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Silver Threads: When does a joke go too far?

Bettye Anding

Bettye Anding

Forty or so years ago when I went into a South Claiborne Avenue supermarket to buy a watermelon, and then got in the checkout line with it, folks around me laughed.

“Do white people eat watermelon?” asked an amused woman in front of me, and I told her, laughing, “Sure we do — we love it!”

I wasn’t offended. Had I been purchasing caviar in the Uptown Langenstein’s and a woman wearing a Rex pin told me that she didn’t know that West Bankers eat fish roe, I may have been. I did get kind of nettled when a friend told me that her mother thought potato salad was “common.”

Reactions to these kinds of remarks depend upon many things, don’t they? If you perceive the speaker as thinking him/herself superior to you, you’re likely not amused.

 

I got to thinking about all that the other day when I read a local newspaper piece about a guy who made a joke about chicken wings. The New Orleans Advocate reported that “some political observers allege a Republican Kenner mayoral hopeful was being racially insensitive when he publicly told a joke this week that mentioned fried chicken, left wings and Democrats.

“… Kenner City Councilman Keith Reynaud … while introducing the fried pork loin dish he had prepared, joked with the event's attendees that he would have made fried chicken and served only the left wings if they were all at a Democratic event.

“In the crowd was Jefferson Parish Councilman Mark Spears, a black Democrat … who went on Facebook early Wednesday and referred to Reynaud's remarks … touching off a discussion about whether the joke was appropriate.”

I don’t think the councilman was really offended; I think he just wanted a local Republican to sound as offensive as his party’s presidential candidate often does.

But Spears and some others who heard the joke said it invoked two stereotypes about black Americans: that they vote for Democrats and enjoy fried chicken.

"I was personally offended that your attack on the Democratic Party was specifically disparaging to my race," Spears said in a letter sent to Reynaud on last Wednesday afternoon, demanding an apology.

Now, catch me up here: I go back many years and I’ve always thought everybody eats fried chicken.

From Wikipedia, “The first dish known to have been deep fried was fritters, which were popular in the Middle Ages. However, it was the Scottish who were the first Europeans to deep fry their chicken in fat (though without seasoning).

“Meanwhile, a number of West African peoples had traditions of seasoned fried chicken (though battering and cooking the chicken in palm oil). Scottish frying techniques and West African seasoning techniques were combined by enslaved Africans and African-Americans in the American South.”

There you go: the Scots invented fried chicken, the Africans made it a delicacy, and Popeyes makes it hot.

One of my favorite jokes came in the ‘80s from comedian Redd Foxx, star of TV’s “Sanford and Son.” His character owned a junk shop, and while he was looking for salable items in a pile outside a house, “an ugly ole white woman came out,” he told his son, adding, “There ain’t nothing uglier than an ole white woman.”

I don’t know how he got away with it, but it tickled my funny bone, because I remember Mother once lamenting that black women look so much better as they age because their skin stays smoother. I still laugh when I think about it. I’m laughing now, and I’m an ole white woman.

Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her at [email protected]