We Who Laugh, Last

We Who Laugh, Last

Marginalized Communities and the Humor of Survival

Published on November 13, 2014

By now, most students have heard Columbia’s sorely self-indulgent, tongue-in-cheek version of the age-old lightbulb joke: How many Columbia students does it take to change a lightbulb? 76: One to change the lightbulb, 50 to protest for the lightbulb’s right to not change, and 25 to hold a counter-protest.

The accuracy of this jab certainly diminishes its capacity for eliciting laughter, yet there are plenty of students and alumni who take great pride in this (well-deserved) reputation. Columbia has a long—if not infamous—history of protest. From anti-war demonstrations during the Vietnam War era, to rallies for justice in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to the now-famous Stand With Survivors event two weeks ago, it would be no surprise to find a picture of Low Library next to the word “protest” in the dictionary.

However, at a school as diverse as Columbia, picket signs and synchronized chanting are not the only ways to demonstrate resistance. In the deepest, darkest corners of our school (e.g. the Schermerhorn Extension), resistance takes an unexpected form: laughter.

For people of color, American history has been wrought with oppression—legacies of violence and tragedy. In most cases, these events continue to echo and impact communities today, resulting in a lasting framework of oppression. Humor, though, can be a powerful strategy of nonviolent resistance to cruelty.

Comedy is a unique approach to nonviolence, challenging oppression more subtly than traditional resistance. Humor is multidimensional and dynamic; almost all humor is based on contradictions and incongruity. Different groups of individuals understand comedy differently, and marginalized communities have embraced humor as a coping mechanism and as a means of resistance since the earliest days of oppression.

This year’s Native American Heritage Month at Columbia, held in November, has chosen the theme “Laughing at Your Sins: Indigenous Resistance Through Humor.” Though Native cultures used a variety of humor prior to colonial contact , often incorporating trickster stories and half puns into their daily lives, colonization further magnified the need for comedy after waves of genocide. As a student said at a recent Chicano Caucus meeting, “We don’t always laugh because something is funny. We are just laughing to keep from crying.” It’s in the sheer absurdity of oppression that many find humor.

Melinda Aquino, the associate dean of multicultural affairs, spoke at NAHM’s opening ceremony about the times our families laugh for completely inappropriate reasons—oppression, poverty, even death. Like so many communities here at Columbia, Aquino’s own family used laughter as a coping mechanism. Laughter cannot be inappropriate, after all, when it is the only option.

Flipping on the Humor Switch

Humor does more than we realize to create a sense of validation and acceptance in communities, which are essential for marginalized peoples both within their own communities and, perhaps more importantly, without. Sharing a laugh with someone from another community is often a sign that you share experiences or, at the least, empathy. Because it is extremely difficult to hang out with those whose humor you do not “get,” humor also has a way of segregating groups of people.

This also explains why humor is more easily understood between allied groups, many of whom share experiences. Native Americans can relate to Jewish people and Palestinians because we can relate to the Holocaust and forced relocation. When a tragic history is built in to your genetic makeup, comedy becomes a way to see the suffering in a humorous way.

How does one turn suffering into humor? In his book On Humor: Its Nature and Its Place in Modern Society, sociologist Michael Mulkay distinguishes between the “serious mode” and the “humorous mode” as two ways in which we see the world. In the serious mode, we all assume that we share the same world, and take for granted that other people perceive the world the same way we do. When we are in the serious mode, there has to be a clear boundary between what is real and what is unreal. This is the world based on reason and logic, and contradictions are considered problematic, where something cannot “be” and “not be” at the same time.

However, in the humorous mode, there have to be contradictions, because contradictions are a basic principle of humor. Contradictions are not problematic, but rather necessary in the humorous mode. Here, we can play with misunderstandings, incongruity, and duality. In order for something to be amusing, it usually has to turn things upside down or present itself in more than one frame at the same time. This is why oppression can be joke material at all; the idea is a contradiction in and of itself.

I recently had an ex tell me that “you can either cry about things or laugh about them,” a sentiment that is essential for understanding resistance humor. (Though I agreed with the statement, he was talking about the fact that the fireplace in my dorm is fake, while I was talking about colonization.) Not everyone at this school uses humor to cope with adverse situations—many of us were fortunate enough to be raised in situations that gave us the tools to address our problems directly. However, the diversity at our institution should mandate an awareness of the fact that humor does not always exist for entertainment alone—it is often necessary for survival.

It goes without saying that there is no single “Latino,” “Native,” or “black” experience. Each person comes from a different place with exposure to different elements that are responsible for shaping their identity. So while there is no universal methodology for “Indian” humor, similar experiences help create a more uniform understanding of comedy in that community. There’s a reason that “Shit Indian Girls Say” is hysterical for some, but flies over the heads of others.

It should be noted that the individuals I reference in this piece are not representative of their entire communities; they are simply people with a reason to laugh that comes from their identity. As Peter Berger writes in the book Redeeming Laughter: The Comic Dimension of Human Experience, “Those who laugh together, belong together.”

Landing the Joke

Chicano Caucus held a discussion at a meeting in late October about humor as a means of healing—la locura lo cura. The group recognized that when you make a joke, it is an extremely vulnerable moment, because it requires that you implicitly share the background or experiences that have shaped what you believe to be funny. We all wait for social cues to trigger humor, hoping that other individuals can identify with our comedic style. Ideally, we all guffaw together and skip arm in arm into the sunset, embracing our newfound friendship. Of course, the joke could fall flat, leaving you with a group of blank-faced people blinking at you or attempting to chortle politely after an awkward pause. Because of this dynamic, humor can create acceptance and validation, or boundaries and alienation.

Rachel Chung, a senior in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, is Jewish, Korean, Ohioan, feminist, loves to write, hopes to be a doctor, and speaks about “halfie humor” and the unique comedic value of having a foot in two worlds.

“‘Jewish humor’ as a genre is pretty well-developed. Korean humor, not as much,” Chung explained in an email. “But there’s also the burgeoning style of humor from people of mixed race—hapa humor, halfie humor, disillusioned outsider humor, call it what you will.” Chung remarks that her ethnic experience in America is shaped tremendously by her dual identity—it is defined by multiple histories of which she is not a full participant. The way she sees it, though, this only gives Chung more material for jokes: “As I always say, double the trauma = double the comedic material. Holocaust jokes? Yes. North Korea jokes? Also yes. How many people can get away with THAT?”

Oppressed communities often use their own oppression as well as their oppressors as subjects of jokes. Though some may say that it is “unfair” for people of color to make jokes at the expense of white people, there is a unique power dynamic present in humor that perhaps nullifies this argument. Where Native Americans can make jokes about “commods”––the government-issued food given to Indians on reservations––white people will be hard pressed to find a time they can do the same, precisely because Indian reservations and their consequential poverty are due to policies instituted by colonizing Europeans.

That is, it is fundamentally inappropriate for the historical tormentor to make jokes at the expense of a marginalized community. This is not because that individual had a personal role in the persecution of the other, but because there is still oppression of the latter groups. In many scenarios, there are cases where the humor will simply not be understood. Tiana Lino, a sophomore in Columbia College who identifies as black, Latino, and Muslim, knows this all too well. Lino, the Black Students’ Organization publicity chair and Muslim Students Association member, said in an email, “I always feel like people don’t ‘get’ the humor of my community.”

Lino explains further that what may look like prejudice from the outside is simply her and her friends’ way of making light of oppression. “It’s typical for me to say ‘black people’ after I or a friend has done something that’s stereotypical in our community; someone who hears the conversation out of context often wonders why such a thing would be said,” she says. “But honestly, it’s funny because no matter how hard you try to be above the stereotypes or the preconceived notions people have about you, oftentimes you will do exactly that because it’s what’s most comfortable.”

When it comes to making jokes like this about identity, Chung says there are three ways that “the cookie can crumble”—three ways the joke can resonate with the audience. First, the audience may not understand the joke because it relies on a cultural awareness that they don’t have. In Chung’s words, if the joke is “too far inside,” it prevents the joke from being funny at all.

In the second scenario, the audience may find the joke funny, but they don’t really “get” it. As Chung says, “They think they get it. Jews and money jokes. Koreans and school jokes. These jokes are based on stereotypes, skimmed off of the top layer of a knee-deep tradition soup. They work when I make them because I have all of that history behind me. The reason they don’t work when non-Jews or non-Koreans make them is because they are then only drawn from that top layer. It’s still funny, but not for the right reasons.”

And finally, the joke can go well. In this scenario, Chung says, “It’s hilarious. You are hailed as a comedy god.”

Importantly, when using humor as a form of protest, one would typically only share this kind of joke with those they trust—or with those they want to know if they can trust. Thus a kind of “hidden transcript” is born. A hidden transcript—as opposed to a public one—is the way subordinate groups act and talk about their oppressors behind their backs. In the public transcript, the oppressed under a dictatorship say, “Yes sir!” and show obedience and compliance. But when one can get away with it, often with a small group of trusted friends, the worker will work more slowly, the slave will steal his master’s food, and the oppressed citizen will mock and ridicule the dictator.

After all, a culture of resistance depends on an us/them divide. Although such kinds of divides are often considered problematic, in an oppressive situation there has to be a difference between those who are oppressing and those who are resisting. You need to name what it is you consider oppressive in order to be able to fight it.

Laughing It Off

Many nonviolent resisters make an effort to  differentiate between the oppressors as people and the oppression they are committing; thus the humor will attack the oppressive system, but not the oppressor as a person. For Sarah Stern, feminist junior in Columbia College, coming to Columbia helped her understand where her own identities fit onto the scale of marginalization.

“I never really considered myself oppressed until college because I didn’t understand my sexuality back home. I just knew I didn’t give a shit about boys but felt pressured to date them,” Stern says. “Then I came to college, and through my personality, which is both ridiculously awkward and sarcastic, I started using humor to help others understand what it’s like being a ‘light-skinned’ Native American as well as not being straight and from the South.”

Stern’s brand of humor helps resist oppression by reducing the fear that the oppressors have of her gaining power. America, how you could you possibly feel the institution of marriage is threatened by an Oklahomasexual who wears a Pikachu onesie at least once a week?

Humor gives the illusion of innocence, which generally causes the oppressor to underestimate the severity of the situation at hand. Humor used against oppression has a special twist to it because the humorous mode is connected to a perception of goodness, which contrasts so sharply with the serious issue of oppression. This contrast is crucial, because it leads to another special advantage of using humor: the difficulty of repressing it.

Much of resistance humor acts in a way that makes light of a situation or struggle that may otherwise be difficult to address—either because the struggle is emotionally draining to discuss, or because the discussion comes off as confrontational. For example, Devin Etcitty, a Diné sophomore in SEAS minoring in dance with “an applied math major to shake things up,” used social media to call out a girl in Ferris Booth who felt entitled to walk away from a mess she had caused. Etcitty wrote in a Facebook status:

“White people:
They spill things but don’t clean it up.
Whether it be the girl who spilled her coffee in the dining hall and left.
Then there’s the Church Rock Uranium Spill in New Mexico.”

This joke contains an element that is often present in resistance humor: the ability to make people remarkably uncomfortable. For Ettcity, that means simultaneously shaming the uranium-mining company back home and the girl in the dining hall.

For many, comedy is a way of healing and relaxing. Columbia students may rely more on humor as a means of de-stressing due to the remarkably few opportunities to take a bubble bath at the University. The result is a plethora of students that have learned to laugh at themselves and the microaggressions they encounter on and off campus. Chung explains her first attempt at joining the Korean Students Association as a sophomore.

“I went to a meet and greet event with a friend from Korean class,” Chung says. “I found myself being introduced to a member of the KSA who got to asking what brought me to this meet and greet. It was an understandable question, given my strong double eyelids and browner-than-black hair, and it was one I have heard frequently. It always shakes out to the same question: ‘What are you doing here?’ But, instead of launching into my almost robotic spiel about my heritage, I took a risk and said only, ‘My dad is Korean.’ She asked what my other half is. I said, ‘Um…white,’ (obviously). She pressed on, asking what kind of white. I said Jewish. She said, ‘Oh, really? You look Jewish.’ To her it was nothing. But to me, to many Jews, ‘looking Jewish’ brings up the dregs of institutional memory. I laughed it off at first, but when she left, the anger hit. I looked at my friend. She looked at me wide-eyed and mouthed, ‘What the fuck?’ So at least we were on the same page. After the inaction, then the anger, subsided, all that was left was coping. I coped with humor. I tell the story in a funny way. I make it seem like a joke at her expense. It’s the only way I can get back.”

Through anecdotes like Chung’s, we can make light of problematic situations while helping our own anger dissipate. Lino, apparently the “token Muslim” in her story, describes how she too has learned to laugh at situations in which others can come off as tactless.

“In my last CC class we were talking about the Qur’an, and one of my peers thought it was appropriate to call me out at the beginning of their question,” Lino recalls. “By call out, I mean they prefaced their question by directing it at me. I thought it was funny because I hadn’t realized I was the token Muslim in the classroom, and that it was my responsibility to defend an entire community. So I dealt with it the way I knew best, and I laughed because it was humorous to me.”

Elvis Ulises Diaz, a junior in General Studies and a member of Chicano Caucus, explains that he has seen humor used in rough neighborhoods to cope with stress, and this is something he has translated to his Columbia education. He grew up in Southern California in a neighborhood that was primarily Latino, African-American, and Cambodian. Despite racial tension, cross-cultural friendships were made, and humor could always be generated from the shared experience of poverty. Because of his unique name, he has found a comedic way of introducing himself, which helps break barriers and exudes guiltlessness:

“With a name like Elvis, I always use it as a way to break the ice. I remember a cop pulled me over and asked for my name. ‘Elvis? Can you sing like him?’ I said, ‘No, but I can dance,’ and then I proceeded to do the moonwalk. He laughed; I then said ‘Thank you, thank you very much.’ I’ve done this in other situations because I find humor lowered the tension. Especially in difficult situations humor is the best way, especially self-deprecating humor.”

Telling It Like It Is

First-years arriving from communities more homogenous than Columbia’s may have a difficult time coping with the transition to the diversity of New York, especially when exposed to a torrent of ignorance. For Kasie Takayama, a first-year in Columbia College from Hawaii, the laughter comes later, for setting the record straight on culture is too essential to laugh at in the moment.

“I definitely have not learned to laugh at crazy stereotypes that I have heard or been asked about yet. In fact, I don’t see the ‘yet’ part of that sentence ever changing. My culture and my heritage are very important to me,” Takayama said in an email. “Whether it is my Hawaiian ancestry (which I have had the most encounters of stereotypes with) or my Japanese, Chinese, or Filipino ancestry, every part of who I am makes me the person that I am and the person I strive to be. Every background that I come from has been that of hardworking, industrious, loyal, and intuitive people.”

Keeping these things in mind has helped Takayama deal with the microaggressive comments she is confronted with. “It encourages me to learn to push back the anger and educate the person whom the comment or question has come from,” she says. “I do this because I feel that if I don’t educate him or her, another person will have to face this same struggle when they are asked these types of questions…if I do not educate these people, my ancestors and my cultures will continue to be misrepresented and misunderstood.”

Despite taking opportunities for education seriously, Takayama understands the importance of laughter. Because “Hawaiian humor” is so distinctive, she carves out a niche by relating her own experiences and slang to her friends so they can better recognize her humor.

“Sometimes I don’t even realize it’s a ‘Hawaiian’ inside joke or doesn’t pertain here,” Takayama says. “I’m learning that words like ‘pau’ and ‘cruise’ are only okay with the friends I’ve taught them to because I know those words will slip all the time.”

The space for resistance consists of many possible actions along a continuum and should not be understood only as either open rebellion or absolute submission. Overall, communities without adequate representation have learned to use humor to cope with injustice and strife, ranging from the genocide of our people to the dickish person on College Walk who insists on calling your state its own country. In order to help facilitate cross-cultural exchange at Columbia, we must recognize that much of our comfort in a specific community comes from shared cultural experiences. Rather than shying away from that, we should work to obtain a level of empathy for communities outside our own. At the very least, we will obtain a knowledge which will help us represent the University’s goals of being “cultured” and “worldly,” though ideally, we find ourselves with more reasons to laugh.

If you are concerned that there hasn’t been enough trauma in your life for comedic material, rest assured that attending school here should provide you with adequate suffering to be funny. Being uncomfortable, or unamused, in another group’s realm should only serve to highlight the lack of empathy that one possesses regarding the other’s experience at this institution. Attend the events of groups outside your own community; learn to understand why the laughter takes place. It is through these pathways that we can recognize the absurdity of oppression and work to change it, all the while maintaining morale, healing each other, and laughing at ourselves.


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