58

Vanity Fair magazine (April 27) introduced a barrel of jokes about political figures Cecily Strong delivered at Best White House Correspondents’ Dinner held on April 25th in Washington under the headline, “Cecily Strong’s best White House Correspondents’ Dinner jokes.” The following is one of them:

“Mr. President, thank you for taking time off of Jimmy Fallon’s show to be here,” Strong said. One joke that had Obama slapping the table in laughter: “Your hair is so white now, it can talk back to police.”

- "Cecily Strong’s Best White House Correspondents’ Dinner Jokes", Vanity Fair

I know asking the meaning of a joke is boorish, but I don’t understand why you can talk back to police when your hair is white.

Is it because a senior person (whose hair is white) is regarded as sensible or authoritative, or politically incorrectly, white hair makes black look white? If it's the latter, why did Mr. Obama tapped the table in laughter to such a risque joke? I’m 82 years old, but I’m not sure whether my gray hair works in arguing with police. What does the above line mean?

  • 21
    It is a risque joke, but (IMHO) it hit exactly the right note of laughing-because-otherwise-we'd-be-crying-and-drinking-heavily regarding police brutality in the USA. – zwol Apr 27 '15 at 0:14
  • 13
    The word "it" refers to his hair. When it was black it could not talk back to the police. – skullpatrol Apr 27 '15 at 2:29
  • 15
    Black anything talking back to police is likely to get beat up, arrested, or shot. We've a little problem with this currently in America. – Wayfaring Stranger Apr 27 '15 at 11:18
  • 9
    @WayfaringStranger I realize this is a touchy subject, but to be fair we also have a little problem in America with black suspects attacking police and/or having a major chip on their shoulders, neither of which helps an interaction with the police to go smoothly. – Omegacron Apr 27 '15 at 14:33
  • 21
    @Omegacron Let's maybe not have that argument here? However, as a white male American citizen I feel that it is appropriate to hold the cops to a MUCH HIGHER standard of behavior than the people they are interacting with. – zwol Apr 27 '15 at 16:59
106

I don’t understand why you can talk back to police when your hair is white.

The key here isn't that you can talk back to the police if your hair is white, it's that the hair can because it is white.

Ignoring recent events with people being shot by the police, it's generally a (possibly accurate) joke in the US that the police treat white people better than they do black people, and therefore that it's easier for white people to get away with minor things (such as talking back to a cop) than it is for black people.

The speaker is just personifying the hair, and implying that white people can get away with talking back to the police, while black people would be arrested or harrassed.

  • 6
    You're spot on with the personification of the hair, but I think the implication is that anything white, even hair, can get away with doing things that would get a black man arrested, harassed, or even killed. – Papa Poule Apr 26 '15 at 23:46
  • 31
    I think that's the joke, not the implication. Why would the speaker imply that inanimate objects can talk, do things, or need to worry about the police? – user85526 Apr 26 '15 at 23:47
  • 31
    "Ignoring recent events with people being shot by the police" I think those events are precisely the motivation behind this joke. – Kevin Apr 27 '15 at 5:05
  • 5
    @gnasher729 Sure, it should be nothing at all, but that's just now how it works in the real world. – Kevin Apr 27 '15 at 5:06
  • 17
10

The speaker was addressing a black person and, considering recent incidents between the US police and black citizens, it is supposed to be black humor. ("white" would make the police think twice before shooting and one would have a chance to talk back) That's how I understand it. What doesn't fit here is that Mr. Obama should have found it funny.

  • 35
    Mr. Obama has been quoted a few times saying things like "I myself have been pulled over for driving while black -- before I was a senator" and "If I had a son I would worry about him getting shot by the police even though I'm the President". Personally, I'm not surprised he found it funny. – zwol Apr 27 '15 at 0:11
  • 3
    He's even stated that while president there have been some functions at the White House where people have mistook him for a butler. – Joel Apr 27 '15 at 14:30
  • 13
    And just to be clear, "black humor" here refers to metaphorically "dark", morbid humor. It is not a racial reference. – duskwuff Apr 27 '15 at 15:56
  • 9
    The night is also black. The plague was called the black death. I don't think all uses of the word black should be related to racism. – RemcoGerlich Apr 28 '15 at 8:19
  • 4
    @gerrit - no, that is honestly idiotic. It's called black as synonym for dark, grim. – Davor Apr 28 '15 at 11:58
8

A black person cannot talk back to police in the US without taking risks, or so say some people.

So Obama's (he's half black) hair is white enough now (because of aging) so it (the hair, not Obama) could risk talking back to police.

  • 12
    FYI, in terms of American racism, "half-black" is not a distinction that's made. It doesn't matter who your parents are, only what you look like. – zwol Apr 27 '15 at 0:18
  • It seems to be used in contemporary books written by people at that intersection, so ... google.com/… – Marius Hancu Apr 27 '15 at 0:21
  • 10
    That's a different thing. It is indeed the case that people with one black and one white parent often find themselves caught between two cultures, so from their perspective half-black is not the same as black. But white racists are equally prejudiced against both. (They might well be more prejudiced against mixed-race families, if they are the kind of racist who disapproves of miscegenation; but in terms of interacting with a dark-skinned stranger walking down the street, they won't bother asking about his or her parentage.) – zwol Apr 27 '15 at 0:23
  • Ah, now I see what you meant. – Marius Hancu Apr 27 '15 at 0:27
  • 4
    Reference the one drop rule. Traditionally in the US, African ancestry has been viewed as a kind of contaminant (not supporting this, just reporting it). If you have any, you are considered black. Some people can "pass", but you have to be very light-skinned to pull that off. – T.E.D. Apr 27 '15 at 14:56
6

The existing answers miss the point that the joke was particularly funny because it combined two subjects that were on people's minds. The one has been amply discussed here – racially biased police behaviour in the US. The other was that Obama has aged during his presidency. He himself joked about this at the dinner: "And it is no wonder that people keep pointing out how the presidency has aged me. I look so old John Boehner’s already invited Benjamin Netanyahu to speak at my funeral." Here you can see that his hair actually has turned white during the presidency.

  • I guess if you like racist jokes then I suppose it could be considered funny. For anyone else, it wasn't even remotely funny. – Dunk Apr 29 '15 at 13:31
  • 5
    @Dunk: I disagree. I don't like racist jokes. Racist jokes are jokes that portray a certain ethnicity in a negative light. This joke was about the racist reality in the US; no-one was portrayed in a negative light (not even white police, since it applies to minority police just the same); in fact I would argue that by casting a humorous flashlight on the racist reality, the joke makes an anti-racist statement that might reach people who are otherwise hard to reach with a critique of racism. – joriki Apr 29 '15 at 14:16
  • You can use whatever definition you choose for the term "racist joke" but this joke definitely fits that category to me. You just don't see it because it is not at the expense of a minority. – Dunk Apr 29 '15 at 15:20
-13

It has nothing to do with if you are black or white. It simply means, that if you are old enough to have white hair, you can probably get away with talking back to the police. Most seniors have the respect that because they are older and usually wiser than most people younger than they are,can win an argument with the police.They will tell then that because they have lived through most every kind of thing, that they know they are right. Sorry to make it so drawn out,but it really is just a simple joke.

  • It is also just like saying, She thinks she"s better than white bread. That means she thinks she's all that and then some. It has nothing to do with white bread or wheat bread, – Kathy G Apr 27 '15 at 0:50
  • 8
    it has nothing to do with if you are black or white 100% misses the mark. The brunt meaning is if you aren't white, you can't talk back to police - lest you get arrested/choked/shot/etc. If you are white, you can talk back to police without fear of retaliation. Since this joke is directed at a black person, it's a "joke" that you have become "white enough" to cross the line into talking back to police... It plays into the running narrative that minorities are persecuted. – WernerCD Apr 27 '15 at 1:43
  • 1
    The key issue with this answer is the same one the OP misread - if "it can talk back" was actually "you can talk back", then this answer would be the case – Izkata Apr 27 '15 at 16:00
  • Although this honestly isn't a bad interpretation of the joke....it neither addresses the culture nor the timeframe of the joke itself. As a Black American male, I wish this could be the correct answer. – lunchmeat317 Apr 28 '15 at 17:06

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.