How to Respond to a Racist Joke

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Carmen Van Kerckhove has some helpful reflections on how to respond to racist jokes. She gives some good reasons why some responses that you might be inclined toward wouldn't be so good. She suggests of how to respond instead: play dumb to get them to explain it, which will require bringing the racist assumptions into the open, which you can then be puzzled about, asking them to explain why they think that, and they won't be able to defend the assumptions. I kind of like that.


Now, I don't to offend, or to be taken the wrong way, but I have a question. Are all racist jokes bad? What I mean, is I have a friend who is Polynesians and we are always joking about how Asians know everything. Not really of course, stereotypes aren't true, but its just a joke that we don't take serious. I have another friend of very strong Italian descent, and I myself am proud of my scot-irish descent. So me and my friend rib eachother about that, back and forth. Is that really so bad? Now of course when the joke is offensive, or is actually believed, then of course its bad, but wouldn't you agree that stereotypes have their place in humor? After all, stereotypes is basically the parody, or farce of human traits. It takes the small, and blows them up to large proportions, just as much other comedy does with other types of traits.

And playing dumb is probally the best way to respond to an offensive racist joke, I agree.

Yes, all racist jokes are bad. Some jokes might make fun of particular aspects of a people-group while not being racist. I think most Italian-Americans who tell Italian jokes nowadays are not exhibiting racism, and hardly anyone who hears such a joke will expect there's any real racism involved. No one thinks Polish people are really all stupid, and people who tell Polish jokes and people who hear them aren't therefore assuming the stereotype is true or reinforcing those who do think it's true. The same is not true for jokes about black people being stupid.

So some jokes making fun of an ethnic or racial group aren't racist. Sometimes people can make fun of the fact that there's a dumb stereotype, and they can do so with a joke. It partially has to do with intent, and it partially has to do with what a reasonable person will think the meaning is when they hear it. You can be well-intentioned in telling a joke that assumes black people are stupid, but being well-intentioned doesn't make it not a racist joke. That plays on a stereotype that enough people actually have and that in most contexts is really making fun of people. You'd have to have some very specific contextual clues indicating very strongly that you are making fun of the people who tell such jokes for me to be sure that it's not racist.

I think there's a place for racial humor. Racial humor isn't always racist. But enough of it is, and I don't think most people who tell genuinely racist jokes would admit that they are really racist.

"So some jokes making fun of an ethnic or racial group aren't racist"
Okay, well that basically what I meant. I guess racist does imply cruel intent.

Ms. Van Kerckhove has an interesting idea, and I can see why it appeals to many, but I don't believe it will have, in practice, the effect she intends. Consider what happens when the same approach is applied to the most benign, inoffensive (and equally unfunny) joke:

Co-worker: Do you know why the cookie went to the doctor?

You: No, why?

Co-worker: He was feeling crumby! [Laughs heartily.]

You: [Look perplexed.] Sorry, I don’t get it.

Co-worker: What do you mean?

You: I guess I’m missing something. Why is that funny?

Co-worker: [Looks embarrassed.] Um, well you know how people say they're feeling crumby when they're ill, and a cookie is "crumby" because it has crumbs?

You: But isn't the word being used in completely different ways then?

Co-worker: Well, yeah, that's the point. It's a play on words.

You: So you actually believe that a cookie can go to the doctor?

Co-worker: No, no, it’s just… Never mind.

If your goal is to make your co-worker feel stupid (and maybe that's appropriate), then this approach might work (although being purposely obtuse and patronizing may not cast yourself in a great light either).

But as a believer, my goal, when confronted with any kind of evil, is twofold: (1) to stand clearly for the truth, and (2) to do so with gentleness and love. This approach doesn't accomplish either. It tries to make its point while pretending not to make a point, and attempts to make the other person look ridiculous.

(This is my first post, Jeremy, but I lurk often and have benefited greatly from your commentary reviews.)

I think there's a big difference between the two cases. In your example, you are imagining someone asking to have a pretty basic pun explained, and that makes the co-worker feel stupid if the person doing it is remotely intelligent enough that it will be clear the person won't get it. But in the racist joke case, it's not explaining a pun that should be fairly obvious. It's making a racist assumption explicit. Telling the person you don't see why it's funny will lead them either to realize that you don't appreciate the joke or will lead them to try to express that assumption in a way that it can be confronted. The effect isn't to make the person feel stupid but to bring out the immorality of the assumption.

Granted, the racist assumption is implicit in the joke, not explicit. But it's not exactly subtle. Maybe I'm giving those who tell these jokes too much credit, but I can't see how the racist assumption in that joke is any less obvious than the pun in my example above.

I guess I don't understand what the "playing dumb" part accomplishes other than to annoy the joke-teller. Why not skip all the play-acting and get right to the point. Like this:

Co-worker: Did you hear that Angelina Jolie adopted another kid, this time from Vietnam?

You: Oh really?

Co-worker: Yeah. The poor kid probably doesn’t even know he’s Asian yet. He certainly doesn’t know he’s going to be a horrible driver. Or that he’s going to be amazing at doing nails. He has no idea! [Laughs heartily.]

You: You're not suggesting that all Asians are bad drivers and good at doing nails?

It seems to me that if this is said gently it gives the joke-teller a chance to consider that what he's done may be wrong. But the I-don't-get-it charade is only going to create animosity.

I believe Paul's instruction to Timothy speaks to precisely this kind of situation:

And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance, leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will. --2 Timothy 2:24-26

Philip, I think your way of confronting it will do so, but it will do so in a way that closes the door to dialogue. The reason I liked Carmen's suggestion is that it allows the person to bring out the assumption themselves. What I don't see is that it's playing dumb in any deceptive way. Maybe that's why I think your response is so different from mine. All she seemed to me to be recommending is that people try to draw it out Socratically rather than simply stating the assumption yourself the way you're recommending.

I guess I don't see that approach leading to more dialouge either--at least not of a productive sort. In fact, I see it playing out more like this:

Me: So why is that funny?

Joke-teller: Why don't you go [beep] yourself, Philip.

I just don't see people playing along with this.

On the other hand, Christ used this type of approach often--not dealing with racist jokes, of course, but in answering attempts to trap him that were built on faulty premises. So perhaps I dismiss it too quickly.

Still, when I play it out in my mind, I just don't see it working out quite as neatly as Carmen scripts it. In practice, I find Socratic irony works when you have a willing participant--an eager student in a classroom--but not so well in the breakroom at the office.

Or maybe it just takes more skill than I possess to pull it off.

I think it really comes down to a question of what your goal is in a particular circumstance. Honestly, more often than not, my goal is to extricate myself from an awkward situation without compromising myself. A wince followed by quickly changing the subject suggests that you found the joke inappropriate, but you've chosen to show the offender some grace (I'm a big fan of grace, having been the beneficiary of a great deal of it myself ;).

Other times, my goal is to support a third party who might be the target (inadvertantly or otherwise) of the joke. In that case, maybe Carmen's approach works.

And finally, there are times when I want to minister to the person telling the joke. But that's a whole different process that begins by asking yourself why he says something offensive. Is he angry, insecure, or just ignorant, and how can I meet the need that he is trying (unsuccessfully, to be sure) to meet by diminishing others? But that's a discussion for another time.

(I hope you don't find me argumentative, Jeremy. I honestly appreciate your thoughful blog. --Philip)

I think it might take a lot of skill, and I think it might take really knowing the person. You can tell when Jesus does this sort of thing that he does. John 3 with Nicodemus and John 4 with the woman at the well have several instances of this where it's not antagonistic at all, but you see some he does this with turning away and rejecting him explicitly or at least going away sad. Success at revealing to the person that they've done something evil doesn't always look like you've had a conversation where they've admitted their error and apologized. Sometimes it's their refusal to answer the question that serves as a sign you've been successful.

The "how to minister to the person" thought process is always worth engaging in. I'm not at all good at that, but it's something I'm convinced is worth taking care to consider.

I know some folk who do the play-dumb and the direct confrontation bit not to draw out conversation but to purposefully squash out evil and these folk tend to be very vocal in their beliefs so much so that folk think of these Christians as the judgmental know it all.

But if done right for the purpose of correction via genuine conversation I think that many of these joke tellers will go along with the convo. It winds up being part of an overarching ministry where a Christian is actually a friend of sinners.

Great discussion here. I love the internet for the strange way intelligent conversation can be held over a great period of time.

I am looking for a way to help my soon-to-be father-in-law that he is racist. He makes frequent comments about "blacks" that aren't blatantly racist, but added together over time show that he must truly hold racist beliefs on some level.

I think it's harder with the generation before you (applies to any generation). I'm sure he was taught that black people are inferior / stupider / etc. It's also more difficult when he is not making a cruel joke or an overtly hateful comment. They are subtle comments that merely suggest inferiority. That is really hard to overcome. I also don't want to strain a relationship that I will have to live with for a long time, which makes it tricky to discuss such taboo subjects.

Separate from my personal objective here, I also wanted to add my opinion to what makes a joke racist versus simply a racial joke. I agree that cruel intent makes a joke racist. I also agree that when based on true beliefs of superiority/inferiority makes a joke racist.

I also believe that history plays a big role in defininge these things: in the United States, we have a terrible history of repression, subjugation, and abuse towards blacks that were forced into slavery in our country. When making a joke about a group of people that endured such atrocities, the beliefs founding the atrocities must be considered.

Compare this to, say, Italians who came to this country of their own accord. While they have certainly experienced racism in some context (who hasn't?), it wasn't a broadly socially accepted belief and therefore doesn't carry the same weight.

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