When laughing is not funny

April 14, 2010

I just returned from the White Privilege Conference where nearly 1,700 people of color and white people came to explore privilege and the way it manifests in our individual lives and societal institutions. A riveting moment was listening to Dr. De Gruy describe how a post traumatic slave syndrome impacts us all.  Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome Some stories were familiar painful ones; some held new and shocking information for me and others.  Why, then, was there laughter in the room?

What is it that leads some white people to laugh when they hear painful stories of people of color? It’s happened when I’ve been preaching about racism. I’ve seen it when a colleague of color tells a story of bias. It’s as if we find the story so outrageous, we nervously laugh at the absurdity of such inhumane behavior.

Dr. DeGruy talked about the cognitive dissonance (holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously) that develops within us when we observe something that we know is inhumane. To resolve the dissonance, we re-frame the event or people involved to make it fit our behavior. How, for instance, did white people still dressed up from church, gather with their children to watch a lynching with smiles on their faces? They had to make the black people less than human to resolve the conflict within them as they witnessed life leaving the body of a person hanging from a tree.

As long as we continue to distance ourselves from the painful realities of our treatment of one another, change will not happen. Stephen Levine posed the question, “How do you keep your heart open in hell?”  I’m practicing staying with the pain of dissonance to see what it has to teach me about racism, rather than laughing it away.


  1. Just some thoughts: I know I have laughed inappropriately at things (not just at racism), because I was ashamed and nervous at the same time. I didn’t want to laugh, but it was like my body just broke out with it. I was mortified. I also know that the more I challenge myself to sit with my feelings, even if they are very uncomfortable and really see what is happening the less I do that. Thank you for writing about this. It’s strangly comforting to know I’m not the only inappropriate one out there.

    • I appreciate your comments and honesty, JJ. I think about the trauma we hold in our bodies from past experiences – whether observing or participating – and how white culture particularly has so distanced us from how to engage with that. So, it doesn’t surprise me that our bodily responses emerge in ways that seem unbidden. The body remembers, and sitting with its messages, as you suggest, can be a difficult albeit insightful path to awareness. That awareness then can move us to change our patterns of response to more intentional behaviors. Thanks for writing!

  2. Strange isn’t it? You people call yourself progressives but when I post a counter argument it is quickly deleted. Is this your view of a world without the bogey man of white privilege?

    • Dear Toby,

      I just checked my blog for the first time in several days and saw this comment about “Strange isn’t it?” . I’m curious what “counter argument” you are referring to. Did you post another comment because it’s not in the queue anywhere that I can see and I have not yet deleted any comments other than spam that is not from real people but from companies. I’d like to know more about what you are referring to. Diane

  3. Thanks for your response. I believe that I posted here a few weeks ago and I have to admit that I haven’t saved it. Thoough my primary point was (is) that we cannot undo racism-a big if anyway-by focusing on this idea of white privilege. Focusing on who has more privileges than {you} do will create nothing bu problems, both emotional and social. I think the white privilege movement tends to live in the past rather than looking forward to the future.

    • Thanks for your response, Toby. For me, beginning to understand how I am able to move through life differently than people of color simply because of the color of my skin was a big revelation. I’m not ashamed of being white and until I had that revelation, I had very little understanding of how racism depends on such ignorance to perpetuate itself. Because of that knowledge, I now act differently. I don’t think focusing on white privilege is the only answer and yet having no awareness of how privilege happens leaves a critical piece out of the discussion that enables us to move forward with our eyes open.

      It’s the moving forward piece that is important to me. I think the earlier discussions of the white privilege “movement” often simply dumped the info on people without giving many ideas of what to do with it. Consequently, people just felt guilty and shamed – not great motivators – particularly since white people have been socialized into racism like everyone else. That’s why I more often refer to “whiteness” than “white privilege” as it is the systemic impact of these behaviors that causes the most damage. It is the often invisible nature of these systems (to those who are white) that I want to challenge so that we may have awareness of their impact and work together to change them.

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