I understand why people of Mexican background are offended at the sight of drunk frat boys parading around in sombreros and why the “Colonial Bros and Nava-Hos” Thanksgiving party at Cal Poly was ill-considered. Ethnic humor is always safer when it comes from members of the group in question: When researchers suggested that a 9,300-year-old skeleton found near the Columbia River in Washington were Caucasian, the editors of this magazine sternly demanded the repatriation of “any martini shakers or penny-loafers found at the gravesite.” (Kennewick Man was later determined to be more closely related to Southeast Asians than to Western Eurasians.) But those lines aren’t always clear: From one point of view, Awkwafina might be seen as lampooning black speech; from another, she might be seen as lampooning Asian Americans who borrow from black usage, which some do.
It’s a wonderfully mixed-up country. Jazz and hip-hop are musical forms with distinctively American roots, but that doesn’t mean that Dave Brubeck or the Beastie Boys were engaged in the musical equivalent of blackface. This is a country in which Ralph Lifshitz, a Jewish kid from the Bronx, could mass produce WASP wardrobe staples, sell the country-club set their own fantasies back to them under the name Ralph Lauren — and become a favorite designer of young black men in the process. Americans, being largely good-natured people, are torn between the desire to learn about and appreciate other cultures (including other American cultures) and the mandate to “stay in your lane.” How that is really supposed to work, I don’t know, but I doubt that Ralph Lifshitz played a lot of polo in the Bronx.