I remember this day like it was yesterday. I was on a school bus with my tenth grade class, and we were on the way to a sports event. They had piled us into the bus and on this particular bus ride, for one reason or another, I was quiet at the back of the bus. Being 15-16 year olds, they soon got rowdy. There was truth or dare, would you rather etc. I think they had gone through every single type of amusement, so naturally they came around to jokes.
Let me explain something about my high school class. As a group, they had no sense of respect whatsoever. Against everyone’s better knowledge, they made ‘edgy’ jokes non-stop. Not the kind of edgy that makes everyone laugh, but the kind that leaves everyone uncomfortable, shuffling in their seat and looking side to side to see if they were the only one who felt this way.
For example a boy in my class ‘jokingly’ said and I quote, “If a girl is wearing short shorts, then I can’t help if I rape her.”
To this, all the guys in my class erupted in laughter, because it was so hilarious. Edgy.
So on this bus ride, the jokes began, and I only remember one. They were talking about a girl in the grade above us, I’ll call her Betsy.
The boy, I’ll name him Luca, began, “I heard Betsy was trying to flirt with someone in this class,” *insert communal laughter* “why would she do that, she’s ugly and fat… and what’s worse? She’s black!”
To that most of the people on the bus died of laughter. I guess they had forgotten that I was sitting at the back of the bus, and that I too was a black girl. Maybe they thought I wouldn’t care? But I did. The insensitive comment or ‘joke’ hadn’t been meant for me, but it hurt just as much as if it had. In that moment I realized how a lot of my classmates viewed black people, black women, and me. I won’t lie, I cried on that bus ride. I cried for Betsy and I cried for myself. When we got to our destination, I dried my tears and pretended like I hadn’t been crushed moments before.
The next day at school, I asked another friend of mine why they class had found it so funny, because clearly I’d missed the punchline. My friend looked at me and I think he could see that I was on the verge of tears again because he said, “They just laughed because Luca was talking, they didn’t actually find it funny, but you know how he is.”
He was right, I did know how he was, but what I didn’t get was why being black made Betsy worse than anyone else. What I didn’t get was why her being black made for the punchline of a joke. To this day I don’t get it, but I knew that pursuing that was to fight a losing battle, so I dropped it.
That joke changed how I viewed everyone in my class. They called me their friend, but on a fundamental level, they didn’t value my humanity. We would laugh together, hangout together, eat together, but at the end of the day I was nothing but a punchline waiting to happen. I didn’t confront Luca about his ways until two years later. I wish I had done in in that moment. I regret not standing up for Betsy because even though the joke wasn’t directed at me, it was still my fight. I wish that at the time I had stood up for her and myself and showed that I could never be reduced to a punchline. Ever.