What is cultural insensitivity? How does one distinguish between harmless jokes or comments and hurtful generalizations? Is there really a difference?
A few weeks ago, I was talking to a Caucasian friend about public transportation. When expressing my concerns about being in an enclosed space with strangers he replies, “Don’t worry; I’m pretty sure it’ll mainly be white people anyways.” This really hit me, because I was confused. While others were laughing, I actually found myself deeply offended by this comment.
It’s 2014, yet I still come across many of these insensitive, hurtful comments that continue to plague this country as if it’s still the 1920s.
Am I overly sensitive or justifiably concerned? Can I be both? These comments don’t only occur in everyday conversation, but social media and television as well.
Some of these stereotypes even manage to sneak into children’s cartoons.
Take the cartoon Hey Arnold for example. The main characters are predominantly white, the only minorities appear as stereotypes. You have the only main African-American character, Gerald. He’s tall, wears old school Chucks/Converses, a basketball jersey and speaks like the stereotypical “black guy”. There’s also Phoebe, the cast’s main Asian character, besides Mr. Nguyen. She’s docile, nerdy; shel stays on the back-burner for the majority of episodes.
Although not immediately harmful, the stereotypes perpetuated in children’s media can affect them. Subliminally handed down to children, and easily overlooked by parents, it can develop into a different class of offensiveness.
Another real life example occurred in December of 2013 when Justine Sacco, IAC Public Relations Director made a racist joke about an upcoming trip to Africa.
Sacco tweeted, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just Kidding. I’m White!”
The PR executive was fired from IAC for these tweets and apologized saying, “Words cannot express how sorry I am, and how necessary it is for me to apologize to the people of South Africa, who I have offended due to a needless and careless tweet.”
Friends of Sacco are arguing that she’s not hateful person, she just made a mistake. What she thought was a harmless joke, turned into a hurtful comment. There’s a continuous theme here.
Were the people of IAC right to fire her for these tweets or overreacting? I believe that IAC was justified in their firing of Sacco. She reflected their business in a negative manner by tweeting racists comments and managing to make fun of a serious medical illness at the same time. That doesn’t mean I think she’s a racist, sick person. I just believe she took a joke too far, offending many people. Therefore, she had to face the repercussions of her actions.
So again, am I being overly sensitive or justifiably concerned? Can I be both?
I feel like I fall somewhere between the two. There’s really just no clear cut answer. Although I would like to think that I know the difference between offensiveness and joking, I know I have my sensitive moments.
In general, people are more likely to relate to others of their own background and understanding, therefore less likely to be offensive. If the Caucasian friend at the introduction became my African-American friend, it would’ve gone from borderline offensive to a simple funny comment. I’m not saying this is right, just widely accepted.
All in all, going into different cultures and walks of life, the line becomes very blurred and foggy on what’s hurtful and not. It’s important to be careful when dealing with people from different walks of life because what’s blue to you may be red to them.