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Should there be a line when it comes to free speech? | Image courtesy: Cornell Chronicle

Over the weekend I caught up with a longtime friend who just had to tell me this joke he’d heard to gauge how I felt about it.

Let me preface by saying that I’ve known this friend since high school--someone that I’ve been through the ringer with. He’s White, but has never said anything derogatory to me or my family. He’s always been my good friend and undoubtedly in one-on-one situations or even in our own social circles, we’ve said things we probably shouldn’t.

But this one really stuck.

What do five Black guys call one White guy in America? Coach.

What do 500 Black guys call one White guy in America? Warden.

He looked at me quizzically as if waiting to see how I, a Black man, might react. I looked at him and simply replied, ‘bro, that’s not funny.’ He quickly responded and said (and I’m paraphrasing), “I know, man. I’m sorry. But I had to tell you to see your reaction. Someone told me and when I was taken aback by it they looked at me like I was crazy.”

Now let that sink in. The fact that’s even a joke in this day and age should tell you all you need to know about the state of our nation right now. In this emboldened society, it has become the norm to say what you feel regardless of who it might offend. At the same time, I’ll argue that our society is getting soft as we allow people that make statements to continually get under our skin--it seems a person can’t speak their mind without someone else getting offended, whistleblowing or vilifying someone for merely sounding their opinion.

It’s just the uber-sensitive, hyper-focused politically correct world we live in now.

But this was different. Because it sparked a conversation. Between not just friends but two guys, one a White guy from an affluent family and his longtime Black friend from a completely different background. He told me that even though it’s not the ideals of his parents, that other members of his doting family share similar sentiments when it comes to a view of minorities, sentiments that would’ve made me rethink why the hell am I friends with this guy in the first place.

“My uncle Ron, he’d would’ve laughed at that joke all day,” my friend confided. “That one is right up his alley.”

We live in a country where whether or not you agree with it, people have a right to say or feel however they want about anything. I think the events of the past few years since the Election have proved that. Even locally this week, the saga that has been Temple University professor Marc Lamont Hill’s address to the United Nations raised arguments in the comments section on free speech, even if it’s offensive. People have the right to say whatever they want, and I respect that.

But we need to stop thinking that coming from the same racial and social constructs makes it OK to crack disparaging jokes or comments at the expense of people that look different.

How do we do that? I don’t know, but in reflection I really, really wish I could evoke a solutions angle in this piece. The regression of us moving closer as a country — and even locally as a city — is apparent. But perhaps the change starts to arise when more people like my buddy, a White man who stood up and allowed himself to be different in an all-too familiar situation when he so easily could have just laughed and been one of the guys, decided to be better.

Ultimately? We all need to just be better.

TWITTER: @SPRTSWTR

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