When World War 3 Almost Happened, I Wanted To Laugh Like a White Man
The impulse to laugh at the expense of others is a white privilege that people of color inappropriately want to reach sometimes. Here’s how it manifested as a war was about to break out
I learned the word ‘empathy’ in the third grade when my White teacher told us, “Do not waste food! Think about the poor little kids in Africa who don’t have any.” All of my classmates, who were all white, thought I was from there. I guess I fit the profile. It’s weird to think that when I was eight years old, my classmates were taught to pity kids from a far-away land whose only characteristic was poverty. Consequently, they must have pitied me, too.
Back at home, my brothers and I needed to eat everything on our plate before leaving the dinner table or the kitchen floor because, my mom would say, “we might be poor, but some kids your age back home don’t have much food.” My white classmates put themselves in the shoes of little kids in Africa and that’s why they didn’t waste food; I was kind of doing the same thing, so I could easily convince myself that I was just like them.
When you’re first taught to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, you don’t know that those shoes belong to a person of color. Those who suffer from poverty, homelessness, hunger or illness and have difficulty overcoming these living conditions are statistically doomed to be people of color and ethnic minorities. These shoes we walk in often bear the racial and gender wage gap, gentrification, or concentration camps then and now.
Cut to World War 3, a whole year ago in the Before Times. After Trump ordered the assassination of high-ranking military official Qasem Soleimani, “WW3” started trending on Twitter. Memes and jokes flooded my timeline, and I laughed at all of them for an hour straight. My generation turned memes into a way of capturing existential dread to then repackage it into something we can collectively laugh at. Memes can act as a coping mechanism, a way for us to both engage with and deflect trauma. As I scrolled from one meme to another, dozens of people defended their jokes about an impending war by claiming that this, too, was a coping mechanism.
Most memes I saw came from Black Twitter, as most cultural trends do. And every time anyone would try to say that, hey, maybe wars aren’t funny, we‘d fight to protect our right to make jokes at the expense of Brown people in the Middle East. As we defended ourselves against valid critics who’d say our jokes disregarded terrorized Brown lives in Iran, we started to look like Ricky Gervais, Louis C.K., or any other White comedian who gets off on the word “triggered" to decry “cancel culture.” Many white male comedians talk about pushing boundaries, getting used to being uncomfortable, or using comedy as a way to deal with trauma, but those claims are often paired with rape jokes and blatantly discriminatory caricatures of minorities. They’re making fun of things they know nothing about, which is why their jokes can’t land.
Suffering from marginalization doesn’t prevent us from harboring sentiments of anti-blackness, that’s why we’re so good at making memes of trauma related to our blackness. We take things that are deeply rooted in the often painful Black narrative and turn them into comedy — one that is palatable to us but also to a white audience that will use it as a justification for why they’re laughing with us, and why they’re making those same jokes. bell hooks wrote at length about our fixation with Black self-hatred and ultimately our obsession with passing as White. This paradox of anti-blackness within the Black community speaks to an open secret: proximity to Whiteness is desirable.
Here, proximity to Whiteness manifests in our desire to make light of traumatic events that don’t affect us personally, mimicking White male comedians’ ability to do the same. Pain is a pervasive feature of the Black experience, but let’s be real: We can’t ask for the privilege of Whiteness while weaponizing our status as marginalized people to make fun of a situation we’re not victims of. Yes, Black folks have trauma and we often use comedy and self-deprecating humor to cope with it, but our Blackness never entitled us to trauma only Brown people who live in a war zone experience. It never entitled us to trauma and PTSD most Brown people suffer from in a post-9/11 society. If we’re not in the line of fire, it isn’t our trauma to cope with.
Comedy is often said to be tragedy plus time, and it’s often true that trauma needs time to be constructively joked about, but the memes erupted the same day we learned about Soleimani’s assassination. They continued after US Customs and Border Protection started to illegally detain Iranians and Iranian-Americans at borders. They continued after Iranians and Iraqis and Muslim people voiced the PTSD and trauma these jokes were bringing back. Dealing with trauma and empathizing with those who have it worse than us can go hand in hand, but there was no trauma nor empathy there. We just didn’t care to realize who the real victims were.
No matter how essentializing and awkward and problematic it might have been as the only Black kid in the classroom, my third grade teacher’s call for empathy somehow resonates in a particular way right now. As my classmates and I were taught to show empathy for poor kids in Africa, I didn’t realize I could show empathy for myself, too. After I try and put myself in other people’s shoes, I can put myself back in mine. I can assess my own situation and allow my Blackness some love and kindness so that I can deal with other people’s trauma the same way.