The Pain of the KKK Joke

Watercolor banner, logo, postcard. Black silhouette of the fores

For the Paris Review, I write about some of the horrific racial violence we have seen and connect it to the violence of the racial humor that is accepted, and really should not be accepted, about these things:

I have had the KKK joke made to my face by non-Black people not just at school, but also in personal situations and in professional ones—from after-school jobs as a teenager to the boardrooms I sat in decades later. Now, in the midst of the current global Black Lives Matter protests, when someone wields the KKK joke, I think about how my aunt’s Minnesota neighborhood and several students in my town here in Nebraska have recently been attacked by the KKK and other white supremacists. Since he was six months old, my son and I have had run-ins with white supremacists, unhooded and in daylight, who tell us to go back where we came from while they threaten what violence they are going to do to us if we don’t.

There is no one KKK joke. There is, however, a wide catalogue of unabashed racism to choose from in creating one. There is always a certain kind of person who feels like it is important to make jokes about the KKK, whether or not Black people are present. This is often the same kind of person who thinks Blackface and pretend AAVE—or jokes about raping women or killing transgender individuals—are important as well. It is part of a consciousness—often white, often male—that does not see us as human beings but as objects to be violated because of our Blackness. And, if it cannot be physical or legal violence, then it will be the violence of language and ideas, disguised as humor. This is what I call the KKK joke.

The pain of the KKK joke is so big you can’t even process it all at once—like how can’t you see the solar system, or even the planet, because of the overwhelming immensity. The pain of the KKK joke is that because you cannot name it directly, everyone else pretends not to see it, not to notice that it is there. The pain of the KKK joke is that no one defends you; you must be the one, yet again, to speak up and say: Racism is bad, please don’t do it; it hurts me. It hurts others.

The pain of the KKK joke chokes all the air out of your lungs like a handheld noose slung around a Black unbreathing throat and up over a tree on a hot, wet, American summer night. […]