Laughing At vs. Laughing With?

Just wanna throw a question out to the universe, as this came up in one of my classes today and it really bothered me, and the class’ answer seemed unsatisfactory to me.  So I want to throw it out to you and know your thoughts.

So here’s the situation, imagine yourself in it.  You’re taking an Anthropology class.  The Professor is an experienced cultural anthropologist specializing in a particular people, a people that are not of the dominant culture, are often misrepresented and misunderstood.  It’s obvious that the professor is very passionate about understanding these people and teaching others about them.   This is not a specialized class, it is “Introduction to Anthropology,” and the professor is using her knowledge of these particular people to illustrate in detail the general concepts of anthropology.

Now, it’s the third week of classes.  Because of issues of seniority and availability of classes to teach, your professor, who was an adjunct faculty member, has to relinquish that class to another professor, a tenured one.  The first thing the new prof asks the class is, naturally, what have you gone over with your old professor?

And someone blurts out the name of the particular people the professor was really passionate about.  Immediately, nearly the entire class laughed.

I was like, ???.  It was absolutely true that we’d spend a lot of time talking about those particular people.  Which is why I didn’t understand why the class had laughed; it was a simple matter of fact.  It seemed like they were, on a subconscious level at least, partaking of the mainstream culture which says it’s okay to laugh at certain people (especially if there’s no one of those people around). If that was the case, how ironic to have that reaction in an anthropology class!

It was really bugging me, so at the end (which mind you, today was 2 hours earlier than usual, so why everyone was in a huff to leave was also irritating) I asked the class:

“Given that this is an anthropology class, this has been bugging me.  When Prof. B asked what Prof. K had been going over, and someone said “the such and such,” nearly the whole class laughed.  I’m not one myself, but I found it offensive and would like to know if you would have laughed if the people our former prof had been talking about were the _______ or the _______.”

Unfortunately, it seems a lot of people in class felt personally attacked, which was certainly not my intention; I was attacking the mentality (which is one ingrained by our own American culture and most of us are unaware of it).  But suddenly everyone’s raising their hands, getting more animated than usual.  Here are some of their responses:

“We weren’t laughing at the people, we were just laughing at the prof for being eccentric.  It’s like laughing with, not laughing at.”

“People make fun of me when I talk about ________.  People just think it’s comical when you’re really passionate about something.” 

“No, it’s just because somebody actually said what we were all thinking that we laughed.”

Now, to me, the last one seems reasonable, and may perhaps be the case.  If so, then I’m willing to admit I’m blowing things out of proportion.  But, even if that explains some students’ reaction, I doubt it explains all of their reactions, especially given their other answers to my question. In response to the first one, that the prof was an eccentric, I asked, “Why was she eccentric?” I think they thought she was eccentric because of the particular people she’s interested in, and would not have had that view had it been a different, more “usual” group of peole. I also don’t think it’s a case of “laughing with,” because the prof took her studies seriously and I’m sure she doesn’t think her studies are merely “funny” nor “eccentric” (which, keep in mind, is usually used to disparage someone). When another student said that she’s made fun of for her passion, I said, “But should people make fun of you for that?”  No one answered that question.

So, knowing only that much, what do you think? 

Now, let’s make it specific.  Let’s assume the professor’s specialty was in your culture and people.  Let’s also assume that your culture and people are not the dominant ones, and that you are often stereotyped and misunderstood.  Now, put yourself in that place: at the moment when the class laughs because the answer to the question was your own people, how do you feel?  

Reflect for a minute.

Now, let me tell you who the actual people in question were.  And again, I myself am not one, so it’s not that I felt personally offended so much as generally offended and, more than anything, disheartened that it seemed like these students are in a class about cultural understanding, nodding their heads, yet understanding and examining nothing, as if it has nothing to do with their lives. Our former professor’s specialty is the Roma people (more widely known as Gypsies).  The professor did spend a lot of time interweaving the general concepts of anthropology with specific examples from Roma culture and life, and I understand that because it’s probably an unusual field of inquiry for most people, that part of class really stood out in the students’ mind.  So when I posed my question, I asked, “Would you have laughed if the prof’s specialty had been Blacks or the Irish?”  The class was quick (a little too quick) to say that they would have also laughed in that circumstance.  But I seriously doubt it. 

What do you think, O World?  Am I being overly sensitive?  How would you feel if it had been your own people?

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One thought on “Laughing At vs. Laughing With?

  1. Well, I wasn’t there, but I’m very much inclined to agree with you sol. I mean, just hearing your fellow students’ reactions inclines me to agree with you. Why is it any better to laugh at a professor’s eccentricity? Don’t professors do us a credit by sharing their knowledge with us on a daily basis, particularly ones in departments like anthropology where they may not be paid as well as say professors in economics or business.

    You know, I remember in 12th grade, I had a teacher who was desperately passionate about Darfur. He talked about it all the time and regularly gave me updates based on what he read in the news. Would it make any sense for me to make fun of someone who was concerned about such a terrible humanitarian crisis? I certainly know I hate it when my passion as a feminist is laughed at. Of course, when you say thing like this, you immediately get accused of being humorless after.

    You know, super fantastic amazing kudos to you for standing up, sol! That’s so hard to do sometimes, but you definitely did the right thing. Even if your classmates got defensive and all that, I’m sure you planted the seed and got them thinking. I can really admire you for your microactivism!

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