A rude joke is an attack


March 15, 1992|By Niki Scott

OK, so it wasn't my best moment. But at least I didn't laugh . . .

"You write about working women? You got a husband sittin' right there beside you. What can a married woman possibly know about having to work?" was what the fathead at the dinner table said by way of introduction, guffawing and glancing around at the other males to be sure they were in on this screamingly funny bit of repartee.

It was not my best moment, it's true. I didn't think of a stunningly clever retort until the next day. But at least I didn't pretend that this man's rudeness was not only acceptable, but amusing, as well.

No person of color would be expected to find a racist joke amusing; no Jew would be expected to chuckle over an anti-Semitic slur. And no man at that party would have dared say such a thing to another man.

It's time we all stopped laughing at "humor" that promotes false and hurtful stereotypes about working women, such as the one that most working women don't really have to work for a living and, therefore, don't have to be paid as well as male co-workers for work of equal value.

It's true that when we stop laughing at sexist put-downs we run the risk of hearing that most deadly accusation of all: "You women (feminists, 'libbers, wives, girls, divorcees, dumb blonds) have no sense of humor!" -- despite the fact that our objections have nothing to do with whether we have a sense of humor.

DTC Teasing between more or less equal colleagues requires a sense of humor; jokes that bind us together and make us feel less alone are humorous. Anything that tickles our funny bones and makes us laugh without being mean-spirited is both humorous and a good thing. But "humor" that's rude and mean-spirited is just a sneak attack in a cowardly disguise. And "humor" that fosters negative stereotypes against whole groups of people is one of the tools that make all other attacks easier.

And if we continue to avoid unpleasantness at all costs by laughing when the "joke" is on us, it will one day be on our daughters and granddaughters -- and their daughters and granddaughters.

A friend of mine who finally was promoted into upper management not long ago was stunned when her boss said, "Well? Aren't you pregnant yet? The minute you women start being useful to a company, you announce you're going home to have a baby!"

"I was speechless -- so mad I couldn't think," she said. "But at least I didn't laugh and agree with him that we women are likely to behave in this way."

It's true that she didn't think fast enough to say, "Actually, a high percentage of women who are promoted into top management make the choice not to have children at all -- a choice that no man has to make." But at least she didn't agree with him, and at least she didn't laugh.

She was not a good sport, and it's time we all stopped being good sports when the very people who can promote us -- or not -- foster false stereotypes about dumb blonds, or working mothers, or working women, or women in general.

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