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By Sandi Bhutella

Why did the Ukrainian cross the road?

Three men enter a bar, a Jew, an Irishman and an Italian. The bartender says.

These are examples of ethnic 'humour'. I'd like to think that most people don't even know what they're laughing at when they hear an ethnic joke. I'd like to believe they're laughing because they think they've heard a funny joke, and not because of the nationality at the butt of the joke.

I recently watched Oscar's face contort when the table next to us in the cafeteria was telling a Ukrainian joke. The joke was so terrible, even I didn't laugh and I tend to have a bit of a hair trigger when it comes to nervous laughter. The point of the joke was that all Ukrainian people are stupid. I never think of Oscar as being 'anything', and I don't mean that in a negative way. It's just that he looks like everyone else and he's just Oscar to me, so to see him seriously offended reminded me that these attempts at humour effect a lot more people than we may think!

So then I stared thinking about other racial slurs we hear everyday - the names we call each other, seemingly in fun sometimes. 'Nigga' is a term in common use right now that's tied to the whole hip-hop scene, but is that really okay? I don't feel comfortable using that term given that the origin of the word comes from 'Nigger', which is a very old and very offensive racial slur. Then I started thinking about the way Oscar and I tease each other. Sometimes he calls me 'Curry Breath' in reference to my Indo-Canadian ethnicity and I'll call him 'Peasant' in reference to his Eastern European ancestors. We do this in fun, but is it right? If people think that somehow it's okay to call attention to our ethnicity in a negative way, then how does anyone know when they cross the line as they did with Oscar and that Ukrainian joke?

Humour can be used as a way to find a common ground when talking about tough issues. I've watched a lot of stand up comics and many of them use their ethnicity or disability as a starting point for their jokes. They believe that if we point out our cultural differences in a light-hearted way, we can start to understand each other and maybe there is hope that we can begin to respect our differences rather than fear them. I guess that's their point, if you laugh at yourself you can make people listen and hopefully gain a little respect for differences along the way.

I don't know how I feel about it all. I know I don't like being made fun of for any reason. No one wants to be the butt of a joke whether it's because you tripped walking into class or because of the colour of your skin. I guess the best solution is to be accepting of all and sensitive enough to know when you've gone too far. I'm going to do my best and not make fun of others and I hope they'll show me the same respect.

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