It’s Just a Joke?

Mary at Stone Court writes more on the “it’s just a joke” attitude.

Here’s the situation: the game had just been called because of lightning, yet the kids had been sent back out onto the field to gather up the equipment (bases, etc.). I was already in a somewhat annoyed state of mind over this (you’re calling off the game because it’s too dangerous for them to be out there, and then you–the adult coaches–send them back out in the lightning to pick up the bases? Pick them up yourselves, you lazy shits.) Anyhow, that wasn’t the problem, it’s just what had me in a certain frame of mind to begin with. So some of the kids were struggling with lifting third base, which was stuck, and I assume (I wasn’t watching as this part happened) one of the girls on the team tried her hand at it and was successful.

At this point, an adult man on the sidelines — I assume he was a parent but I know nothing about this person — shouted to the boys who were in the group, “What, are you gonna let a girl do it when you can’t?”

A verbal argument ensues and Mary leaves the field feeling as though she was unable to articulate her feelings as she should have.

I had a somewhat similar experience last night.

It was late and I had spent all day at the computer working on a design job. I decided to go for a walk — threw on some jeans and shoes, grabbed my mp3 player, and intended to walk to campus for a cup of coffee over a book I’m desperately trying to finish. I walked to campus down the dead streets having a nice time alone with my music and thoughts. I travel on the sides of the road with the most lighting and best sidewalks and only walk on roads with considerable traffic. The notion that I may be jumped, even in this sleepy town, is always taken into consideration. But keys in hand and the headphones turned just low enough to hear footsteps around me, I made my way to campus.

Oddly, I was thinking of a Susan Faludi essay while I walked, in which she talked about how difficult it is for her to stand up in front of an audience and give speeches on feminism and sexism. It is a powerful essay (which I cannot locate) on the need for women to undo their training in silence to stand up and assert authority over their own identities and anonymity. A friend of mine has no problems with this — I’ve seen her do it several times recently — she openly challenges homophobia, the use of the word “gay” to describe stupidity or lameness, and sexist statements made in her presence.

I aim to do so as well but, and somewhat surprisingly, as opinionated and outspoken as I am in writing, have a difficult time articulating in real time an oppositional stance to sexist, racist, and homophobic speech. Give me a pen and paper though and I’ll rip the shit to shreds. It is something I am working on, but last night I did a very poor job.

Nonetheless, I got to the main corner of the campus village and was waiting to cross the street when suddenly I found myself with my feet off of the ground. I was held three feet in the air and couldn’t get down — the thought of stabbing my keys into the eyeballs of whomever was restraining me briefly ran through my mind, just as I realized who was holding me. It was my friend, M, who had seen me through a storefront window.

M is a man in his mid-twenties whom I befriended when he worked at one of my favorite restaurants on campus. He was down on his luck: a recent college graduate who couldn’t find a job in his field, a single father who couldn’t get along with his babymama, and a young African-American man in a town that isn’t overtly friendly to black people (especially young black men). We spent a lot of time talking and getting to know one another and he soon became a regular at my house. Ethan adores him, though he thinks M’s sole purpose in life is to help him with his video games.

The one itty-bitty problem that I have with M is his insistence on maintaining chivalrous behavior. If we eat together, he pays. If we walk together, he walks on the street-side of the sidewalk. He opens doors, carries bags, and curbs his language around me. I don’t know if he’s noticed that I’m not in tune with whomever is opening a door or that I curse like a sailor, but he maintains these conventions even though I’ve expressly asked him not to worry about it. After awhile, it just became endearing.

M dragged me into the restaurant/bar where he was meeting up with a few friends and I talked with him and his dinner mate, L, for a long while. We talked primarily about the dress code at this place, a dress code that only applies to black men and white kids playing at thuggery (I rolled up one pant leg just to piss off the staff), and about the laughable initiatives against gang activities in town (no gangs or gang activity exist). The conversation switched to Malcolm X, personal evolution and spirituality, and then to general racism. It was a very enjoyable conversation and I thought L was a cool guy — he even listened to a mini-feminist rant in which I disagreed with him on the nature of boys and girls and sexuality (another post). And he agreed! Awesome.

And so, when a group of M’s friends finally showed up and changed the entire conversational atmosphere, especially after our long conversation on race and gender, I was surprised and disappointed.

We were introduced, and upon introduction, one guy asked me if I “have a dunk.” I knew what he was asking me, but tried to make light of the situation by feigning ignorance. I thought my act was obvious, but apparently not.

“Do you have a dunk?” he asked again.

“Um… white girl!” I joked. “I’m not up to date on my slang. One of you guys are going to have to fill me in.”

This is the point at which I should have owned up to my knowledge of what he was asking and made it clear that it was inappropriate. M, thinking I was serious, began to explain what dunk actually means, but in the meantime, the guy I was just introduced to pulled me off of my stool and flipped me around to look at my ass. He confirmed that I indeed have a dunk and expressed appreciation. M and L were horrified and apologized to me, but neither corrected their friend.

And to my regret, neither did I.

I excused myself and left the restaurant. I was too disappointed, in them and in myself, to walk home. Instead I made my way across the walking bridge downtown to meet some others. I mulled over why I didn’t nip the situation in the bud or at least make myself clear when I could have. Should have.

Was it because I had just met him? Was it my inability to express myself as clearly in person as I do when I write? Was it because I didn’t think it was my place? Was it because I was the only white girl among a group of black men? Was it because I was a lone girl among guys? Was it because I was the youngest in the group? Was it because I was facing a group and not a single person? Was it the venue? The intertia? Being starled after my long, quiet walk? Feeling so off-kilter after I was so blatantly objectified? Feeling hopeless to change this guy’s attitude? Feeling hopeless to change all of their attitudes?

And I, disappointedly, realized it was a bit of all of these things. I felt completely deflated.

M called me this afternoon. He apologized again, said that he had a nice time before the other guys showed up and that L had enjoyed meeting me as well. I hung up the phone after our brief conversation and remembered the Faludi essay.

I have to learn how to stand up for myself, to eschew all of the insecurities listed above. I don’t regret meeting or talking to any of these guys, or even the crap that M’s friend pulled on me. I do regret feeling unable, for whatever reason, to say no. Stop. This is not okay.

Thus, I am taking a clue from Mary. She kicked my dunk, so to speak, on being able to stick up for what she believes in. Next time, I will too.

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31 comments for “It’s Just a Joke?

  1. May 12, 2005 at 8:21 pm

    I have the same damn problem. My best friend and roommate insists on using “pussy” as an insult and “anally raped” as a metaphor for a bad day. I’ve tried to hint that it’s not so cool, but she doesn’t pick up on it. And I don’t have the guts to say “STOP SAYING THAT! IT’S TERRIBLE!”
    I’ve also spent the last month feeling guilty about ranting on Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer in class. Even though it is ridiculously sexist; there are no women in the novel, they’re all “cunts” (you think I’m exaggerating. I’m not). I think part of the problem is I’m known as The Dyke Feminist. How sad is it that I have a minor in Women’s Studies but am still afraid of being a “loudmouthed bitch”?

  2. May 12, 2005 at 8:21 pm

    Hi, Lauren,
    It makes me very happy to hear that my story encourages you to speak up, but don’t beat up on yourself. It’s really hard to do & not very well rewarded, to say the least, and even having done it, as I discussed in my post, I didn’t really feel very good about it.

  3. May 12, 2005 at 8:28 pm

    In order for that unfortunate young man to avoid further embarrassing situations, perhaps he should have consulted the book that Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, used to educate his son, Ben: “Everybody’s Got a Tushy,” which was written by Nelson Mandela in prison.

  4. JC
    May 12, 2005 at 8:50 pm

    On the one hand, I think that some people are simply not worth your edification. It does make it difficult when they are friends with people you are OK with though.

    But, if you were to proceed with a response, I don’t think explaining why and how it is wrong would be the best approach. I think the best response in the situation you described is, “Holy shit, you’re a fucking asshole!”

    On some level, I’m sure you’d like to remain civil and polite, but wouldn’t that contradict your problems with M’s chivalrous ways? I think you need to meet people where they are.

  5. May 12, 2005 at 9:11 pm

    Most humans seem to have a general aversion to confrontation; it may simply be that.

    Also: I highly discourage anyone from doing anything to purposely piss off people who will be serving you food.

  6. May 12, 2005 at 9:13 pm

    When I started reading this, I thought you were going to get mad at M for scaring you like that.

  7. May 12, 2005 at 9:21 pm

    Not your fault–he was out of line. Don’t beat yourself because you shouldn’t have to feel like you are obligated to run around correcting everyone’s manners. Just don’t get mad at your friend–sounds like he felt awkward, too.

    I personally have real issues with the idea that women are obliged to run around correcting everyone. Just one more “mommy” job a lot of the time.

  8. May 12, 2005 at 9:24 pm

    Dada, I almost did, but he was too stoked to see me for me to get angry. I’ve been super busy and haven’t been keeping up with friends lately, so it was nice to see him (until all the business happened).

  9. May 12, 2005 at 11:52 pm

    Maybe the butt examination or the physicality is a black thing? As in, OK with all parties involved in certain circles? I have no idea, but it’s conceivable, and I can easily imagine you rightly apraised yourself as in no position to know. Anyway, the behavior in question is not like FGM, and even if it were, it’s not clear to me you have a mandate or a right to utterly expunge such conduct from American soil. If it upsets you, then you might do well to show it. But here there was the opposing principle that when a friend introduces you to his or her friends, you want to make an effort to be nice so as not to embarrass or disappoint them. Perhaps also at work here was a reasonable expectation never to meet this particular butt inspector again.

  10. May 13, 2005 at 12:12 am

    “Anyway, the behavior in question is not like FGM, and even if it were, it’s not clear to me you have a mandate or a right to utterly expunge such conduct from American soil.”

    To clarify, my lack of moral clarity about FGM doesn’t go with “American soil” which I tacked onto the sentence without thinking. I was thinking about FGM as a traditional custom of a sovereign foreign nation, toward which our rights of protest are strictly limited (e.g. arguably it’s OK to hunt whales if you’re Inuit).

  11. May 13, 2005 at 1:06 am

    Murky, I think I’ll steer clear of the dunk inspector, but I have to say that I’m 100% confident that black folks don’t have the market cornered on uninvited ass appraisal. This has happened to me twice as many times with white folks. In any case, it is always out of line. My regret lies in having said nothing.

    Actually, thinking further about it, I’ll bet that if he had pissed me off prior to the ass inspection I don’t think I’d have had an issue calling him out at all. I think my silence was in part because it came out of left field.

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  13. Rabbit
    May 13, 2005 at 8:58 am

    Last night, when I was playing World of Warcraft (an online game, for those of you who haven’t come in contact with one of the obsessed) some idiot in a very populated area of the game posted an ASCII swastika in the chat. He was reported by at least 10 people, and Blizzard (who makes the game), took care of it in under 5 minutes (we think they deleted the guy’s account). Which is a really good response time for them. I posted something up on the forum for our server, just to let everyone who plays on our server know a) how well they handled it and b) to reiterate that anyone else who pulls that crap will probably meet the same fate.

    The responses to my post were…dissapointing. Mostly people saying ‘yea, he shouldn’t have done that…but you’re making too big of a deal out of it. I don’t see what the issue was.’ And, for some reason, my reaction to this wasn’t to write scathing responses to their ignorance…but to question whether or not I was really being too concerned about that. The next day, with a clearer head, I know that I wasn’t being overly dramatic…but I think its another good example of how a normally very outspoken girl (I ask people not to use ‘fag’ and ‘rape’ in the chat casually all the time. And usually get polite, apologetic responses) reacts to people being ignorant by questioning herself. Especially because I’m a girl, in a game/community dominated by middle class white guys (and gamers are largely that), I feel like I have to play nice, and fit in and not challenge their assumptions in any aggressive way. As soon as it moved beyond what I can politely rebuff I have to step aside and bow to pressure instead of standing up, just to avoid getting crap in a game.

  14. silvana
    May 13, 2005 at 9:22 am

    i have always tried to be the sort of person who called other people on their sexist/racist/otherwise bigoted behavior. but you never know how people are going to react. there was a guy in high school who was always making sexual comments to two of my friends. he was sort of in our extended circle of acquaintances, but not really a ‘friend’ per se. neither of my friends would stand up for themselves, so one day i took it upon myself to tell him that i thought his behavior was inappropriate, made my friends uncomfortable, and that he should stop.

    he responded by telling me that i was just upset because no one would ever do that to me because no one would ever want me.

    nice guy, huh? talk about a way to silence someone.

  15. Moopaw
    May 13, 2005 at 9:46 am

    Being an old white man, I don’t know what a dunk is and after reading about it I still don’t, so perhaps someone will explain.

    The main issue of women speaking their minds when confronted is one close to my heart. I have two daughters (both adults now) and I hope they are capable. My wife (their step mom) was able to speak out and never showed fear about expressing her opinion (an example I hope my girls learned from). I would encourage them by saying “You are woman, let me hear you roar!”

  16. heather
    May 13, 2005 at 12:50 pm

    Rabbit – I very much related to your comment. Because I am a girl in the boy-warcraft community too. I get mixed responses to my requests for a change in language. Some are very polite, as you said, but some take it to a further extreme when I question them. I wish I was more consistent, but whether I say something depends on how much energy I have at the time. Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you’re out there!

    p.s. What server do you play on?

  17. May 13, 2005 at 1:35 pm

    Rabbit, the swastika was hijacked by the Nazis. I mean they rotated it 45 degrees, but previously its always been a symbol of peace. Similarly words change in meaning all the time. Rape has numerous meanings, as does virgin, as does fag. So does “pussy”. And why get offended by them? There’s only one word (afaik) that has been consistently a taboo word for the last thousand years. It begins with a c and rhymes with shunt.
    I think George Carlin has a nice sketch about words. Be buggered (see ;) ;)) if I will look for it online though!

    Besides which I don’t believe in censorship per se. I think people should be considerate in their language, I hate swearing as it weakens the language. People use them so much they lose impact.

    @silvana: you got involved where you didnt really belong. his response and your inability to retort is just bad luck. Sex discrimination laws in the workplace are inherently sex-bias. It gives the supposition that women are weak and feeble and can’t deal with banter and can’t defend themselves, so the law is required. The fact you failed to defend yourself means you need to work out some good replies to any insult and memorise them for future occasions!!

    Again its all about censorship. Control by “Big Brother”, Government, etc.

  18. heather
    May 13, 2005 at 2:32 pm


    As you said, words change in meaning all the time. For that reason, intention and motive in usage is very important. How words or symbols were used 50 years ago is important in history, but it is more important to look at how they are used now and how they will affect the future. When most people see a swastika they aren’t thinking “well, it was first meant to be a symbol of peace,” they are thinking of what it means now. To bully, to demean, to control, to discriminate, etc. With that in mind, how can one not be offended? You should be offended. Angry. Not enough people are angry and that is why idiots get away with such things.

  19. May 13, 2005 at 3:24 pm

    As a guy, I struggle with this too–but I’d have to disagree a little bit with Amanda. I don’t think it’s *only* women’s responsibility to go around correcting sexist (or racist, or homophobic) behavior and language; men should share the responsibility completely, and even take it on more than women (and I only say that because of the power structure of patriarchy). But that doesn’t mean that women don’t have an obligation to take it on, too, given the same sorts of preconditions that men would have, too (i.e. is it safe to do so).

  20. May 13, 2005 at 3:31 pm

    I find it interesting that several of us — men and women — have indicated that we may feel somehow unsafe by confronting sour language head-on. I wonder if it is just the expectation of the confrontation — or if we find violence a potential consequence for rocking the boat.

  21. May 13, 2005 at 4:30 pm

    Of course we do. If a large (larger than you), angry guy is bugging you, you respond in a way that pisses him off, your survival instinct is telling you to be careful of him. That’s completely natural, and not always out of line. Sometimes it is safer to let it go, even when your conscience tells you not to. Sometimes the whole thing takes you off guard, and you don’t have the right response handy. That’s what happened with your friend’s buddies. You shouldn’t beat yourself up for it, or for not anticipating it. If you were constantly anticipating verbal putdowns, you’d have no room to think of anything else. Besides, next time you see that guy, you will be more on your guard, yes? So maybe then you’ll be able to say something if it’s needed then.

    It takes courage to stand up to bullies, verbal or physical–even charming and polite bullies can turn threatening when you call them on it. It is about power, after all, the power to tell a woman (or a man) who is in charge of the language in a given conversation. Men feel the same threat when confronted with a loudmouth jerk who is bigger than them.

  22. May 13, 2005 at 5:46 pm

    There will always be someone who will make a remark or use a word you find inappropriate and offensive.

    There are times when the offender should be confronted and times when it is best to allow the remark to pass without comment. There are reasons other than fear to remain mute at times and certainly all confrontations need not be of an “in your face” nature.

    As far as the “dunk” exchange. “Why on earth would you ask a question like that of someone you don’t even know?” would have probably got the point across without stirring up a storm.

  23. May 13, 2005 at 5:54 pm

    Buffalo, this is just a guess, but I don’t think he would have treated me that way if he knew me (not in a loaded way, either — I just don’t think that even acquaintances often speak to one another this way).

  24. May 13, 2005 at 6:03 pm

    you know, sometimes you just want to keep having a good time and not have to get all educational on someone. i know there are times when i have kept silent not just because someone caught me off guard, but because i really was not in the mood to deal. we shouldn’t HAVE to do this…and sometimes we’re just not up to it. it’s hard work and sometimes it’s unpleasant, and sometimes you just want to chill with your friends and not be on the job…

  25. May 14, 2005 at 12:04 am

    I can very much relate to this…and so can probably most all other people of color/minorities. We do walk on eggshells (some of us do, some of us have learned better) when in the presence of white people– watch what we say, how we act, adhere to the “codes of conduct” that are graciously offered by civilization. I think though, we really do need to overcome this–and all of our fears and insecurities and speak with open mouths and flailing tongues. Jimmy Baldwin in the lecture that he gave at UC Berkeley said at one point ” I have drunk my fair share of dry martinis…and now I have decided that I might as well act like a Nigger.” Power and Politics are a very very intense game, some of us learn this game from the get go– some of us catch on later. Alas, we all have to negotiate where and at what point we are willing to “let things exist as they are.”

  26. May 14, 2005 at 12:12 am

    silvana Says:
    nice guy, huh? talk about a way to silence someone

    I have learned to castrate. Power is nothing to play with .

  27. May 14, 2005 at 12:36 pm

    Haranguing someone who offends, especially in public, rarely produces a positive result. It only reinforces negative stereotypes and can easily cause a situation to escalate into something much more unpleasant than a remark which offends.

  28. May 15, 2005 at 11:51 am

    Assertiveness is not a bad skill to develop, Lauren. You can’t change other people, only inform them of how you feel about their boorishness. But that can be release and personal empowerment.

    There was absolutely NO call for the man to touch you like that. I would talk to M soon and be open about your feelings. Tell him how you felt ~without~ accusing him in any way of being complicit. (He may have felt equally frightened about confronting the guy. It may be helpful for the two of you to work out a strategy together about how to deal with that other loon in the future. If M is a true friend, he’ll work with you. From what you have written, you should have an open ear and a willing co-conspirator.)

    Is it scarey when people do this to you in real life? You bet it is. They depend on silence, on the failure of others to challenge.

    If this continues, seek the help of a competent therapist. Coaching helps.

  29. May 15, 2005 at 11:58 am

    One more thing: NOt so long ago I saw a fellow pushing and pulling on some women of your age in a group setting. They kept objecting and he kept doing it. Finally I stood up and said “M., that is ~not appropriate~.” I stared at him. He stopped and left the room.

  30. May 15, 2005 at 11:59 am

    Actually I didn’t stand. I remained seated. Same result.

  31. May 16, 2005 at 10:46 am


    Haranguing someone who offends, especially in public, rarely produces a positive result. It only reinforces negative stereotypes and can easily cause a situation to escalate into something much more unpleasant than a remark which offends.

    I disagree. While I do think it’s always a judgement call (I don’t think anybody is saying one should ALWAYS confront this stuff, in every case, no matter what), I don’t think it rarely produces a prositive result. That hasn’t been my experience. Also, it’s not always a bad thing for the situation to escalate into something much more unpleasant than the remark which offends–just because the offense isn’t as bad as the confrontation that comes after isn’t a reason to not be confrontational. Racism, sexism, homophobia is an interesting mix of fear, anger and ignorance, and confronting somebody with their own mistakes in these regards at least points out the ignorance. In fact, your suggestion for what to say does just that, I think.

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