Cancel Culture

“So, a mistake is made, a word is spoken out of turn, a cultural norm is broken, and all is fair in the pursuit of cancelling this person, erasing them off the face of the earth, banishing them to a world of shame and regret.”

Aysha Taryam

We know how you all want us to cancel black people when they do something bad, but you keep making excuses for people you revere… But for us history is rife with horrible men and then we’ve learned that we have to sing praises to those horrible men, and we see them on our money and their names on our schools and our bridges. So horrible man is not a disqualifier. Our lives are imbued with them. When they ask us about Michael Jackson (how can you sing those songs?) and R Kelly; it’s complicated. I will get rid of Michael Jackson when you get rid of Andrew Jackson. At least you can dance to Beat It. But our stories are so full of irredeemably horrible people that it’s something we can compartmentalize. Literally, if Bill Cosby was a priest, he wouldn’t be in prison.”

D.L. Hughley

I was nineteen when I started medical school. I kept a journal my senior year in college. It is full of self-doubt. I could not convince myself that I would be good enough. Looking back, it is hard for me to understand why I questioned myself. I had always been an excellent student. I had a knack for absorbing pieces of information that teachers were likely to place in our exams. I knew many people who had done well in medical school, and I did not think that any of them could beat me one-on-one at any science subject.

And yet… I suffered. I developed irritable bowel syndrome that last year of college. I had my appendix taken out two months before I left for the States. I even went through a brief spell where I thought that I would be better off becoming a priest, or a dentist. My journal entries reflected these anxieties.

Once I started med school, I found that classes were not as hard as I thought they would be. My relief was tempered by the numerous insensitive comments that my friends made about my ethnicity. My roommate started it.

“Have you heard? Terrible accident in a Puerto Rican neighborhood. A dozen people injured.

”What went wrong?“

A bed collapsed.”

He laughed. I came from a solid middle-class background. There was nothing funny about his “joke.”

Another friend, my lab partner, came up with ways to make jokes about my accent. He freely interchanged the word “sheet” with the vulgar name of excrement. He asked me if I liked tacos (I had never eaten one) and assumed that I was a big fan of Speedy Gonzalez. Another classmate told me that I looked like the Frito Bandido when I tried to grow a mustache. A professor who gave us a lecture on schistosomiasis (an endemic disease of the tropics) closed his lecture by saying:

“You don’t have to worry about seeing this condition, not unless a Puerto Rican gets lost and stumbles his way into Saint Louis.

”The class thought this was hilarious.

I was nineteen: I was anxious; I craved some form of acceptance. I found out that I became a good guy as soon as I learned how to laugh when my family, my friends, and my culture were being made fun of. It is significant that when I repeated a Tom Lehrer joke about Jewish customs to my roommate, who was Jewish and from New York, he did not think that it was funny.

Tom Lehrer makes a lot of money from his comedy. Many members of his audience are Jewish.“It is not funny unless another Jew says it.”Except, of course, for Puerto Rican jokes.I have friends, and even family members, who are upset that these ethnic jokes are no longer considered funny. They say that everybody laughed in the old days. That it was harmless fun.No. It was not.

When I did very well on my first two exams, one of my professors was convinced that I was cheating. He began to harass me. I had a sterling academic resumé. I had scored in the top 5% nationally on the admissions test. No matter. He did not think a Puerto Rican kid could possibly be smart and capable. Because, even as worldly as he thought he was, his only exposure to my culture came by way of West Side Story and ugly news reports from Spanish Harlem. Plus, the stupid jokes.

It is hard enough for a teenager to adapt to a different culture while excelling in a rigorous academic climate. You make things much worse when this kid realizes that no matter how well he does, his achievements will never be enough to make people treat him with dignity.

My relatives who complain about “cancel culture” were the same people who rushed to cancel Colin Kaepernick when he decided to kneel for the Anthem. The same ones who wanted to boycott Nike for the famous “flag in sneakers” fracas. Like my roommate said, it is only funny when a member of the cultural elite criticizes his own. We are a nation of 330 million people. Chances are excellent that we would find that only 10% of the population is easy to be friends with. We must find a way, in a hurry, to learn how to tolerate the other 90% without resorting to sexist, racist, and insensitive commentary about what we perceive to be their culture. This applies to all sides.

Once you have an obese child, fat jokes and demeaning comments are hurtful. The same goes for children who are gay, Asian, congenitally anxious, addicted to drugs, have learning disabilities, or are too clumsy to do well in sports. There are 300 million people out there who are far from perfect. Why on Earth would anyone think it is funny to diminish them?

This goes for all of you out there. Stop it! No more hillbilly jokes; no more rolling of the eyes when people give hard-earned money to whatever televangelist they wish to honor. Your happiness does not depend on this cruelty. There are many other life circumstances that we can laugh about.

Out of many, one. Joined by kindness and tolerance.

Leave a Reply