Jean Barker

Who let the clowns out?

2011-07-01 10:30
Jean Barker

Jean Barker

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Heard this one?
A: “What goes gadunkgadunkgadunk... and is bright red?”
B: “Two dykes in a microwave.”

Geddit?* (Lesbians please see the end of this column for explanation).

As a kid, I assumed for years that I had no sense of humour. Most “jokes” appeared to be riddles that I was just too stupid to solve.

Turns out I wasn't a dummy. It was just that most of those jokes relied on me being a racist or a homophobe (ideally both).

My inability to solve these riddles was merely an indication that my parents had somehow managed to raise me outside of the real white South Africa - mostly by banning television and sending me to a private multi-racial school run communally by a bunch of latter-day hippies.

Despite the racism virus that must have seeped into my brain from secretly reading Enid Blyton when I was nine and watching Loving when I was 12, and despite growing up mostly under apartheid, I still fail to anticipate the real, live prejudice that lurks around every corner.

For instance, I feel rage like it's the first time every time men from conservative societies harass me when I dress sexy and go out to buy milk. And how come angry girls are bitches and angry guys are respected more? And the other day, I went into a store in an area of Orange Country where no white people ever go. The guy behind at checkout asked me “What are you doing here?” I held out money and a bottle of soda. He looked at me suspiciously. It was creepy.

But that's harmless fun, compared to what really bothers me: de-humanisation of a group based on fear.

The other day in class, a professor showed a Danish short fiction film themed around love. Its subplot dealt with racism towards Pakistani immigrants. After the screening, to illustrate the silly ways the human mind works, he said: “It's like if you tell people 'a bomb went off, killing a million Muslims and a blonde' they'll always ask you: 'What happened to the blonde? What was she doing there?'”.

The class responded with burst of mocking, slightly shocked laughter at the expense of humanity.

“Or,” he continued, to level the playing field, “if you said 'a bomb went off, killing a million Jews and a clown'” they'll say “What was the clown doing there?”

No laughter, this time. An intake of breath. Disgust filled the room.

I couldn't just sit there, right?
“So, if it's Jews dying, it's not funny anymore?” I asked.
“No, it's not”, another student (who shall remain anonymous) responded.
I laughed, assuming he was joking. I mean, it's the same joke? If anything a clown dying is funnier than a blonde dying, right?
“I'm serious, it's funny if it's Muslims.” he said. “Fuck those people.”

I was flabbergasted. I hadn't seen that one coming. Should I have?

Something about his statement reeked of Rwanda circa 1994, and it took all my self control not to climb over the desk and get myself arrested for assault. Can you get arrested for verbal assault? “Remember!” I wanted to scream. “The Nazis, and many Germans, thought 'those people' deserved everything they got, too.”

Instead, I limited myself to lashing out on Facebook. I didn't name names, because the last thing I want to do is drive some already-terrified rah rah America bigot further into his heavily armed mental bunker.

Both my American and South African friends' reactions ranged from shocked to vengeful. But one American gave me some useful advice on How To Deal With Racists: "Think Clowns in Clownshoes, riding tricycles, in a circle, squeezing a big, rubber ball of the end of metal horn, then continue about your day."

I should listen to him. I really should. And I should learn to expect stupidity and fear and steer clear of those who would like to punish me for thinking for myself.

When news organisations reported on the fact that 25% of Americans thought Obama was Muslim, my reaction was “Who cares if he is?” But from their reactions, I may as well have said “Let's all pop down to the mall and join the Taliban.” When I expressed queasiness at the naive glee with which college students were drunkenly celebrating Osama Bin Laden's death, a concerned professor (a different one) advised me to remove the post from Facebook in case someone was keeping track of my opinions.

I hoped he was joking – I mean, what movie is this, Enemy of the State? - but he wasn't smiling as the elevator doors slid shut.

And no, I'm not saying “America is racist” - that generalisation would be destructive, and unfair on thinking Americans, even the paranoid ones. My point is that stupid people are surprisingly stupid the world over. America is just where I happen to live this week.

I remember at 16 getting into a very-nearly-violent argument with a group of drunk South African politics and theology students from Stellenbosch University, who contended that black people were all communists descended from apes, while white people were noble capitalists made by God...

I know. I hear you. Why bother writing comedy when life writes it for you? Thank you, Stupid Clown People! Today, once again, you have inspired me - if not to greatness, at least to a state of enviable mediocrity.

  • About that “dyke” joke: It is not a joke. It's actually my party trick to end all parties. I use it to humiliate unwary bigots. I tell it, and then when they laugh, I asked them why they laughed. They can very rarely explain. You can swap out the target for another - make it “blacks” / “Jews” / “Muslims” instead of “dykes”. Neat, nuh? Yeah, I think so too.

- Jean is a screenwriting / directing dual MFA student in California, USA. She tweets as @jeanbarker and blogs pictures of signs and more, here. She will be back.

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