The Oscars and Racial Bantering in Public Settings

I didn’t watch the Oscar last night. [What sane person would when the Walking Dead was on, right?] So I woke up to the Sean Penn’s controversy untouched by the agony of watching one of longest events known to humankind. This is what happened. Before announcing the winner for best picture he said: “Who gave this son of a bitch his green card? Birdman!”

Ha! Funny! Isn’t it? Many didn’t think so and social media exploded after the not so tasteful joke.


Was he racist? I don’t think so. Insensitive? You bet. Poor taste? Definitely.

This is how I see it. Sean Penn forgot where he was and since he is very good friends with Alejandro González Iñárritu he went for a joke he has probably used before to taunt his friend in private settings. So, I don’t find him racist but I do find him incredibly inappropriate and insensitive.

González Iñárritu has confirmed that they bust each other’s’ “you know what” since they became friends years ago. As the Huffington Post reported today: ““I found it hilarious,” González Iñárritu said, according to Variety. “Sean and I had that kind of brutal relationship where only true friendship can survive. When I was directing him in ’21 Grams,’ he was always making jokes … I made a lot of very tough jokes (to him) that I will not tell you.””

Hey, as one of my best friends (and my Senior Mexican correspondent) put it, “”I bet Innaritu really shredded this guy when they worked together.. No one insults like chilangos…” So we get it. They are friends and friends bust each other’s “you know what” often. And that is good.

Penn’s quip, however, has created all this outrage because he made it, not in the intimacy of a private setting to friends who may shot back in similar fashion, but during one of the most watched television events in the U.S.

I’ve had that experience. I’ve met and befriended people from dozens of ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds in the U.S. Many of the friends I’ve made are White- broadly defined to include Italians, Irish, Poles, etc.. Many of them come from working class backgrounds and had little exposure to Latinos. Yes, they would ask dumb questions about my ethnicity and culture and, surprise, surprise… I would ask dumb questions about theirs- sometimes to make a point, sometimes because I really didn’t know this or that about their culture . Many of my comrades in academia have had a million arguments with me about this but the point is that we also have some distorted views about others- and that we can take those moments- when the dumb question arises, to educate (and learn); and more importantly, to connect.

Those friends who asked the dumb questions would also taunt me with racial jokes, and guess what? I would taunt them back with jokes based on their ethnicity (I’m a quick learner). I became close with many of the people with whom I had this racial bantering. They would invite me to their houses and to meet their families and I would do the same. I would teach them some Latino music and steps and fake an injury when they tried to teach me theirs.

But seriously, I can say that many were genuinely interested in learning from my culture and remain friends to this day.

So as it is now confirmed, Penn has that kind of relationship with Alejandro González Iñárritu. But the setting was all wrong. It wasn’t a private party, it was a public even- one that a good chunk of the US and people throughout the world were watching.

So this is the problem, by going for that joke in that very public space, he showed to be incredibly insensitive to the plight of millions of both undocumented and documented immigrants, and Latinos in this country whom are not just the butt of this joke often but who also suffer real structural discrimination and persecution coming from the belief that we don’t belong here.

He played into the crowd that sees a Brown person and immediately labels them as “not-belonging”. And that is the main issue here, he did not intend to be racist but he made a joke about his friend’s nationality at the worse possible moment. It actually cheapened his announcement and González Iñárritu probably didn’t like one bit. I can imagine González Iñárritu going up the steps shaking his head and thinking “Pinche güero pendejo! Damn funny, but seriously mamón, here and now? No mames!?”


Those White friends of mine, with whom I’ve had racial bantering would never go for it in a public space, much less when I was been recognized for my accomplishments. Sure, later on over a beer I would get a “hey look, the little Puerto Rican who could” or some stuff like that. And I would respond in kind. But it would be a private matter- a joke between friends. And that is what Penn got horribly wrong. He forgot where he were and insulted millions of Latinos and Latin Americans for his friend González Iñárritu is not the only Mexican, Latin American or Latino out there.

And Penn, the rest of us don’t know you, so keep the racial bantering private. Maybe when WE share a beer then you can ask US, the millions of documented and undocumented immigrants and Latinos in this country, a dumb question about “our” heritage and spice it up with some racial bantering. We will be glad to ask you a dumb question about yours in return, spices and all.

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