When I was a kid, I used to dream of receiving an Oscar. On long car rides I would go through my acceptance speech in my head: I’d thank my family, my husband—who was naturally played by my fifth grade crush in this elaborate fantasy. I was a dramatic preteen, so naturally I’d be dressed in a flowing Prada gown, dripping in diamonds, a sole tear of gratitude shining on my cheek, as I’d curtsy and glide off the stage into the arms of my many admirers.
You know what wasn’t a part of my Academy Awards fantasy?
Sean Penn saying something racist.
Sean Penn already had a shady reputation in my book. All those domestic disturbances against Madonna? Yeah, I haven’t forgotten about those. So when he presented the award for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards, I was a smidge confused, if not miffed. When he said, “Who gave this sonofabitch a green card?” in reference to Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, I let out a collection of colorful four-letter swear words that would make my mother blush. Iñárritu took the tasteless jab in stride, even laughing graciously at the joke, which only proves he’s a much more forgiving and more well mannered person than I am. As a proud, outspoken, Mexican-American, I would have stomped up to that podium and proclaimed Sean Penn as the anti-Christ to millions of viewers. He took one of the most amazing moments of this director’s life and whittled it down to a sh—y race joke.
“Calm down, Kat!” friends advised me, disturbed by both my crass vocabulary and the flames of fury shooting out of my eyes. “It was just a joke.” But that’s the worst part. That people like Sean Penn can be let off the hook because it was “all in good fun.” That’s basically telling viewers, “It’s okay to be racist—as long as you’re joking about it!”
Jokes always have some truth to them. Humor is great, and can be used to highlight inequality and many of the underlying issues in American society in a conversational tone, but cheap racial jabs are not included. They bring nothing positive to the conversation on inequality in America, only serving to highlight the fact that there is discrimination in our presence. Soon jokes become earnest opinions, and our society becomes desensitized to racial slurs and degrading words because it’s all a joke. Calm down. Stop taking everything so seriously. You’re such a buzzkill. I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve been told to sit down and shut up and smile because it’s just comedy.
This year’s Oscars were under some serious heat for racial disparities. Selma was snubbed for Best Actor and Best Director, some idiot on Fox News used an African-American racial slur in reference to Lady Gaga’s Oscar performance, and on Fashion Police host Giuliana Rancic quipped that singer Zendaya’s dreadlocked hair looked like it “smelled like weed.” When did our country stop teaching that we should think before we speak? When did adding a laugh track make it acceptable to say ostracizing and discriminatory phrases okay? By joking about Iñárritu’s green card you are really saying immigration issues are a joke. By making jokes about Zendaya’s dreadlocks you’re saying multicultural body image acceptance issues are a joke.
When will these television personalities, actors, news anchors, these people in the spotlight who our culture idolize and looks up to, realize that no one is laughing? When a racial joke is made, most (decent) people feel nervous and uncomfortable. Sean Penn’s pea-sized brain finally realized this when, after his joke, the audience sat in horrified shock. Sean Penn doesn’t seem like an entirely awful person. Remember the charity work he did for Hurricane Katrina? The Earthquake in Haiti? But let his racial gaffe function as a warning: all the good things he’s done, the charity and social awareness work, have been wiped from my mind because he said something idiotic and discriminatory. He should be called out on it. The future generations of our society should see that this is not okay—this is not what role models do.
The next time someone says sit down and shut up, it’s just a joke, or stop making this into a big deal, they should be called out too.
It’s not funny, so stop laughing.
Featured Image by Breck Wills / Heights Graphics