The first time I can remember finding racism funny, I was about eight or nine years old, reading a classic Captain Marvel comic book (almost certainly a reprint) and there was a scene where Billy Batson had to stow away on a steamship for some reason. He disguises his face with burnt cork and adopts this ludicrous “sho’ nuff!” type of dialect in order to appear Black. I recall laughing to myself about it and surreptitiously stealing glances at these comic panels for weeks afterward, silently chortling and understanding that I was getting away with something wrong.
Why did I find that funny? My parents certainly never explained the irony of American racism, in fact my parents were vocally opposed to racism. To be sure, I don’t find hate crimes or bigoted violence funny, but I do think that most stereotypes and people’s attempts to imitate other ethnic groups are hilarious. I know why racism is funny, actually, though it’s difficult to explain. It has something to do with naive ignorance being issued as broad fact. I laugh at old medical texts on Phrenology and Christian sexual education films for much the same reason. No, it’s not really why racism is funny but why I find it so funny.
One obvious reason I can even laugh at racism to begin with is because I’m white. To chuckle at racism and minimize its effects is my privilege. A lot of people hear the term “white privilege” and they think it means “white guilt.” That’s not the case at all. White privilege is a phrase which simply acknowledges the lens through which white people view racism. Even being able to look at racism somewhat objectively is another white privilege. To step back and look at it as a weird cultural anomaly is something that someone negatively affected by racism might not be able to do.
I’m not immune to white stereotypes, either. I usually laugh right along with the crowd when a Black comedian adopts the curt, nasal whine of a tight-assed white person. In my gut, it feels the same as when I chuckle at Charlie Chan or snicker at Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. It’s similar to how I enjoy incredibly shitty, low-budget movies or insipid poetry. When people invoke stereotypes, they are trying to make sense of something foreign using the best tools available. While there may be a tinge of truth, overall the result is a complete failure because you can’t assign universal personality traits or actions to any large group of people. And that failure is what I find so funny.
This essay isn’t meant to advocate for racist stereotypes or to explain their cultural importance (though they are culturally important), but just to delve into why I find them so fucking funny, and always have. I think it says a lot more about my sense of humor than anything else. But what do I know? I’m just some white dude. I don’t laugh as freely or walk with rhythm like I understand Black folks do.