round table: identity jokes & reclaiming power

Last Saturday, all three You’re Welcome writers got drinks together and recorded a great, meaty conversation about jokes, power, identity, and leaning into stereotypes. It’s transcribed below.

Before this conversation, we talked briefly about the lines between self-deprecating jokes and powerful humor. We recognize that self-deprecation can be empowering for some, but we’ve often found it to be damaging (especially as one of the only socially sanctioned ways in which many marginalized folks relate to our identities). Today, the three of us feel like we approach humor about our identities, for the most part, in a way that’s self-affirming rather than self-deprecating. This conversation is about the particular kinds of humor we find to be consensual and illuminating.

In order to track this conversation, it’s probably helpful to know a little bit about our identities. tenderqueer identifies as white, trans, and genderqueer. Luchador identifies as a queer xicano. Lunette identifies as a fat, white, intersex, queer femme.

That said, enjoy our first roundtable conversation about the power of identity-based jokes and leaning into stereotypes. Leave a comment to join in the conversation!

Lunette: So here’s what I want to know.  How do each of you lean into and joke about stereotypes? What are the stereotypes, jokes and preconceptions you lean into, what are the ones you push on, and why?  I’ll say that I definitely lean into the food-crazed fatty stereotype.  I enjoy food, I like enjoying food, and if someone pushes back, I can call them out.  It’s a little bit of baiting people, you know?  “Say something. Try me.”

Luchador: I do think there is a difference in how people treat fatness vs a racial or sexual identity., People are very open about their lack of acceptance.  When you lean into fat jokes, they have to think about whether or not that’s funny.  The reason I make a lot of race jokes is that it stops people, makes them think about what they were assuming, and makes them aware of what they feel entitled to say.

Lunette: There is a difference there.  Everybody has thoughts about race, and everybody gets that it’s a sensitive topic.  Everybody has thoughts about fat, but people think it’s a rude topic.

tenderqueer: A lot of cultures in the US & abroad value thinness and a certain physique.  “We all know that this is the best way to be, but you shouldn’t say overtly fucked up things in front of someone.”  It’s politeness.  But people are more confused about race.  White people are more confused about race.

Lunette: Yeah.  I think white people understand that they need to be sensitive around race, but some white people feel so sensitive around it that they just don’t talk about it.

Luchador: People talk about fatness like it’s an illness.  You don’t discuss someone’s illness in public.  But with race and gender, people know that they shouldn’t be that way, they shouldn’t have those thoughts, but they still do, so they have a lot of guilt.  And I’m talking about people who generally have an analysis—people who are progressive.  But that same group of people think of fatness as an addiction or an illness.  “We are aware of your feelings, so we won’t mention that around you.”  But addressing fatness can really challenge that.  When you make jokes about it, if you make those jokes well, they stop thinking of it as an illness and start thinking of it in an identity framework.

Lunette: I think, around race, that you, as a politicized person of color in a very white part of the country, you’re not something that a lot of white people encounter often.  There is the possibility to primarily, or even exclusively, engage with white people here.  So when white people meet someone with strong race politics, someone like you, they’re on edge.

Luchador: I don’t try very hard to make white people feel comfortable around me. Often, when white people ask me my name, they follow up and ask if they can call me something shorter, and when they shorten my name, they try to translate it into a whiter name.  If I wanted to make them feel okay about that, I’d say “sure, my friends have this nickname for me.”  But then there’s no acknowledgement that what that person said was fucked up or insulting. I also feel that if I don’t say something, this fool’s going to continue to talk to other people of color this way, and make them feel like their names are too long or funny or wrong.

In LA, I knew that white people, regardless of their politics around race, knew they would get their asses kicked if they said something fucked up.  And I’m comfortable with that kind of acknowledgement, because the alternative is no acknowledgment..

Lunette: I do feel like the stuff you do around race is a little bit about creating trauma.

Luchador: Well, trauma worked really well for me around understanding race. I have a lot of race-related trauma. I know my place is in society because I have experienced racism and each lesson has been traumatic through painful experiences with discrimination. I found out what worked and what didn’t because of this trauma. White people go without this trauma and get upset when they can’t say certain words that POC can say. I find myself in the position of having to explain a lot and frankly I need to make sure it sticks.

tenderqueer: I think I make jokes about being genderqueer or being trans in a tactical way to establish what’s messed up.  “Someone actually said this to me today! Isn’t that messed up?”  And I do a little bit of the “I can say that, but you can’t” jokes.  Or “one person can say that to me, but pretty much no one else can.”

Lunette: I see you do that with gender presentation stuff, too.  Pink backpack, daisies on your bike helmet.

tenderqueer: It allows me to make “man jokes,” and people understand that they need to take them differently because I have a pink backpack and sparkly things.  But if I didn’t have those things, I could make those jokes, and they would not be received in the way I intend them.  My goal with jokes is to help people understand what I’m saying, and I want to play to the person who’s least likely to get it.  I want the people in the nosebleed seats to understand that I’m making a joke at the expense of the assumptions they have about me.

Luchador: I also make jokes that my identity doesn’t allow me to make, to people I shouldn’t be making them with.  Like you guys.  If you ask me to do something, t, and I say I can’t, and you start to object, I can say, “it’s because I’m transphobic.”  And I say it in front of people I shouldn’t say it around.  And then you respond with, “well, I’m racist.”  You correct me on your pronouns, I tell you to learn Spanish.

We have extremes in our environment, with people who really understand identity and people who really don’t.  But there are a lot of people who just need some help to understand, and to make it normal.  I think that the way you make something normal is to joke about it.  But it also lets people expand and establish their boundaries.  “We don’t have the same identity, but you can make fun of this stuff with me, and we’re going to get through this together.  And if I say something offensive to you, we can joke about it.”

Lunette: And just talk about it, honestly and openly, which is really rare.

Luchador: Without it being a production.  That humor is a quick, efficient way of letting you know that I just fucked up, and you letting me know that we’re working through it, without a heavy series of one-on-one accountability conversations.  That’s not culture.  Culture is humor, culture can be light and creative, and when we lean into identity this way, we change the culture we’re in.

Lunette: If we get into those accountability conversations all the time, and never joke about identity, it’s never normalized.  It’s never okay.  The humor that you bring to it in particular, Luchador, is that you’ll give someone a lot of shit, but you’ll be there to help them through it.  “Yes, I’m giving you a hard time, but I’m also an open book.  I’m also here to help you.”

Luchador: I don’t want to lie to people.  Saying, “no, no, that’s okay!” when people say something offensive . I would be lying and it also wouldn’t address the issue. I take the risk that I may not connect with people by being polite but they won’t ever forget the conversation I had with them.

tenderqueer: It’s also approval, coming from you.  I knew the first time that you made fun of me, I thought, “that means you like me.”  And doing that gives me permission to do that.  Before I met you, I didn’t totally know how to engage with people this way, with humor.  And for me, part of it is healing.  You have to level with living in a world with horrible racism, transphobia, sexism, sizeism, all this horrible shit, and every day, each of us is feeling that in some way.  We’re very aware of the way the deck is stacked against us.  But if we can make a joke about it, that helps.

Lunette: And it’s building relationships across lines of identity.  It’s a really important way to learn how to deal with other people’s identities.  I learn a lot through humor.

Luchador: Humor builds our own analysis and the analysis of anyone who’s witnessing that conversation.  When I joke with you two, I try to say things that I think you want the rest of the group to know.  I try to bring things up so you don’t have to be in it alone.  If people are neglecting identity, avoiding talking about it, or talking about it in a way that’s oversimplified, we can say something about our identities that we might only say to other people within our community.  If we say it as a joke, everyone in the room is suddenly aware of that aspect of identity in a deeper way.

Lunette: And you can play off of each other.

Luchador: Right.  You make a fat joke about yourself, and it gets awkward, but then I make a joke that validates your identity, and suddenly it’s okay.

Lunette: It’s third party validation.  It’s theater.

Luchador: Sometimes it’s conscious, but often it’s very reactive.  It’s just a reflex.  It’s a response to being really overwhelmed.  In those moments, there’s so much education to do, and I can’t do all of it right now, but we can make a joke about it, everybody can see the social cues, and it’s so much faster than trying to facilitate a goddamn workshop around that one awkward moment.

Lunette: Plus, when we play off of each other like that, when we interact in this theatrical way, it takes the power away from the person who said the fucked up thing.  No one’s paying attention to them anymore.  Now they’re paying attention to us.  It changes the balance of power.

Luchador: Right.  Part of the goal is to educate people.  But sometimes the goal is just to get them to stop saying fucked up things.  And when we take control of the conversation, it’s suddenly on our terms.

Lunette: It’s one of very few opportunities you get in daily life to interact with identity on your own terms.

tenderqueer: There’s also a “cool kids” dynamic.  If we’re making these jokes, as people with complex identities, we know what we’re talking about, and people do take note of that.

Lunette: There’s also a degree of perceived elitism in that “cool kids” dynamic.  And for people who dislike engaging with identity, that dynamic can further alienate them.  It can make them more entrenched.

Luchador: Our jobs are identity-based.  Our jobs involve coming up with ways to talk about identity, to break it down, to affirm it.  So when we joke with each other around identity, it really messes with people.  It disorients them.  They do take the cue from us, and it’s confusing, since we’re the ones creating the framework and we’re the ones making fun of the framework.

And there’s a particular way we joke about things.  I would never joke with you about things that actually hurt you.  I would never use the wrong pronouns just to mess with you.  I would never say the things that people say when they’re trying to hurt you.

tenderqueer: There’s a level of respect there.  All of us have messed up with each other’s identities at some point.  We can have really good, honest conversations and still joke with each other.  However we deal with things, there’s a maintained level of respect that comes from being able to laugh at and with each other.

Lunette: When I get called out through a joke, it doesn’t haunt me the way an accountability conversation does.  If someone makes a joke that makes it clear that I stepped over a line, I just stop stepping over that line, and I move on.

tenderqueer: When someone tells me, “you crossed a line, and we need to have a conversation about that,” I have those moments burned into my brain.  But when someone makes a joke about it, I get it, and it’s over.

Lunette: And not every moment warrants that.

Luchador: Jokes can take care of a lot of awkward little moments.  You slipped, I’m going to clown you, and that reinforces that you should be thinking about it more, and it doesn’t turn you off to thinking about it.

Lunette: It also subverts some power dynamics.  If someone has more power than you, you might not be able to call them out directly every time, but you can definitely make a joke without putting yourself at too much risk.

Luchador: If you point out that the emperor has no clothes, then suddenly, everyone has access to the same information in the same way at the same moment.  It shifts the power.  Now everyone’s on the same playing field.  Joking gives people an opportunity to maintain your relationship with someone and still say an intense thing you need to say.  It allows you to say both “you’re not wearing any clothes” and “I know you noticed” at the same time.  And they can choose to laugh at the joke and save face.

tenderqueer: That piece about shifting the power really resonates with me.  I think that’s really true.  Sometimes the only way you can claim power is by making a joke.