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On humor

15 Feb

In my work, I get to talk with kids about “just kidding around”: about what makes something funny and not, sometimes simultaneously. That kidding around about identity can bond and divide us–again, sometimes simultaneously, like when the joke brings you and me closer together because we’re laughing about–or at–them. That it does matter whether or not you identify with the subject of your joke because there’s a difference between living the full experience of an identity and just “getting to play” with it. That even so, we can’t curate the contexts, meanings and impacts of our jokes: just because I meant to be funny, doesn’t mean that I was.

And that especially if I meant to make you smile, when I realize that I didn’t, if I care about you (and this is important: if it’s more important to me that I’m right, then I may not choose you over what I just said), I have the opportunity to offer repair.

[Cue eyeroll.]

Is this all just too much effort, and if people are going to be so sensitive, then fine I’ll never joke again? I hope not.

Humor–making people laugh and laughing with them–is a wonderful gift to share. And if we’re actually going to share it, that requires lifelong practice and mutual discernment. Just like any other act of friendship and love: I don’t get to tell you what makes you feel good, and I shouldn’t have to sacrifice my feeling good for you.

Perhaps you’ve already read media critic Joanna Schroeder’s Twitter thread about the systemic online recruitment of white teenage boys by white supremacists. In it, Schroeder comments on how central humor is in boy culture (and yes, this thread seems to talk about boys within a gender binary framework, and, of course, humor is part of all cultures–not just white boys’. That said, I still think Schroeder’s argument about white boys is insightful, and both specifically and more broadly relevant):

Schroeder on comedy

I agree with Schroeder: being funny is a craft. Really funny people get the bigger picture of the immediate joke, recognize how status and power impact our perceptions and aren’t just in it for the cheap laugh: they’re in it to reveal some truth.

As Oprah Winfrey has noted about Trevor Noah:

“His best quality, as I see it, is his discernment,” Oprah says. “He doesn’t just see things. He sees the surface, beneath the surface, around the surface, and the wholeness of things. And that is an incredible quality to have: in life, in people, with relationships, in business, [and] it allows him, in my opinion, to create insight through humor.”

“That word discernment is big. It’s big,” she continues. “It’s what most people lack, is the ability to see beneath the surface of things. And he’s able to do that, to connect a country that is basically enraged and outraged by everything, by using humor to find the common thread for us all.”

I get it. It still seems like a lot of work. But isn’t that just being human? It turns out that we’re already trying something. The question is just what that is… and how it’s going.

How to be “kind and brave”… on email?!

5 Feb

It sounds impossible, right? Email is great for many things, but isn’t renowned as the most socially-emotionally helpful or intelligent form of communication.

So imagine that you have something to communicate with your whole organization, and waiting for the next all-hands meeting is not the best option to address what’s happening now. How do you write that email? What do you say?

Below is how a colleague shared their concern about reducing Black History Month to a superficial #acknowledgment:

Despite the fact that our school days are busy and fast-paced, please read the following email when you have a few minutes to process it deeply and slowly.

Each person processes things differently, and I do not pretend to speak for all black people, but I have a visceral reaction to the idea of showy Black History Month activities at our school.  Perhaps I’ll write an essay to more fully explore my feelings and thoughts when I have time to analyze thoroughly, but the root of my feelings is that most of the people at our school do not know about or care about black people or black history. Most go through their day without seeing black people in their classes, perhaps aside from one or two tokens if they happen to luck into a particularly “diverse” schedule. Out of nine years at our school, I have had multiple years with no black students in my classes.  Most people at our school, due to life circumstances, have not thought about blackness beyond the idea that “we should not judge people by the color of their skin,” have not learned anything about blackness, and are not affected when terrible things happen to black people.

For our students to broadly receive and display black history stickers feels to me like the wearing of unearned merit badges that falsely signal commitment to, and knowledge about, something that includes rich beauty, pain, sacrifice, risk, patience, death, resilience, accomplishment, isolation, and unfairness about which the vast majority of people at our school have no idea.

The world of identity is complex, but I find the distribution of stickers within the context of our school to be a disingenuous, platitudinous, shallow, inauthentic, and irreverent microaggression.

With that said, I am proud of some things we are accomplishing at our school.  Among them:

  • our guidance offices will soon have pennants from historically black colleges and universities (HBCU’s);
  • our curricular materials are becoming more inclusive;
  • some of us are thinking about reducing achievement and opportunity gaps.

There is much more work to be done.  Even after we become more equitable and inclusive, though, I’m still not sure most people at our should be handed a fashionable sticker signaling that they actually care about black history.

Thanks for your slow, thoughtful reading of this email.  Feel free to discuss it with each other and/or with me when I have the emotional energy to do so.

Have a great day!

I, for one:

  • appreciate the direction for when and how to read this email (given the “click and send” default culture of emailing);
  • am grateful that my colleague wrote it, even though they were still processing and email wasn’t the perfect format… because it was more important to say something than it was to say it perfectly;
  • appreciate their pointing to specific actions, and why the stickers are problematic while other actions are helpful; and
  •  respect their offer of follow up when they “have the emotional energy to do so.” It’s a simple recipe what they can offer and what they need.

Thanks to this colleague, for taking the time with their community, and (selfishly) for the modeling.

“a masterclass in patience, persistence, and love”

4 Feb

Just reposting a video today of what, I agree, is “a masterclass in patience, persistence, and love,” from the Cresco, Iowa caucus yesterday. Whether or not you agree with Nikki Heever, the precinct captain, I think there’s value in how Heever spoke to the caucus-goer about rescinding their vote for Pete Buttigieg, on learning that he’s gay.

It’s a reminder that being “kind and brave” (Fakequity, 2017) is a process that benefits from practice… and love.

In the new year

21 Jan

Here’s a wish for each of us in 2020.

With gratitude to Julie Ferguson Graphic Design.

“It was crazy!” (But was it, really?)

3 Oct

Someone pointed out to me last year that when I invite a group to “get crazy and mix it up” when I ask them to create their own small groups for a discussion or activity, I’m participating in a mainstream cultural misusage of terms describing mental disability, disease and unwellness, in the very same culture that typically fails to address mental health transparently, respectfully and helpfully.

I agree. And if reinforcing stigma isn’t reason enough to rethink our collective, casual misuse of mental health terms, let me just say that the ways we use these misappropriated terms are usually inaccurate, as in:

  • “Get crazy and mix it up in your small groups!” It’s actually sensible, community-building and a reasonable professional requestnot crazy–to talk to more people than you typically get to. More directly, I could say: “Take advantage of the fact that the whole staff is together, and mix up your usual coffee break, meeting, office-mate conversation partners!”
  • “That meeting was totally insane!” Most likely, it wasn’t. It was just not what I was expecting. I could say this more clearly: “Wow, people were energized during that meeting! And we just went with it.”
  • [Your turn. First, if you haven’t already, just notice when mental health terms come up, not in reference to actual mental health status. For me, it was startlingly how commonplace this is, from my friends and family, in professional conversations, in entertainment media, in the news… Then, notice if those terms were code for something else that could have been said more clearly, directly…and without dismissing actual mental unwellness.]

Now, you may be thinking, Oh, come on, Alison. We can’t even say “crazy” anymore?

Of course you can. The question is just whether that’s what you intend and choose to do, when you weigh how it’s both “harmless”/”meaningless” when we say “crazy” casually (just like I’ve heard kids say that “retarded” and “gay” don’t mean anything when you call a thing–not a person–“retarded” or “gay”), and dismissive of mental health issues. Because it is both, even if you just meant the former.

And today, in yet more coverage about our “unstable,” “mentally unwell,” “narcissistic” and [insert other mental illness terms you’ve heard or used yourself to describe the current US] President, I heard great advice from journalist Shankar Vedantam:

“Here’s a very simple test on whether you should be using the lens of mental illness to think about someone: are you using it to basically help them, or are you using it to help yourself? It’s a very simple test.”

Quote of the day on inclusion

30 Sep

“… [W]hen you put value into a person, it empowers that person to get in touch with their own inherent value, and then where do they put that value? They put it into their work.

[This is about]“… allowing her to succeed because of her workplace environment, and not in spite of it.”

–Michelle Williams, Emmy acceptance speech, 2019

Please stop with the Asian jokes, Andrew Yang

20 Sep

I want to clarify that my previous post was in no way an endorsement of Andrew Yang as any kind of authority on what’s funny and what’s not. I just liked his specific comment about preferring humor “that makes people think and doesn’t take cheap shots.”

Which is actually odd, coming from Yang of all people, whom you may be aware, is constantly taking his own cheap shots at Asians with his self-references through stereotypes: I love math, I know a lot of doctors, I like tests.

When asked by Politico yesterday “whether he’ll keep telling Asian jokes, which have offended some people,” Yang responded:

“We’re a very diverse community and if Asian-Americans disagree with my response to a particular issue or a joke I tell, that’s something I would expect and accept. You know, that that’s what happens in a diverse community. I don’t see any reason to dramatically change anything.”

I don’t see any reason for Yang to change, either. Because, apparently, he has no idea what he’s doing. Yang doesn’t understand the racist formulation of the “model minority” myth that he’s trading in: that these tropes of Asian smarts and success are meant to keep Asians in line, to degrade other people of color and to justify the real myth: that the US is a level and fair playing field for all ethnoracial groups.

That much is clear in Yang’s use of the word “diverse”: to suggest that Asian-Americans are just different from each other–not that we are disparate in our status and access to resources and opportunities. Even now, “Asian” as a term tends to privilege East Asians, marginalizing South Asians, Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders. (The acronym “APISA” is used to signal inclusion of these groups, because you can’t count on “Asian” to do so, given its usage historically.) Through his cheap shot, “model minority” jokes, it’s clear that Yang’s idea of the “Asian-American” community is more exclusive than inclusive.

Yang’s apparent lack of historical, social and (ironically) political understanding about his identity as an Asian-American makes it unsurprising that he “doesn’t see any reason” to stop taking his own cheap shots, even if he sees a reason for Shane McGillis to.

But Yang really needs to stop. He may not get it, but there’s a difference between making an “Asians are good at math” joke in the privacy of his own home among his friends and family, and making that same joke on the national stage while running for President, even while it’s simultaneously true that no matter where you make that joke, you’re perpetuating racist ideas, attitudes and ultimately impacts. If he doesn’t understand the power of his podium, and if he can’t imagine that other US Americans aren’t just “different” from him and may not just “disagree” about what’s funny but be mortally impacted by words that are just jokes to him, then I hope someone offers to “sit down and talk” with him, so he might learn.  In fact, I’m offering right now.

I would hope to learn something, too. I’d love to understand his perspective and share mine. And I’d love for us to share some facts: about racism, about privilege, about the APISA community, about how identity matters when you tell a joke about another or “your own” group, and about what it takes to be antiracist.