terms assigns them value rather than allowing them to be addressed as neutral. Often the value attributed is vague or expressed in innuendo and so every member of the audience makes his/her own conclusions as to what meaning was intended. Some laugh, some don’t. Some are hurt, some are amused, some are unfazed.
Of course, all of this is legitimate and protected by free speech. Every one has the right to think, believe and say racist things. Eroding that freedom erodes the overall freedom of the societies we live in; deciding what limitations to impose on speech is dangerous to the a society’s tolerance threshold. But explaining away your racist speech compounds the original offense. You ought to apologize or stand by what you’ve said and absorb the response.
Lena Dunham and Trevor Noah are the focus of our community’s attention at the moment, but the notion holds true for whomever finds him or herself in the racially-charged-humor-spotlight next.