The funniest joke in A Practical Guide to Racism is deployed in the first three words, the dedication: “For the ladies.” Legitimate guffaws. Nicely done. It’s downhill from here, inevitably, but how far down—how close you get to the earth’s molten core—depends on your tolerance for jokes about Jews drinking the blood of Christian babies.
Racism longs for a spot in the comedic fake-textbook pantheon; luminaries from The Daily Show (current masters of the form) and The Simpsons supply the prominent fawning book-jacket blurbs, most of whom mercifully refrain from referring to the author, C.H. Dalton, as “my nigga.” Mr. Dalton, we are told, is a 53-year-old distinguished professor who teaches ethnography at the Institute for Advanced Studies in New Jersey. (At press time, Dalton’s MySpace page was down; the book’s actual author is Daily Show writer Sam Means, feeling shy for some mysterious reason.) The bulk of this slender, generously margined tome consists of nine chapters divided by race: Hispanics, Jews, Whites, Indians (and Injuns), Blacks, Asians, Merpeople (avoid this one), Arabs, and Gypsies. The characteristics and stereotypes of each group are discussed therein. Are you nervous? I’m nervous.
This is Sarah Silverman/Stephen Colbert shtick: pompous, erudite, they-don’t-realize- how-offensive-they’re- being whimsy. Some of it has a nice, dry tone—Hispanics “are also skilled base- ball players, due to early, piñata-based training, and in the evening they amuse themselves by playing enormous, oversized guitars.” But though, commendably, Dalton holds out for 40 pages before unleashing a fried-chicken joke, a great deal of Racism is only moderately edgier than Jay Leno material. Cher jokes are legion. Slate’s jokes about Dairy Queen’s Moo-Latté drink were funnier. Samoans are Girl Scout cookies, Ottomans are footstools, Arabs get so nervous on Israeli buses that they often spontaneously combust, rail trips are measured by distance in units of Dead Chinamen, etc. You get the idea. Dalton (or “Dalton”—the winking air quotes necessary for everything here, including the fucking author, get awful wearying) only hits his stride in the Gypsy chapter, recounting the various nefarious Gypsy schemes: the Baby Toss, the Gorilla-Gram, the Date Rape, the eBay Auction, the Toothbrush in the Rectum, the Stevie Nicks, the Organized Religion. Wander outside these climes, though, and you’ll stumble over a Vanilla Ice reference eventually.
Thankfully, the text is frequently supplemented by photos (a minstrel star named “Hoptoit McNegro-pants”: B-plus for effort), lovely drawings (Mr. T., Sammy Hagar, “The great Spanish guitarist Henry Kissinger”), and helpful charts (the differences between Jews and Zombies, a comparison of penis size by race—Samoans with a surprise victory). Bonus points for employing, as part of the visual crew, Nicholas Gurewitch, whose Perry Bible Fellowship comic strip is loads more shocking and devious than anything transpiring here. It’s often a foul, acrid breeze, but Racism is breezy all the same: It can be easily read in two hours’ time and enjoyed in far less.
You may be moderately offended, however, at its inability to offend you; nothing comes close until a punishing 40-page racial-slur glossary at the end, the genuine articles mixed in with “Goonie” and “Peppermint Patty” and “Cannoli Fucker.” The tone here is slightly more acidic: “Many slurs are based on common first names, like ‘Benjamin’ among Jews, ‘Paco’ among Hispanics, and ‘Professor’ among whites.” Of course, wishing for more of that sort of thing would create an entirely different problem. Racism is too bland to be anything other than occasionally pleasant, leaving us disappointed and, honestly, much better off.