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OPINION: Tread carefully with ethnic comments

The Rev. Thomas W. Goodhue is executive director of the Long Island Council of Churches and a member of the Fellowship of Merry Christians.Recently, Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy rejected some good advice from his African-American Advisory Board. Its members urged him not to use ethnic names when he was touting fair housing laws. Earlier, Levy raised eyebrows and some ire at a Martin Luther King Day breakfast when he said that under Suffolk's new anti-bias law, "even Shaniqua could file a complaint."

It didn't help that this comment came after Levy made an astonishingly tasteless joke about having the kitchen crew deported during a roast last summer.

Neither party has a monopoly on such faux pas. A few years ago, George Allen, a Republican senator in Virginia running for re-election, shot himself in the foot by referring to an Indian-American in his audience as "macaca" - a slur that can mean a monkey or an African immigrant.

Personally, I care more about how our elected leaders govern than I do about how well they tell jokes. Still, pols might want learn how to avoid such disasters.

As a young parson in Hawaii, I was startled by the way ethnic jokes were told in public - even in church. But people almost always told them about their own group. When a Chinese parishioner offered a geology lesson about the origins of one of our national parks, I knew that it was no less true of my grandfather's famously thrifty people. Do you know how the Grand Canyon was formed? A Scot dropped a nickel in a ditch.

When a Jewish friend told me about the three huts that Robinson Crusoe showed to his rescuers, I recognized a metaphor for fractious Protestants. "The first hut? That's my church. The one next to it? That's the church I used to belong to. The third one? Oh, I would never go to that church!"

Turning bigotry back on your own tribe is also effective in those awkward moments when somebody says something bigoted. When a friend claimed that members of another faith live beyond their means on borrowed money, I replied, "so do a lot of the Methodists in my congregation." When I hear anti-immigrant sentiments, I sometimes respond that I know exactly what they mean: When the Goodhues landed in Massachusetts in 1635, the locals said, "There goes the neighborhood."

Instead of talking about Shaniqua - or Diaz, Chang or Mohammad, names Levy says he has also used to make the same point - Levy, whose father was Jewish, could have reminded us that both Jews and people of color were once excluded from communities by restrictive covenants. He could have said, "If we had this law when Levittown was built, even somebody named Levy could have bought a house there."

It's almost always better to make yourself the brunt of the joke. If the preacher tells a tale in which he or she did something incredibly dumb, the congregation will roar with laughter. They might even come back the next week.

President Barack Obama raised a ruckus when he described his bowling prowess as being as bad as the participants in the Special Olympics - only to have these athletes point out that his average is much worse than theirs. It would have been less offensive if he had said that he enjoys bowling and counts it as a good game if he doesn't hit his foot. If Levy wanted to make light of his anti-illegal-immigration zealotry, he might have said he was late getting to the roast because he was busy getting his grandmother deported.

Obama, to his credit, was quick to apologize and invite an Olympian to the White House for a few frames. We could all stand to follow his example. Pols and preachers who are insecure fear admitting their imperfections. But most of us know it's a sign of strength to be able to admit our faults, make amends and learn something new.

As the Apostle Paul said long ago, "When I know I am weak, I am strong."

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