Learning racism on the playground was easy — with jokes

Humor is an important part of life on a playground, but it's also a way to pick up prejudices.
(Cheryl A. Guerrero / Los Angeles Times)

As a child growing up in the American South during the 1950s and 1960s, I learned on the grade school playground how and whom to hate. The lessons in bigotry and prejudice were delivered via punchlines to jokes.

Like my parents I was the product of a small, provincial North Carolina town. Until I started school, I had no information about anyone outside my narrow community of middle- and lower-middle-class working white folks. I had very little actual interaction with Black, Latino or Asian people. Gay people — and even girls — were mysteries, too.

But I had no shortage of bad information.

No one ever said, “These people are like this.” But within the jokes was a catalog of assumptions.


The Jews were conniving and obsessed with money. The Scots were cheap. The Irish were drunk. The Poles were ignorant. The French were effete. Asian people talked funny. Black people and Mexicans were lazy. Girls were for getting into bed. Blonds were just dumb.

I absorbed the jokes. Like my father and my younger brothers — is it a gene? — it turned out that I had an encyclopedic memory for them. Start me with “A guy walks into a bar,” and I can tell you 40 variations on that theme. So I kept a collection in my head and could trot one out for any occasion. I had jokes related to every human activity — money, travel, drinking, politics, the police, all bodily functions and, of course, sex.

It wasn’t just me, of course. I could watch “The Tonight Show,” or “The Red Skelton Show,” and see the same racial, ethnic, gender and orientation cliches turned into skits and gags. Don Rickles made an entire career out of them.

Early on I was exposed to the idea that these jokes weren’t very nice. My mother, who came from a “good” family and had a university degree, was pained by her husband’s and sons’ rough stories. We’d begin with, say, “This Mexican guy walks into a bar …” and she’d interrupt: “A certain person! A certain person walks into a bar!”

We gleefully ignored her, but the point sank in over time. Gradually I weeded out the cruel or vulgar jokes. I had standards. I wouldn’t tell “funny” stories about people with birth defects, for example. I wouldn’t use the N-word, or a homophobic slur.

Over time, as I started moving about in the world, I realized that much of what I’d been taught by jokes, in addition to being not very nice, also wasn’t true. My family moved to Los Angeles, and for the first time I met Jewish kids — who seemed no different from anyone else in my class. I started working early and in my teens did manual labor and restaurant work, where I had Black and Latino co-workers. Lazy? Uh, no. In high school and college I made friends with some gay people, who also didn’t fit the stereotype I’d been taught.

And I began dating. Girls, it seemed, were not the enemy. My first serious girlfriend was a blond — a really, really smart one.

Later, I spent months in England and Europe, where I met scads of Scottish, Irish, French, Spanish, Italian and Polish people. I lived in Japan for several years and traveled widely in Asia. I learned that everything I’d been “taught” on the playground was inaccurate.

What if that hadn’t happened? If my family had stayed in the provincial South, if I hadn’t gone to university, or traveled and worked overseas, and I’d never found myself outside a community that wasn’t middle-class WASP, would those jokes have calcified into “facts” about those strange, different and perhaps scary people? Why wouldn’t they have?

Challenged, I probably would have defended most of my inventory as “just a joke.” I didn’t hate anyone. I wasn’t hurting anyone. And I had standards. I wouldn’t tell that story in front of a Black person or this one to a gay person, because that would be unkind. But otherwise it was all in good fun.

Or maybe it wasn’t. Thanks in large part to two millennial-age daughters, I have been shown that it isn’t fun at all. If the joke is made at the expense of someone else, then it isn’t funny. It’s just mean.

Do we try to police language? Curtail comedians? Tell schoolchildren they can’t tell jokes anymore? Good luck with that. Or do we hope that, in this time of growing awareness of racism, the consciousness of the country is being raised?

In the meantime, maybe I can recycle some of the stories I spent half a lifetime hearing. Perhaps they can be repurposed or made palatable in some other way.

“A certain person walks into a bar ….”

Charles Fleming writes about cars and motorcycles for The Times and is the author of the urban hiking guides “Secret Stairs” and “Secret Walks.”