“I’m not racist! Some of my best friends are black!”
“I’m not bigoted! Some of my best friends are LGBT!”
This century-old defence is generally dismissed, especially on the internet. People try to claim that, due to the presence of minorities in their circle of friends, they are above reproach. They can’t possibly be prejudiced. Would a racist have black friends? Would a bigot have gay friends? The general consensus is yes! a thousand times yes! Your best friends don’t shield you from your biases, even if they are willing to ignore or even embrace them.
Several months ago, someone I respect very much (let’s call her Alison) made a stereotypical blind joke: “Shouldn’t ads for blind people be on the radio instead of TV?” or something to that effect. I took no issue with the joke’s complete lack of comedic value; your mileage may vary, perhaps? What I did take issue with was the inherent (and silly) stereotyping in the joke. A lot of people think we don’t enjoy TV or movies simply because we can’t see. Apparently, the dialogue is some trivial, peripheral aspect of the whole experience. As helpful as described video can be, it is still very possible for us to enjoy TV shows (and cringe at the ads). Her joke played on that ridiculous stereotype, and she made it very publicly, reaching a large number of people all over the internet.
I, in my infinite foolishness, wrote to her:
“You do realize that blind people can still watch TV, yeah?”
“Um, hello? Of course. Ever heard of a joke?”
“Well, yes…it’s just that this one plays on some very pervasive stereotypes that we spend much of our time fighting against. Please please try not to perpetuate it.”
After this exchange, some friend of hers chimed in: “Wow, chill, bitch! Some of Alison’s best friends are blind!”
Ah, here we go…the ultimate trap: if my blind friend says it’s okay, then it is. No question. This is immutable, right?
Noooooo! Not even close. Not for one second.
I found this whole conversation distinctly odd. Alison is a well-known and very vocal feminist who supports the rights of minorities. She despises stereotypical jokes about women, LGBT people, and ethnic minorities. She devotes much of her time to dispelling the myths and encouraging truth and inclusiveness. All wonderful stuff, and I like her a great deal.
Why, then, does all this stop applying when dealing with blind people? Suddenly, all the ethics and inclusiveness and open-mindedness disappear. Suddenly, for no discernible reason, it is acceptable to make ridiculous, condescending jokes about us that, if made about a gay or black or transgender person, would be reviled for the bigotry that they are.
Jokes among your friends are different from jokes made in public. I play along with blind jokes made at my personal expense with enthusiasm. Blind people, in fact, are very good at laughing at ourselves. I’ve always written my blog with my sense of humour at the forefront, so it’s not the jokes I have a problem with, not really. Alison’s joke is pretty harmless, at least on the surface.
What I have a problem with is the defence itself. It’s such an empty, futile argument. It appears to lay a steel trap, but is really just so much shrinking from all responsibility. Maybe you have a blind friend who thinks stereotypical jokes are hilarious, and that’s okay. Feel free to make them whenever you’d like … around and about them, that is. Just because your blind friend is okay with something, does not mean that the rest of us are okay with it. Furthermore, it doesn’t mean that it’s okay, period.
There will be a lot of people who assume, judging by this post, that I’m an exceptionally uptight person. I’m not. I am almost too tolerant at times—something my friends never tire of telling me. My issue isn’t with the individuals, like Alison, who tell these jokes and/or excuse behaviour that would be bigotry if directed at any other group. My issue is with the people who allow that argument to stand unchallenged. I could have six hundred gay friends, and they could all actively encourage me to tell prejudicial jokes or otherwise behave in a bigoted manner towards them. That doesn’t change the facts, though: most people, LGBT or otherwise, would find that behaviour generally offensive.
Maybe your blind friend is okay with bad TV jokes. Maybe she thinks it’s funny when you pet her service dog while its in harness. Maybe he erupts into side-splitting mirth when you steal his cane and hide it. (God, I hope I never meet your friend.) None of that matters in the grand scheme. If you tried any of that in the wider world, people would denounce it, and rightly so.
If your best friends are allowing you to go out there and act like a bigot without at least warning you … get some new friends.
Thank you. Your readership is appreciated, as always.
People can cross that line with us without thinking they’re crossing that line because we haven’t gained any kind of a trendy minority factor yet. Once we’re able to somehow get into Coolsville and everyone is talking about us and writing articles and producing public service anouncements and starting seventeen zillion awareness campaigns, then people will be much more careful about stereotyping. Shall we gather up all the blind folks we know on the net and come to, let’s say, Seattle just for fun, and have a yearly blind pride parade? I dunno, how do we launch blindness from a thing people are scared of into the latest cool minority to want to champion. Oh, and on a side note, those folks who would be surprised that blind folks enjoy movies and TV should see my DVD collection, especially the box sets of so-bad-they’re-good horror and sci-fi flicks. No, they’re not described, no enterprising company has stepped up to describe these movies.
This comment makes a very good point, and it touches on some of the thoughts I’ve had after reading this post.
Our society has a list of acceptable minority targets who are fair game for jokes based on stereotypes. This hit list, as it were, can very from person to person, but can be generalized. It changes over time, but one group’s removal from the list often doesn’t very much effect the status of groups still on it. While many of the groups mentioned in the original post have, for the most part, moved off that list or are in the process of moving off of it, I would say that blind people are largely still an acceptable target.
This explains the issue better than I ever could. Thank you.
You make excellent points, as always. On the other hand, I’m not sure how much I want to be #trending. People should be nice because it’s the right thing to do, not because it’s en vogue.
I suppose there is that. Yeah, I kind of, ideally speaking if we want to go there, for people to be nice to me because they like me as an individual. Being nice out of social obligation or fear of consequences if you’re even indifferent can be its own barrier.
Stereotypes in general are stereotypes for two very big reasons. People believe them, and the people they’re about enforce them. Same with most defenses of said stereotypes–including this one. If some of Alison’s best friends are blind, then some of Alison’s best friends need an education–and to, then, educate her. And let’s not even discuss the third party to the conversation–I’ll drag this post entirely off-topic real quick.
I can only imagine what you’re not saying.
Good-natured jokes among friends at one another’s expense can be a part of great friendships, but there are certain rules that generally apply, a few of which I would say your friend broke.
1. These jokes are generally made among close friends, once people have figured out one another’s senses of humour, gained a level of trust and respect, and have a grasp on the various things people are and aren’t comfortable joking about.
2. The key words in the previous paragraph are “among close friends.” Social media is generally not an appropriate place for them.
3. If you go too far and upset someone, apologize. Don’t try to defend yourself. Admit that you’ve crossed a line and make an effort not to cross it again. I think that’s something a lot of people forget, especially when they’re friends with someone with a disability or part of another minority group. No matter how close you are or how comfortable that person is with a good-natured joke every now and then, there is a line. And that line has nothing to do with sensitivity, political correctness, them being ashamed of themselves or not having a sense of humour: there’s a line because they’re people, and every person has a line somewhere.
Something I completely forgot to add is that everyone’s “line” is different. As you mentioned in your post, just because someone you know laughs at a certain joke doesn’t mean that every member of that group will find it humourous.
Reblogged this on albertruel and commented:
This is an interesting perspective. Although, being blind myself, I’ve often told blind jokes that others find funny, I now wonder whether all blind people would be appreciative of such jokes. I think I’ll try to be more sensitive to this issue going forward.
it’s nice to laugh at one’s own expense from time to time but some jokes can wear very thin indeed but sometimes not being able to read body language can make itr difficult unless the person you are making the joke about or if you’re laughing at yourself is whether others laugh with you or there’s stunned silence or a lecture once you get in the car and eventually arrive home because to coin a phrase there’s a time and place for everything. with that said we sometimes make judgements about people without even thinking or if we make a judgement we may not realize the after affects until it’s too late it’s like judging people who are gay lezbien or who have a mental illness not all people who are gay or lezbien or who suffer from a mental illness are bad people or frightening and we shouldn’t be afraide of them. a couple of times I myself have had to learn the hard way that discretion is sometimes a good idea as I’ve offended a couple people possibly without realizing it. for example, I was doiong bike education one year and an elderly person had passed us and I could tell she couldn’t speak very well as her speech was impaired somewhat. I inadvertently commented “that lady’s old” I had to be taken aside then and told I needed to keep what I want to say until I’m somewhere private or I’m in the car as it’s better to make discrete comments once out of said person’s earshot. perfect example. I was out for lunch with a couple of family members one day and I happened to notice the gentalman who came to take our plates away after we’d eaten lunch had a disability. it wasn’t until I was in the car going home I commented on this and it was obvious to my mother and to I that this young man had down’s syndrome and it was left at that. One more example I’m a little unsure about whether I offended said person or I was concerned but i’ll put it forward anyway. y mother and I were out one afternoon and I heard somebody yelling at his wife trying to call her name he kept saying “mary, mary, mary” I had a thought he was angry but then the question came to me whether there was an issue with his voice as to his speech because some people can have a trakiostomy and their speech is either extremely loud due to the tube or it’s barely a whisper as trakiostomies vary from person to person. and by the sound of that person’s voice he was elderly.
As far as people who are gay go, I’m not one to judge them I found out one of my friends was gay only when I attended her 18th birthday party and all the friends who attended were all girls and I was the only guy but whether that’s a sign or that’s just my observations I don’t know but not all people who are gay are bad people as I’ve said above there are certainly some very pleasant people who are gay. I do want to apologise though in case I’ve made any general judgements without realizing it because it is very easy to judge somebody unintentionally.