I’ve always wondered about a couple of crude phrases often used among men to announce the need to go to the bathroom. One is, “Well, I need to go drop the Browns off at the Super Bowl.” Tame enough, I guess. But when this phrase is mentioned, a similar phrase usually has to be mentioned in turn: “Need to go drop the Cosby kids off at the pool.”
Is this racist?
I’ve never used the phrase because I thought it to be sort of crude. And now I’m glad I didn’t, because I’m now convinced that it’s racist. And I’m going to discourage my friends from using it.
I appreciate Philip’s comments and will henceforth think twice before choosing from my vast repertoire of poo jokes. Particularly, I’d like to thank Philip for having the courage to write about it publicly. This is obviously a sensitive topic, but ignoring it is not the answer.
I think, somewhere back in the recesses of my mind, I recall having that same knee-jerk reaction when I first heard the “Cosby kids” joke. Since that time, I’ve done some thinking, and I’d like to share those thoughts here. I also welcome any constructive criticism. I’d be interested to know how such a joke is perceived by my black friends, and where the following concepts fit in to that framework.
A common brand of humor constructs the element of comedy by infusing the punchline with somehow shocking or ironic elements. In this case, the irony is that the color “brown” is being used for something other than its literal intention. A less specific euphemism limits the phrase to “I’m going to drop the kids off at the pool.” Either version can evoke the image of little children leaping from someone’s digestive tract and falling into a toilet, which is so shocking as to elicit humor.
Usually, the statement, “I need to defecate” or some other literal approach does not solicit wild laughter. (NB, in some circles this is more than enough to do so.)
The problem we encounter is that sometimes, a punchline may be associated with a history in which the element designed to be appalling turns out to be real. Let’s go ahead and continue with the Cosby version. This joke would be perfectly acceptable in all circles IF we did not have a history of black people having been oppressed or disenfranchised in this country. However, due to that history, we now have to deal with repercussions, including both the perpetuation of racism by unimaginative types, and the paranoia of racism by the over-imaginative ones. Unfortunately, the latter tends to spawn the former, which then generates more of the latter. Vicious cycle, and all that — you know the drill.
The larger issue here is that racism has effectively experienced a redefinition. Merriam Webster currently states racism is “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race”. At this point in time, nearly any mention of racial distinctions leads us to assume that racial discrimination has occurred. May we be honest, and admit that races are called races because they have distinctive traits? On a macro level, these traits are described by elements related to pigmentation or geography. On a micro level, there are other distinctive features, including bone structure, height, and even consistency of ear wax.
Let us, for a moment, pretend that we live in a world where racism has never been an issue. In this world, we could use the Cosby joke and it would be genuinely funny. In that world, we could try and say “I’m dropping the Simpson kids off at the pool.”, but it would not be funny. The reason is that human feces are not (naturally) yellow, and they rarely come out shaped like Bart. So the Simpsons have no similarity specific to them from which the joke may draw its analogy. We might use the version that does not mention a specific family, but then the analogy is less defined. The toilet may still resemble a pool, but some explanation is needed. If we are to have the additional similarity of color, only a family whose pigmentation resembled the color of poo would work, because otherwise the color does not lead us to the shocking punchline where we imagine tiny children being dropped into a toilet. In our imaginary, racism-free world, a hostile interpretation would not be open to us because racism would not exist.
Our plight is that the world’s history does contain many examples of racism. Therefore, if a joke may be interpreted to either include or exclude a punchline inspired by racism, we often assume the former. Thus, racism has killed off some of our humor, and also denies us full access to our own language. We have to go out of our way to avoid usage that could be interpreted as racist, and so we lose many analogies and sometimes an entire end of the light spectrum.
Frankly, I’m losing patience with our tired obsession with racism. I can certainly handle the loss of a mediocre poo joke, but our victims extend far beyond that casualty. Now we are trained to look for color differences and see them where they were not likely to be intentional. I believe that we will not see a country where racism is truly extinct until we begin to act like we already live in one. This includes ceasing our ridiculous notion that “we are all the same”. We are decidedly not all the same, and I’m the happier for it. I love seeing God’s artistry in the human palette. We need not assume that any mention of our pigment must carry with it centuries of discrimination, or the notion that our external differences imply unequal inherent worth. By doing so, we cede victory to that sad tradition.
Whether the Cosby joke found its birth in racism or only in irony, I do not know. I would like to give it the benefit of the doubt and assume the latter (perhaps this is naive). In this vein, we’d better be careful about taking the Browns to the Superbowl as well. After all, they were originally intended to be the Brown Bombers, in honor of boxer Joe Louis.
Nonetheless, I take comfort in the fact that I may still build a log cabin, dispense some soft-serve, drop a deuce, have some alone time, lose a few pounds, and make a sacrifice to the porcelain god. If I happen to be at Harding, I might even take a trip to the Bible building. Best toilets on campus.