Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The clown heard 'round the world


Racism and sexism are subjects I do not discuss very often here on my blog. 

It's not that I don't have thoughts on these issues, because I do.  But problems like these, ultimately the fruit of sin, are big and real and ever-looming for many, many people.  So mostly I just feel that I, personally, would not do such topics justice.  I would honestly prefer for people affected by these things to share their own stories and own experiences, people who can speak from first-hand knowledge of discrimination and prejudice, as opposed to an arm-chair blogger.

But every once in awhile I'll read or hear something that serves as an unfortunate reminder that it is still culturally acceptable in some circles to view African Americans and/or women as little more than a punchline to a disturbing joke.

Enter offensive rodeo clown.  (Yes, rodeo clown.  Stay with me.)

I'm writing this today not because making a joke with a reprehensible punchline is particularly noteworthy.  I'm writing because there seem to be a lot of people utterly dumbfounded that anyone could be offended by it, or who think that it is an infringement of a person's free speech for the media to report on it.  So.  I'm going to attempt to explain why the joke (which is old and has been used for years in different ways) is problematic, and why even though the man who made the joke was well within his legal rights to do so, people like me think it was in poor taste and completely inappropriate.  And I'm well within my legal rights to do so.

I come from a very small, little-known rural "town" in California, where I spent the first eighteen years of my life.  It is, in my view, a truly wonderful community that includes all sorts of people with all sorts of backgrounds and viewpoints.  It will always hold a happy, special place in my heart.

So imagine my surprise when my sleepy hometown made national news (!) for a rodeo clown's stupid joke, made at their annual rodeo this past weekend. 

Insert slightly amusing and tangential self-disclosure: When I was seventeen, I was in the running for rodeo queen of this very rodeo.  Which amounted to me attempting to sell raffle tickets by spending time in a smoky VFW hall, dancing with a bunch of old men.  I did not win. 

The joke in question involved references to Michelle Obama and Ann Romney posing in National Geographic and Playboy, respectively.  It was directed in a negative way towards Michelle Obama, but also managed to degrade Ann Romney in the process.  (Unintentionally I am sure--to the clueless clown, the thought of Mrs. Romney being offered money to pose for Playboy was a compliment of the highest kind.)

My first thought upon reading the joke was, did my little ol' town really just make the Huffington Post?

My second thought was, I've always hated clowns of any type.  They scare me.

My third thought was, Oh my goodness, how could ANYONE make this kind of asinine comment?  Especially in public?

But perhaps most of all, I was positively astounded by some of the comments on the article that ran in the county paper--people defending the joke, declaring that no one ought to be offended, justifying the words by claiming that if Bill Maher had said something parallel about a conservative woman, it would have been okay.

Um, no.

He does say horrible things about conservative women (and religious people, and most everyone else he disagrees with), and it's not okay--and I hardly think Bill Maher should be the standard of decency when it comes to making statements about other human beings.  Heaven help us if he is!

So are you ready to hear what the problem with the joke is?

It is inexcusable to joke about upright, decent women posing for pornographic publications.  Period. 

It is even less excusable to, in the same breath, insinuate that the blonde, fair-skinned woman is Playboy material (because Playboy is apparently the epitome of what a woman should be?), and the woman with brown skin and brown hair belongs nude in a feature on African tribes.

It disrespects both women, it disrespects the women found within the pages of National Geographic, and oh my goodness, it is stupid.

Really, really stupid.

I kind of wanted to call this (literal and figurative) clown up on the phone and tell him what this mama-to-girls, including two girls with brown skin, thinks.

And maybe I would, except that he's in the hospital with an injury he sustained at the rodeo.  I hope and pray he makes a quick and full recovery.

So instead I'll direct my indignation at those who are trying to defend the joke itself, and who are attempting to blame the fall-out on "tree-hugging" liberals: I am a registered Republican.  I am a social and fiscal conservative.  I used to own cowboy boots and attend that very rodeo.  I didn't vote for Barack Obama in 2008, and I won't be in 2012.  I live in a city now but I love me the country life.  So anyone trying to say this is about politics or about the liberal thought police, think again.

It is ultimately about the dignity of human beings, about the fact that each and every person on the face of this planet is made in God's image.  It is about the fact that we should not be seeking to deride people on account of their race or gender.  Women are, as both Ann Romney and Michelle Obama fabulously demonstrate through their success and dignified demeanors, designed to be far more than sexual objects abused by men.

I must say that I find it particularly annoying that this festive community event is now associated with this sort of nonsense.  The clown doesn't even live in my hometown.  And I personally know the people who work hard to put this rodeo on each year, and I grew up with the folks who helped the clown to the hospital when he collapsed on the street.  All good people.  Who use the word "folks."

But I also think that for better or worse, this story made national news, and it doesn't do any good to keep saying that it was just a joke.  It was a disgusting thing to say, from both a racial and female perspective, and now that it's out in the open, let's call it as such.  I don't think we need to demand a public execution for the clown (who I'm sure is otherwise a decent human being), but I also don't have to pretend that his "joke" was okay. 

To those who keep saying the clown is not a racist, I would respond that the word "racist" is of no practical use in this conversation.  His words were racially offensive.  Period.  Had our family been there, we very well may have asked for a refund and left.  And then had to debrief our kids and explain why we don't go places where people make those types of comments.

Because my beautiful daughters, all five of them, are fearfully and wondrously made.  Their bodies are meant for the honor and praise of God, and for beauty through chastity and holiness.  Playboy and similar publications are not the crown of female achievement.  On the contrary, they are the low-point, the unwelcomed and crass uncle at the dinner table that refuses to leave--in part because we won't kick him out.

So this is me saying enough is enough.  This is me saying that the female body is worth far too much for public derision.  This is me saying that the brown-skinned body is worth far too much for public derision.  This is me saying that I am doing my very best to raise children of virtue and character, and that I stand against any statement that reduces a person with a soul to the brunt of a sexually and racially degrading joke.  I am not attempting to be the thought police or killer of free speech, and I'm not saying that joke-making--even heinous joke-making--ought to be illegal or that it ought to single-handedly ruin a person's livelihood or reputation.

But I am saying that words have weight, and let's take care to use them well.  And if you honestly still can't fathom why people were upset by the joke, well, I'm sure there's a line one could cross in making a joke about you or your kids or your wife or your husband.  Imagine someone crossing that line in a crowded public venue.  While you sit there humiliated because oh my goodness, that joke was about people who look like you.  (Or your precious children.  I honestly cannot imagine the horror of having my four Ethiopian kids in a venue where racial jokes were being made over the PA system.)  You might not be so thrilled either. 

Racism and misogynism are real, whether people in small towns acknowledge them or not.  As a former resident of this particular small town, and as a mother to four Ethiopian-American children, I have decided to share my perspective.  I am not intending to bring negative publicity to the town or its residents, and I would suggest that the best thing for them to do is admit that the clown's joke was inappropriate.  Going onto Facebook and into comboxes to defend the clown and his words, insult liberals, and further defame these women, is what will ultimately draw negative attention to your wonderful community. 

It really is okay to admit that sometimes, clowns just aren't very funny. 


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