Letters to the Editor: Your humor is edgy? Here’s how to tell if it might also be racist

Children play on the playground at Berendo Middle School in the Pico-Union neighborhood.
Author Charles Fleming said he learned about racist stereotypes as a child listening to shoolyard jokes. Above, the playground at Berendo Middle School in Los Angeles’ Pico-Union neighborhood.
(Los Angeles Times)

To the editor: Charles Fleming’s story about how he learned racist attitudes on the playground by which groups were the butt of jokes and how he unlearned those attitudes later in life was moving. This line rings true: “If the joke is made at the expense of someone else, then it isn’t funny. It’s just mean.”

The novel “Stranger in a Strange Land” puts forth an interesting perspective on jokes. Author Robert A. Heinlein’s main character comes to understand the concept of jokes, none of which he can find funny because they must be at someone’s expense for the joke to be funny.

Eventually he sees that the purpose of jokes is “a bravery — and a sharing — against pain and sorrow and defeat.”


He is correct — there must always be a butt of even the most innocent joke, or it is not funny. But, if you ever find yourself saying, “What, can’t take a joke?” you have hurt someone, and you know it.

Kathy Harty, Sierra Madre


To the editor: I could thoroughly relate, albeit on the receiving end, to Fleming’s memories of being introduced to bigotry in the schoolyard.

Shielded from anti-Semitic taunts by my generic name and nonstereotypical Jewish looks, I nonetheless felt Jew-hatred’s sting when my best friend in junior high pointed to a penny on the playground floor and said with a snarl, “Whoever picks that up is a Jew!”

The other kids chuckled and I think I even forced a smile, and of course no one picked up the penny, least of all me.

Not having punched my friend, with whom I lost contact in high school, haunts me to this day.


Vincent Brook, Los Angeles


To the editor: Fleming writes an encouraging account of his efforts to overcome bigotry and prejudice, thanks in part to his world travels and his millennial-age daughters. Still, he perpetuates a stereotype that even he doesn’t see.

Now that he’s enlightened, he tells us that his first serious girlfriend was “a blond — a really, really smart one.” Why not simply say, “My first serious girlfriend had blond hair and was really, really smart”?

Stop using hair color as a noun as if it had the power to define a person. Fleming is trying, but as an educated gray, he should know better.

Jane Faulkner, Solvang


To the editor: Like Fleming, I grew up hearing racist and ethnic jokes on the playground and at home. Just like him, I went to college and unlearned all those falsehoods I’d been taught.


That part was easy. The hard part is confronting and reeducating people who do not have a college education.

Everyone needs a college education, not for lifetime financial security, but for the humanity, understanding, tolerance and acceptance of others that learning brings with it.

Tony Wood, Claremont