LA Story: Humor, Soccer, and “Racism”

I started, wrote, and re-wrote a blurb on this for yesterday’s Daily Sweeper; it’s possible six or so people read it before I yanked it.  The post dealt with a touchy subject: the intersection of fan humor and race/ethnicity.  By the time I finished, though, I wound up with a blurb – not nearly enough to address so contentious an issue.  But, big and interesting as the subject is, I didn’t want to duck it.  So, I’m trying again here.

To start at the beginning, Dan Loney wrote a frustrated post in response to a preview written ahead of last night’s SuperClasico by a reporter named Billy Witz, who writes for the Long Beach Press-Telegram.  As part of an attempt to describe the heightened tension surrounding the SuperClasico, Witz reported an incident from the previous “LA derby” in which the Riot Squad, an LA Galaxy supporters group, wore sombreros and hired a mariachi band, a bit of fan theater that Witz reports left some of Chivas USA’s Mexican nationals feeling “mocked” and “irate.”  Loney responded with subscription-canceling ire growing from his sense that he’d been branded a racist.  You can best get their sides by reading Loney’s post, though the original article forms the primary source material.

But the whole thing got me thinking…and that leads me to a story:

I went to a Super Bowl party a couple years back, which, due to the hosting arrangement featured an unusual mix of people.  It’s important to note that I view the Super Bowl the same way many people view, say, St. Patrick’s Day or Mardi Gras: an event to be celebrated in the crudest (and drunkest) spirit.  This also usually involves channeling a weird jock persona, one inspired by jocks from my high school days who believed that tarring anything as “gay” was both hysterically funny and irreparably humiliating.

That’s where the unusual mix in attendance comes in: the party wound up including a bi-gender affair and, yes, at least one lesbian – a woman I’ve both known and respected for years, whom I’ll call Brenda here.  Having inadvertently offended her in the past – and this through a joke with homosexual allusions, but by no means relying exclusively on homosexuality for its humor* – I really, really should have known to keep my “jock persona” in check.  But, drunk as a lemur and positively wallowing in locker-room-thug masculinity, I spent the first half dubbing every bad play “gay” (like we all did in third and fourth grade – that was the joke, people!) and catcalling at every ad featuring busty chicks.  And, with that noted, yes, my wife was there and, yes, we’re still married.

For a while, people reacted to me – not just Brenda, but many of the women in attendance.  Before long, though, the party subtly quieted and separated; by the start of the second half, I had chased Brenda from the party and, generally, soured the mood.  In my mind, this was Super Bowl Sunday, a one-day tribute to testosterone; for everyone else, this was a party that some asshole had ruined.  My finest hour?  Hardly.  Do I feel guilt about this?  Not really, no.

So, where am I going with this?   I use that story to address Loney’s apparent shock at how the Riot Squad’s “performance art” was perceived.  The lesson I learned at that Super Bowl part was this: you lose control over a joke the second you tell it.  You can tell people to learn to take a joke, but you can’t make them do it.  To take that one step further, at no point in Witz’ article does he utter the word “racism,” nor do I think he even alludes to it in any real sense; he only writes that the Riot Squad seemed to be “mocking” Mexican heritage and, counter to Loney’s arguments in his defense, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see how the stunt could be taken in that spirit.  While I understand that my “event” wasn’t identical to Loney’s – I mean, I had history to tell me not to go there and Loney didn’t have the same – they are analogous.

At the same time, I get Loney’s frustration, the sense that he’s being charged as being something he clearly and wholeheartedly rejects.  It recalls the incident with Brenda and the women at the party generally: it’s entirely possible they view me as some sexist/homophobic troll.  Can I prove I’m not?  Not really.  But, without boring you with the details or waving sundry banners about having three sisters (of whose lives and accomplishments I’m wicked proud) and how I’m flattered when gay men hit on me, I can say with complete confidence, that person from the Super Bowl isn’t me and that the overwhelming number of people I know would back me up on that.  Then again, it doesn’t matter because, y’know, it’s done.

But there’s also a reason I mentioned not feeling any guilt about that Super Sunday.  I don’t feel like I did anything ACTUALLY wrong. I don’t think the Riot Squad did anything wrong either – and they stunt they pulled, as I understand it anyway, hardly makes them racists.  To begin, the joke seems essentially harmless to me, even if you take it as “mocking” Mexican heritage.  At the same time, I’ll readily acknowledge that to be a personal measure: not to give too much away, but I can absorb jokes about bald heads and tiny penises all day long and laugh right along; I just don’t have those kinds of buttons.  When I was in elementary school, some random kid on a school bus yelled out the window, “Your mama’s a cow pussy!”  And I remember waving my arm and saying something like, “I’ll pass that on.  Thanks!”  It didn’t bother me.   Why?  Because I knew that my mom wasn’t a cow’s pussy; that some little shit on a school bus said so neither changed my mom nor meaningfully affected my her honor.  Put another way, they’re just words, words and gestures that only have the power we give them.

Even assuming the worst – e.g. that the Riot Squad was lampooning Mexican heritage, something Loney, credibly I believe, says they were not – well, so what?  At worst, the joke is “damn, y’all wear silly hats!”  It’s not like they held up banners about “wrecking our economy,” perpetuating bullshit about “lazy Mexicans,” or anything genuinely wrong and wicked.  This is sharp, tongue-in-cheek ribbing and nothing more.  If Mexican fans want to respond in kind, let them come to a game dressed in shorts up past their belly buttons held in place with fanny packs and top off the ensemble with tacky American flag shirts: viola!  The ugly American brought to a stadium near you.

All is not fair, of course, and lines can be crossed: the dreaded “ape chant” to give a notorious example.  The evil intent there is undeniable, a statement that, because of a man’s race, he is somehow closer to the animal; it’s abhorrent and, thankfully, that doesn’t happen here – and it shouldn’t happen anywhere.  There’s also the possibility that even the Riot Squad’s stunt could some day take on added meaning and escalate – something that’s at least possible given external tensions surrounding the ongoing and, at times rancorous, immigration debate.

Given the above, I acknowledge the risks of letting this kind of envelope-pushing go.  At the same time, our society has spent the past twenty years vigilantly shrinking that same envelope to point of meekness (I’d argue to the point intellectual suppression of a sort that renders the work of speaking frankly about race and ethnicity impossible, but that’s a far larger point for another day and space).  As I see it, we could stand to push back, to search out a place of balance where actual, demonstrable harm becomes the standard as opposed to something simple and subjective as “hurt feelings.”  Humor belongs in soccer, right next to the, thankfully, mock-hatred between fans – a healthy thing so long as it stays “mock.”  And so long as “hatred” of any sort is in play, the humor will incline to darkness.  So be it: you should be able to sing sickeningly unsavory songs about opposing fans’ mothers and fathers…so long as you’re big enough to let them sing them same songs back at you.

2 Responses

  1. Boy, Jeff, you really sank your teeth into that one!

    I can’t help noticing how a few of your points echo the ones I made in my reply to Dan’s posting. Not accusing you of plagiarism, though. More of a “great minds think alike” kind of deal.

    Of course even intimating there may have been any plagiarizing going on assumes that you actually read my comment, which is not a safe assumption.

  2. In all honesty, Nathan, I did read you comment (though perhaps not as thoroughly as I should have done). And, yeah, the line of thinking you laid out did inspire this…hope I added something to the conversation.

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