A Joke Viewed Differently

August 23, 2010
By , San Marino, CA
I could never believe that at what was supposed to be a top public school in my state, jokes could turn into heated racism. But that’s exactly what did happened. Certainly to be expected, I noticed a sullen change in the humor of my classmates as they entered sixth grade.

To understand racism, you must understand the bubbling White vs Asian war first. About 2/3 of the grade is Asian and 3/10 is White. Both groups are so cliquish that is near impossible for anybody to bridge the divide between the two and say they will be friends with both. Parties are held exclusively for the Asians or the Whites. Their cliquishness often leads to little jokes that are supposed to make everybody crack up. You must possess certain qualities to be in each clique: You must play football and not get straight A’s in the white clique, and you have to have an extreme sense of racial humor in the Asian Clique. And in between? That’s who’s going to get pounced on. Suffer being called what you have to be called. And the number one tacit student rule: Don’t tell anyone. Absolutely not. If the comment has violent undertones, don’t report it. Just ignore it. You must also understand the administration of our school: Old time conservative, indifferent to change people. The principal’s claim to fame is seeing how long he can stay in his office without ever doing anything at his school, and the Vice Principal’s best ability is to bond with the troublemakers.
And so it was. The combining of two elementary schools in 6th grade put more kids in our class. I observed the free use of derogatory Jew and gay jokes. And when they weren’t directed at me, just at other people, I felt I could show these people. I would stray as far away from that violence as possible, use my independent judgment to score points for college. After all, choosing my friends wisely would also benefit me. My sixth grade math teacher, who constantly feuded with the lackadaisical administration, would constantly give these racists detention. He always thought of me as being articulate and able to stand up for those being bullied. I don’t know what was wrong with me then. Maybe I was too young, maybe I didn’t have a clear conscience, maybe I was too involved in making new friends and I did not want to alienate anybody. It also gave me something to laugh about, how stupid one can be. My official reason was those jokes did not apply to me because I was not religious. I had fallen into the depths of mind control: I wanted to be likable, not to be seen as an outcast with independent judgement. After break, I was swallowed up into the gap between the two cliques. I still had very good teachers, and the jokes were not exactly being directed at me. In my mental Rolodex, I continued to record the injustice and hope it would go away without action.

The Time: January 2009. The 7th grade curriculum calls for one semester of Biology and one semester of Applied Tech. The Tech teacher, and a total buffoon, was a proud advancer of the racist cause. He once told a girl that she would not get into college because she did not have the right (racist) humor. He bullied and thoroughly embarrassed the son of the PTA President after he dropped an elaborate camera. (He made him pay $400 to fix it.) The teacher wrote an apology letter, only to embarrass the same kid the next semester. An extra credit project required having a Facebook account in that class. (I didn’t have one) His questions embodied the kind of unethical behavior that went on at this school.

The Time: April 2009, Washington D.C. We had a school trip to Washington that year that I elected to go on. One kid who, incidentally, had dyslexia was bullied the entire trip. He was not aware that The White House was white, did not know the Capitol had security officers and was under the impression that he was looking at the Mississippi River. Again, I was absorbed in the moment, full of laughter, from these mistakes I had heard. After I got back from the trip, I became ashamed of myself after I could not stop thinking about the kid getting laughed at. I had just read about Columbine, and I thought that this was the way in which those killers are created. They feel they have no where to go, and in this case, do not have any friends. I suppose it was at that time that I started to think of the racism and discrimination in a different way.
The Time: May 2009, Shortly Before the ASB Elections: “F*** you, n*****!” “Go to hell, Jew.” “Don’t get close to him, he’s a Jew.” What’s wrong with you? Are you so insecure that you must rip apart others? It had been an extremely stressful month for me, as I argued with my mom why I should not go to a private school. At the end of P.E, I caught word that “Ben” had said the following: “Jews should go to concentration camps. And (someone else or Hitler) should kill them all.” A bunch of students had laughed. My brother, Steven had heard this as well. Understand the two sides we were coming from. Steven had always liked to consider himself “cool and under the influence of others.” He wanted to fit in, and knew how to crack a few himself (the ones he said were not racist). He was torn between using his real mind that might have even been stronger than mine, and the mind he used when his cliquish friends were around. Steven still very much wanted to return to the public school. Because my best friend was returning to India, I had no more stake in the school. All of the suffering of those who weren’t strong enough like the boy in Washington D.C, those who were constantly bullied came to my mind. After school, walking toward the pick-up lot ( you don’t stay after school), I thought about the hell this place had become. The stealing of stuff from people’s lockers, the racist jokes, the gay jokes, the Jew jokes. Not to mention about the quarter of our class who had been suspended for breaking into lockers, and pushing others on the field. We were the number one school in my state? You know, I do credit kids with one thing: They know how to behave around the award panel that decides the school’s fate.

In the car. Steven is at an after school practice for something.

“Sweetie, how was your day?”


“Anything happen?”

And I just had to blurt it out. “Well, during P.E., someone said they wanted to kill all the Jews.”?
My mom kind of moved past it, though saying it was mean. I thought that was the end of that, and let’s move on. She questioned me about if I had failed on any of my tests, remembered to add a word about my potential new private school’s good academic or athletic or musical programs, and then we got home. She turned around to get Steven. Something popped or exploded in her mind, and she returned to the school to make Steven talk to the Vice Principal. After explaining to the Vice Principal what happened, Steven was assured that the Vice Principal would not use his name when he called the kids in for questioning.

When Ben did not show up for English the next day, I knew he was with the Vice Principal. Ben’s best friends were in my class, and his class became a revolving door of kids going from English to office. When Ben returned, he huddled with his best buds in the corner. I cannot remember the conversation but the basic sense of it was, “I’m in big trouble. Steven told on me.”

A couple of his friends came over to me and asked why Steven would do such a thing:

“It was a joke, man.”

“Trashing someone’s culture and heritage is a joke?”

“It was a joke. Ben did not mean it.”

“Look, I don’t care. I can overlook it. That’s just me. But it’s personal for some people. If you were to ask my ancestors who were in concentration camps, they would get very upset. These people were...hurt, and killed. You know, you have to be able to imagine their story, the hardships they went through. What’s wrong with us? You want us persecuted too?”

“It was a joke. Just a little joke.”

“Saying you want someone killed is not a joke. Joke about something else”

Steven, who certainly did not want to be blamed for this problem sent it all to me. (It would take him months, until reading The Wave to realize that what he had done was right) While I tried to pin it back on Steven, I was temporarily fine with it. While I might not have appreciated the religious part of being a Jew, I certainly was very curious about the culture and heritage part of my background and thought that joking around with concentration camps, Hitler, and people dying, was like evoking a nimbus cloud in front of me. Not anymore. I also found out that the book called How to Be a Perfect Racist was going around school. This is counterintuitive to appreciating and understanding different cultures. This book had the perfect zingers against Jews, Asians, Hillary Clinton, women (remember this was when she was running for President), and blacks. It infuriated me more. Ben was banned from the upcoming Election where he was running for President. He was given lunch duty, the book was confiscated, and letters were supposed to be written to Steven. (They never were.) Nothing was done to help integrate cultural differences into the curriculum. Meanwhile, I took the heat from people who said it was none of my business if they wished to make jokes like that, telling on people isn’t cool, and joking like this is okay, as long as it doesn’t happen. But what if it did? It’s easier to fight one person than a movement. I was apoplectic toward the Vice Principal. He used Steven’s name and then used gotcha tactics to get confessions. The Vice Principal had now violated his earlier promise about not using Steven’s name.

My mom rounded up support from the three Jewish families living in our city, and between her and Steven, they got to see the Vice Principal on maybe ten occasions later that May. Steven had the pleasure of meeting Ben’s mother, who was so proud of her boy that she could not believe this could happened and thought it was a figment of his imagination. Ben’s whole attitude about this probably stems from his mom’s flattery of bringing him everything he wants. How obsessed these parents become with their children and how unwilling to accept the truth they are.

Two kids apologized and begged me to commute their “sentences,” as our Vice Principal was calling it. That would not be necessary, I decided. Other kids were telling to me to not mention their names in connection with any of this because they needed to “preserve themselves.” Blatant hypocrisy. I was having a good time, I must admit, seeing the two heads of our school be inundated with a story they weren’t prepared to handle. Other stories were suddenly uncovered, with the pretext that they had been hidden because “that’s what you do to survive.” Public school is not supposed to be a jungle, where everybody attempts to stay quiet over who stole the food.

Reportedly, the vice principal seemed to laugh, kind of shrug off these new attacks. A “let kids be kids” attitude. The day of the student body Election, a write-in movement among the Asian cliques was organized and Ben, though disqualified, received over 1/4 of the votes. An assembly was organized to discuss discrimination, but it was only mentioned in passing. One thing I regret that I did not do and wished I had done is speak directly to Vice Principal or Principal. But I think my brother and I left a sour taste in everybody’s mouth. As the behind the scenes informant, I exposed the racist vogue to an administration that was unaware of what was happening on their own grounds. I angered just about every Asian because of what I did to “one of their own.” And I angered every white by not being part of their racist game against the Asians. You know who I didn’t anger? I did not anger myself. Steven, subconsciously and me, did what was right, not popular. And I learned that activism works. You just have to try.

UPDATE TO STORY: Steven now sees reason and now believes it was horrible to talk about killing off a certain type of people. The arguments over going to our new private school have become redundant because we think the school is awesome. This year, we found out that the administration at our old school hired a pro-life group that has been involved in fraud to talk to the kids about sex and lifestyle. Given the official position of this country is you can have an abortion if you would like to, that set my mom off. The Applied Tech Teacher has moved on to discussing his favorite drinks and favorite foods on his tests. There is still not a groundswell of support to remove the vice principal and there probably will not be. It is a matter of simple human kindness and decency to not insult someone else’s culture, tradition, or religion.

Note: All names and places of importance have been changed for protection.

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