My workplace closed on Columbus Day. No, we didn’t get a day off to celebrate the violence and pestilence Columbus inflicted on the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Instead, we held our annual all staff meeting. Forty of us gathered in a conference room for a day of briefings and trainings. I went first. Get the boring finances out of the way early. Save the interesting program-oriented sessions for later in the day. No one said that to me, but I assume that’s what they were thinking.
I hate public speaking. I need to give several financial presentations a month, but those are seated at a table in the middle of a meeting. Standing up before a room filled with people freaks me out. No podium, nowhere to hide, just me, naked (figuratively) before my coworkers.
Russ, the IT guy, was still setting up the projector. I felt awkward with the silence. Off the cuff, I blurted out: “I’m going to tell you the only joke I know… Why did the Siamese twins move to London?”
Calls of Why, Why Jeff, Why did the Siamese twins move to London?
“So the other one could drive.”
This got a great laugh. I probably disarmed those expecting a boring briefing, and it relaxed me so I could have fun with my presentation—something I rarely do. When I finished up, we took a break. I texted Susan, bursting with pride: I killed my presentation. Then I went to use the restroom. I began thinking, is it racist to call conjoined twins Siamese twins? Does that offend people from Thailand? People stopped referring to Thailand as Siam almost a century ago, does anyone still equate the two? Did I just imply that all conjoined twins come from Thailand?
I returned to the conference room feeling uneasy. No one looked at me askew, and I began to relax.
The next segment of the meeting was a webinar on how to deal with customers using racist language. The presenter brought up several examples of racist jokes and stereotypical comments that reminded me too much of my joke. I sank lower in my seat. Sitting in the front row, I fought hard to resist turning around to see the glares I imagined burning into the back of my head. “No problem, Jeff,” I thought, “just make an apology at the end of the webinar.” I began to breathe easier. But then the webinar lasted almost two hours.
The examples kept coming. I could only imagine what my coworkers were thinking about me. I wished I could go back and undo that moment. It used to be such a fun joke. How is it possible that it became offensive since I last used it?
Growing up in the sixties, my family had a giant hardback book called Tell Me Another Joke. I essentially learned to read from this book. My brothers and I lounged around our family room reading jokes to each other. Several years ago, I told my preteen children a few of the jokes I remembered, and then, like any good baby boomer, I immediately went to Ebay and found a copy to buy.
When the book came, I was appalled. Many (most?) of the jokes relied on prejudices against ethnic groups to create the “humor.” The Scottish are cheap. The Irish are drunks. The Jews are greedy. People from India are poor. The Africans are… well never mind. Disgusted, I threw out the book. Here I am, ten years later, perpetuating the same stereotypes as my racist book.
When the webinar ended, I offered my apology: “Earlier today, I told a joke about ‘Siamese’ twins.” I made air-quotes when I said Siamese. “After watching that last training segment, I see how inappropriate that was.” All eyes on me, many heads nodding in agreement… “I’m mortified. I’m sorry. I think it’s time I put that joke away for good.”
The purpose of these training days is to educate our staff. Inadvertently, I did just that, and especially myself. It’s definitely time to inventory the phrases I grew up with and look for others that have always been offensive and thankfully are becoming no longer tolerated by society. The list is endless. It’s not being politically correct, it’s being polite. It’s treating people as equals. I can do better. I think we all can.
When I related this story to Eli, he told me he never heard the term Siamese twins before. Apparently many of you have already made much more progress than me.
From Wikipedia: Chang and Eng Bunker (1811–1874) were brothers born in Siam (now Thailand) who traveled widely for many years and were labeled as The Siamese Twins. Chang and Eng were joined at the torso by a band of flesh, cartilage, and their fused livers. In modern times, they could have been easily separated. Due to the brothers’ fame and the rarity of the condition, the term “Siamese twins” came to be associated with conjoined twins.