Groups It’s OK To Make Fun Of

In the year 2010, in the United States, it’s acceptable to make fun of some groups of people. To find out which groups, you only need to turn on a children’s TV station, such as Nickelodeon, or wait until Halloween and see how people dress up. In fact, you, dear reader, may occasionally be promoting some cultural stereotypes without the slightest awareness that you are hurting anyone. I certainly don’t blame you, since some of the most wonderfully open minded people I know engage in this behavior. This post is an opportunity for you to contemplate cultural stereotypes that might at first seem like innocent fun, without being confronted directly. What you take from it is up to you, of course, but I hope that you realize that my feelings are genuine; these things bother me and they may upset other people who generally remain silent about them in public.

Mexicans

It’s pretty common for non-Mexican men to put on big sombreros and fake mustaches, and perhaps wear a shawl, called a sarape. There may not seem to be any harm in this to most people, but to me it’s akin to White people wearing black face makeup.

Gypsies

The Romani people are not generally seen as real people by non-Romani Americans. Thus, people are unaware that saying that someone “gypped” them, meaning cheated them, is a hurtful thing to say. If you are Jewish, and you have heard somebody saying that they were “Jewed” down, you know how this feels. Likewise, images of witch-like and mystical Gypsy fortunetelling women are crude stereotypes that reduce a real people to fairy tale status.

Hillbillies

Poor rural White people are a favorite comical target of children’s programs. We see child entertainers dressed up with floppy hats, fake missing teeth, perhaps chewing on straw, wearing clothes with patches, and speaking with an exaggerated country accent. Once again, this seems funny to people who’s experiences don’t include any exposure to actual poor, rural White people.

Indians

Non-Native culture has gone from despising to romanticizing Native Americans (once they were no longer deemed a threat to Western expansion and mineral extraction). For some time now in much of American society, children have been raised to believe that Indians are mythological, or that they only lived in the past. Thus, it seems perfectly natural for costume shops to sell Indian costumes. But having other people dress up as caricatures of your culture doesn’t necessarily feel good. This is why, when I went looking for a costume with my stepson, who is Native American, he grabbed the Indian costume and hid it behind some other costumes. This is also why he was upset by a children’s production of the beloved classic Peter Pan, which includes an extended, racist Indian number, unchanged since its ignorant inception in 1954.

Of course, all sorts of other stereotypes permeate our culture. But the above examples are some of the last hold-outs of groups commonly thought to be OK to make fun of. My hope is that next time you are about to tell someone that you were gypped, you might consider saying “ripped off.” After a short while, it will flow naturally that way. And, when friends suggest going to a costume party as “Mexicans,” “Hillbillies,” or “Indians,” you might suggest a group a bit further from reality – perhaps the blue people of Pandora.

Click this flower for a look at how we can accidentally pass on stereotypes to children:

daisy

Or, click this angiosperm’s reproductive structure for something completely different – a marriage tip & a transgender airline:

daisy

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15 Responses to Groups It’s OK To Make Fun Of

  1. K says:

    wow! WHEN you put it like that it really drives the point home.
    there is so much we do without considering how we might be hurting other people – all in the name of “goood fun”!

    Like

    • EricIndiana says:

      Thanks – I always get nervous when I say things like this that people will be defensive, that they’ll think I’m calling them racist, or they’ll ridicule me for being too sensitive. So I appreciate that you considered what I was saying.

      Like

  2. I agree with the thrust of this post, although you missed out one ethnic group that comes in for a lot of stereotyping, the Chinese. I wrote about that in the following post:

    http://dennishodgson.blogspot.com/2009/11/chinese-whispers_18.html

    A lot of other posts on my blog discuss aspects of Chinese culture, of which I’m a huge admirer.

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  3. Editor B says:

    I agree in the main.

    One little quibble: Most people I think are unaware of the etymology of “gypped.” Your explanation seems likely to be accurate, but I’m not certain that it is. Moreover, as this guy notes, most people who use the term are probably unaware of this possible connection. So beyond a general ignorance of the Roma, you have a general ignorance of the (possible) origin of the word. Therefore it doesn’t bother me to hear people using this term.

    Do you know if there are any decent films (fiction or documentary) that depict Romani people realistically?

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    • EricIndiana says:

      After I posted, I did think about the possibility that the word gyp might come from a different source that gypsy. But, I decided that in the end it would still have the same effect, much like the word “niggardly,” which has an origin unrelated to a racial slur. Even knowing its true origin, I wouldn’t use the word “niggardly” in conversation because it’s likely to be perceived as racist and hurt people’s feelings as much as a truly racist word.

      I do remember one movie that I thought was interesting & didn’t romanticize or (to my knowledge) distort the Romani culture. I’d have to do some searching for the name. It had a lot to do with the tensions between a large Romani settlement and a neighboring town. It was a drama. Young men kept getting arrested. I can’t find it (just did a search) but I do see that Madonna received death threats after commenting on discrimination against the Roma while on stage in Romania.

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  4. Joe Nickell says:

    Etymology is a tricky thing. I’ve given up using a favored old Kentuckyism, “…in a coon’s age,” because I’ve more than once had people react in horror that I would dare use that awful slang reference to African-Americans. Apparently, it doesn’t matter that the phrase sources to the origin of the word, “coon,” which is a foreshortening of “raccoon.” (And ironically, at least according to this missive, “coon” was first used in a derogatory sense toward whites.)

    I stand corrected, even if it’s an incorrect correction.

    But here’s the thing that really confuses me. Your post is titled, “Groups It’s OK To Make Fun Of.” And then you have a list in bold: Mexicans, Gypsies, Hillbillies, and Indians.

    So are you saying it’s okay to make fun of them?

    I’m confused.

    Like

    • EricIndiana says:

      Good question. I called the post that merely to generate traffic. I was being sarcastic. In my head the title was short for, “Groups that lots of people think it’s OK to make fun of.”

      Like

  5. Jeffersonic. (DSK) says:

    Hey, here’s a ‘can o’ worms’ post. I think I would allow a little greater latitude than you seem willing to do in this post, in terms of comedy, satire, Halloween, and wearing ethnic garb.

    In my opinion, a couple of aspects of effective comedy include reprocessing tragedy, and stepping into transgressive territory. There are finely drawn boundaries in comedy, satire, parody, etc. and it *is* all too to easy to be an asshole, like Howard Stern, or Andrew Dice Clay, or to just be perceived as one by people not understanding one’s intent.

    I’ll cop to enjoying the National Lampoon’s legendary “Foreigners” issue which insulted and ridiculed many nationalities equally, and is so completely over top as to seem to be subverting the idea of stereotypes, by being so heavy handed. Examples;

    “The English: Cold-blooded queers with bad teeth”
    “The Russians: Dumpy, pasty-faced lard bags in cardboard suits”

    Now, if you were to apply these at the wrong time and place, I believe they would be quite hurtful. But if used as sort of a comedic taunt with someone you are familiar with, English or Russian or otherwise, it could inspire some enjoyable verbal jousting and laughter. I can remember thinking it was funny when Lisa Simpson looked terrified and unsettled after leafing through “The Big Book of English Smiles”. While I often find the humor of “Family Guy” less than appealing, I did enjoy the early episode which gradually degenerated into ridiculing southerners non-stop.

    I like sombreros and Chinese/Asian farmer hats. I wear both of these in Florida where the sun can damage your health. Both are practical. I truly like the look of a Chinese/Asian farm hat. I’ll cop to enjoying the whimsicality and incongruity of an ornate sombrero, but is this necessarily a cultural insult? Until I got bored with the baseball cap look, which I think makes men look like children, I used to wear baseball style farm caps with embroidered hybrid seed brand patches; e.g. the “DeKalb” logo with the unintentionally cosmic flying ear of corn. I grew up in a suburb outside of farm culture. I can’t see much harm in appropriating cultural ideas or props if you’re not being malicious about it.

    The decimation and routing of the Native Americans is one of the ugliest, if not the ugliest episode in our history. So many modern Americans are completely ignorant, or DO know, and will never care, about the extent the tribes were lied to, murdered and cheated out of their land, which they shared with the white immigrants initially. I read somewhere that Hitler was shocked that Americans objected to his purging of the Jews after our history of routing the Native American Tribes. So, I can understand why suburban whites emulating Native American Tribal culture would strike many as ghastly. Many of the Y.M.C.A.’s programs, (Indian Guides) and campgrounds, had Native American themes and appropriated Native American culture and some costuming when I was growing up. While repellent to some, I believe some of these indulgences were done with an ignorant sort of respect and often led to a greater awareness and understanding of Native American culture among ignorant white folk. I can’t deny the weirdness, though. And there’s the “weeping Indian” from the old anti-pollution commercials who was actually an Italian.

    I’m curious about how you feel about Black Americans appropriating Native American costume and culture in Mardi Gras tradition. As I understand it, it was done in solidarity felt by blacks toward Native Americans against White oppression.

    Were you aware of the shirt Spike Lee wore to the Democratic National Convention. It’s visible on page 110 of “Juxtapoz” magazine’s current issue. It’s an image of Barack Obama in a basketball uniform leaping over John McCain, (who’s dressed as a referee) and slam-dunking a basketball. I think it’s healthy play with a stereotype, and Barack plays B-Ball, but I can see how a white guy wearing it in the Black section of a redneck town might offend some Black people.

    The book “Vampires, Dragons, and Egyptian Kings” is a study of the gangs and events of the 50’s on and around the border of Hell’s Kitchen that inspired “West Side Story”. Something I found interesting was that though the gangs generally divided along racial boundaries, ( I think they were Irish, Puerto Rican and Black), each gang had people from each race as members, due to their living in the particular neighborhood the gang originated from.

    Complex, Contextual, Considerations.

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    • EricIndiana says:

      I think that the difference between the National Lampoon stuff and most people dressing up at Halloween is that National Lampoon is being intentional. When Anglos dress up as Mexicans at a costume party they aren’t trying to make fun of Mexicans, it’s just ignorance of the effect it might have on other people. So there’s no thinking involved.

      And I agree about hats – I didn’t feel like I had space to go into that, but I think it’s fine to wear sombreros or any other hats. It’s just when you add a fake mustache that it gets questionable.

      I thought that there was actually a Native American connection to the Black Mardi Gras crews – something historical. I know that in some places escaped slaves were taken in by Native American villages. I’m sure Bart Everson would know about those crews.

      And then, talking about Complex & Contextual, you have to think about the power relationship between the people making fun and the group being made fun of. Remember that SOuth African movie, “The Gods Must Be Crazy”? It was really popular in the states. It seemed OK to a lot of White people, I think because it was making fun of all the cultures. But there was something different about White South Africans kind of elbowing each other in the side & saying, “Aren’t our modern ways amusing?” and White South Africans making fun of Bushmen during Apartheid. Plus, they had the rebels being led by an evil Cuban or Central American, because they couldn’t conceive of the indigenous population really rebelling without being duped by an evil sophisticated foreigner with lighter skin.

      I guess the prime example of the difference between the painfully funny parody of somebody like National Lampoon and the stuff I’m, talking about is the word “gyp,” which is said without any self awareness. It’s not done to insult gypsies or to make fun of stereotypes – it’s just done without thinking, and we could use a little more thinking.

      Thanks for all your thinking!

      Like

  6. Jeffersonic. (DSK) says:

    Barack Slam Dunk…Dustin Canalin:

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  7. Jeffersonic. (DSK) says:

    Another Issue: Don’t you find that the punk rock flips the bird in many provocative
    directions? Would you object to a cowpunk band called “Corn Cob Crackpipe”? Would you join a band called “Corn Cob Crackpipe” if you could keep it a secret from people whom might be offended?

    Like

  8. Editor B says:

    Mardi Gras Indians are an interesting case to consider in this context. Legend has it they began as a tribute to native peoples who helped enslaved Africans escape. But the tradition goes back over 100 years and I don’t think anyone really knows. In any case, it’s evolved into its own thing, and some Native Americans find it offensive — at least upon first glance. A further complicating factor is that the majority of African Americans (and thus presumably most Mardi Gras Indians) have some Native American blood. (By the way, some people think “Black Indians” is a better term than Mardi Gras Indians.)

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  9. […] Groups It’s OK To Make Fun Of […]

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  10. Ramsay Harik says:

    Uh…Arabs and Muslims?

    Like

    • EricIndiana says:

      Yeah… these days they are stereotyped in a more fear-based way than a goofy way. Remember the 70’s, when Hollywood depicted Arabs as oil-rich, decadent royalty? Back when the energy crisis shaped how Americans viewed the MIddle East. And Asians were made fun of because Americans resented the Japanese economy & thought that Japan was buying up American property.

      Like

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