These have been challenging times to be white in America.
People who aren’t white may find this surprising. After all, it has been decades since white people could feel so free about loving their whiteness, or so openly celebrate whiteness, or talk about how much they relish being white and doing white activities. Recent trends in politics and media have amplified the interlocutors of pro-white sentiments, who certainly always existed but were traditionally somewhat less overtly vocal. It seems like a special Christmas for white people almost every week, courtesy of an extra-caucasian Santa Claus.
The new state of affairs has proven very liberating for a lot of white people otherwise damned to silence for far too long... according to them and their white friends.
Perhaps in response to the liberation of white people from their rhetorical chains just like the Irish once were liberated (fact check notwithstanding) from their “real” chains, a lot of folks are making fun of white people. And we’re not just talking about the toothless old-school gags of white people enjoying excessive amounts of mayonnaise, or our terror of spicy food, or our outsize devotion to the endless left turns of NASCAR. Even the eminently respectable Ta-Nehisi Coates recently mused how white people’s legendary inability to dance may be an unfair stereotype.
Nobody gets mad about those kinds of white people jokes anymore. But the new white people jokes are so mean! Take, for instance, tech journalist Sarah Jeong, who recently joined the editorial board of the New York Times. It turned out she had previously posted tweets that make fun of white people in various ways, such as saying we “burn faster in the sun,” making us akin to “goblins.” She also notes how much she enjoys “being cruel to old white men,” and claims we have appropriated the sport of lacrosse.
While I am an extremely white person who certainly burns quickly in direct sunlight, I have yet to actually burst into flame in the manner of a Tolkeinesque goblin (or more properly Orc, if we may pedantically whitesplain). As for being cruel to old white men, surely one of the lessons of the current era is that few people can be as cruel to old white men than the other old white men in government. And while the official history described by the Federation of International Lacrosse does credit Native American Indians with inventing the sport, one cannot help but notice the near total preponderance of white faces in team photos on the Federation’s site.
Still, reading these kinds of white people jokes can be a jarring experience if you’re white and not used to being made fun of for really anything, but especially not for being white, which is really nice, after all, what with being the majority here. Fortunately, I, a fellow white person, am here to walk you through a few coping strategies.
First off, you could try empathy: People of color have had to listen to jokes (and occasionally scientific treaties, magazine cover stories, and the writings of the Founding Fathers) about how their race and/or ethnicity makes them intellectually, morally, and/or physically inferior since this country's founding. Ask yourself, as a white person, if your offense about being called a goblin is really in the same league.
Of course, then you’re thinking, why can’t people of color empathize with my white person’s pain at white people jokes? Isn’t racism a two-way street? If I hear it in a rap song, why can’t I use the n-word too? (You cannot. Trust me on this one. Even if, and especially if, you’re asking why you can’t use the n-word, you definitely can’t.)
So let’s talk about racism, instead. No, don't stop reading! I don't mean it like that! Just because you’re white doesn’t mean you’re a racist! C’mon! Just because you told a racist joke doesn’t mean you’re racist! It’s only a joke, right? Everyone needs to lighten up.
See, that's part of the problem with getting so upset about jokes about white people. A bunch of white people got very mad at Sarah Jeong, pointing out how, with some grammatical or terminological edits, her tweets could very easily become racist jokes about people who aren’t white. Therefore, they said, Jeong is racist against white people, which is just as bad as being racist against non-white people.
But fortunately, if you’re white, you secretly know that this isn’t really true at all! Racism and racist jokes aren't colorblind; they affect different people differently. White people all implicitly know that racism is kind of like a pyramid, from which the effects of racism (and the jokes) always roll downhill. The pyramid is actually built from centuries of accumulated racism (and racist jokes), supporting white people at the top and everybody else underneath. We call the pyramid “institutional racism,” and its feelings never get hurt.
White people, even though we don't like to admit it, know that racism isn't just about who you like or don't like. Racism has always been and always will be about possessing, maintaining and applying power. Racist jokes told by white people about non-white people superficially mock this or that alleged racial characteristic, just as Jeong’s tweets about white people did. But rhetorically, racist jokes are told to reassure white people about their top spot on the pyramid, and to reinforce that position by degrading nonwhite people who encounter such jokes.
In contrast, as should be obvious to anyone reading them, Jeong’s tweets vented the collective frustration of everyone else struggling on that pyramid of institutional racism. The reason her tweets can be reversed into racist jokes is because racist jokes inspired them. "White people jokes" intrinsically mock all the racist jokes, scientific treatises, magazine covers, and Founding Fathers' statements about non-white people's supposedly immutable inferiority, and point out how stupid they are and always were.
Thus, white people getting mad — or publicly performing anger, at least — about white people jokes is actually white people getting mad about threats to white power. Threats like a woman of color joining the editorial board of the New York Times after telling smarter and funnier jokes than them on Twitter. Racism is a mechanism of maintaining an imbalance of power -- making it literally impossible, by definition, to be racist against white people, or to tell a racist joke about a white person.
White people know full well that, if a person of color really hates white people, that might be bigoted and, if they have any small power to act on bigotry, that might be discrimination — but, calling non-white people racist is the closest most of us will be able to get to using the n-word in public, and so some of us do.
Now of course, anyone can still hear (and tell) jokes about white people, like anything else. And they’ll be funny or not, or you’ll be insulted or not. But one of the great things about being white is that you’ll never have to know what racism feels like (on the receiving end anyway). So jokes about burning up in the sun like a goblin (yes, Orc, don’t @ me) shouldn’t strike you as Actually Racist any more than a diss on your mayo sammy.
But don’t be too hard yourself, fellow white person (though we rarely are, am I right) if you took a joke about #wypipo too hard. And don’t worry if you can’t get past these jokes right away. If you’re having trouble taking a joke, just take a deep breath and remind yourself, “I can still love lacrosse even though I’m white.”
Chris Mohney is a writer and editor in New York who has worked all over. Currently he writes and edits for Overture, a magazine on science, tech, and innovation in the humanitarian space.