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Old Things That Are Tough To Explain: Racist Jokes

March 26, 2016
Once you've been busted laughing at a racist joke, you can't take it back. (image via wikimedia)

Once you’ve been busted laughing at a racist joke, you can’t take it back. (image via wikimedia)

My family was watching a movie from the 1970s, and a white character made a racist joke/comment to a black comedian who said something racist back.  I laughed, and then noticed I was the only person in my family who laughed.  My youngest didn’t get the jokes, my wife wasn’t paying attention, and my oldest daughter looked at me shocked.

“Dad, that was racist,” she said.

She was right, but I remember seeing this movie as a kid, and everybody in the theater had laughed, and nobody had called the joke racist, so I never thought about it.  I don’t remember the demographic makeup of the theater that night 40 years ago.  I lived in a military town, so it was fairly diverse, and it was a popular movie, but maybe there was some cringing and I just didn’t see it.  When you’re 10, you don’t notice cringing in the movie theater.

To be up front, I’m an old white guy.  I might not be “old.” That depends on your definition of “old.”  But I’m very white.  I am everybody’s definition of white.  When it comes to race, nobody wants to hear the white guy’s opinion, and I understand that, but I can’t change my whiteness (I COULD try, but I’d be accused of misappropriation), and it’s my blog, so who else’s point-of-view can I have?

Anyway, when you’re white and you laugh at a racist joke, you can’t take it back.  If someone is offended by your laughter at a racist joke, no excuses are any good.  If you call the offended person oversensitive, the offended one will double down (especially if he or she really is oversensitive).  You might try to lie and say you were laughing at something else, but nobody will believe you.  I was stuck.  I had laughed at the racist joke, and I was busted.

I tried to explain to my daughter that people laughed at racist jokes 40 years ago when the movie had come out.  But it was tough to explain why, without just saying “Everybody was racist,” which by today’s standards might have been true.

Saying “That’s just how things were” is lame.  It sounds like an excuse, even if it’s just a reason.  Back then, stereotype humor was normal, and every group was made fun of.  There were a bunch of jokes based on stereotypes of the Brits, the French, Germans, Italians, Greeks, and Eastern Europeans.  There were jokes about blondes and red heads.  The racist jokes were the worst, and everybody knew they were the worst, but so much humor was based on stereotyping groups (race, gender, ethnicity) that a lot of people didn’t think about how it offended others.

I’m not even certain what’s racist anymore.  A couple weeks ago a black comedian made a joke about Asians during a Hollywood award show, and a lot of people laughed, but I didn’t.  I didn’t think the joke was funny (and the delivery was poor).  Even though I thought the joke was racist (I would have gotten fired from my job if I had told it), it didn’t get much media attention.    If there was any outrage, I didn’t hear about it.

Maybe the black comedian’s joke wasn’t racist.  I’ve heard it explained that racism today is based on power structure and that people not in power are incapable of being racist.  Since some groups are part of the institutional power structure and others aren’t, groups who aren’t in the power structure can make negative race-based comments without being actually racist.

I’m not sure I buy that.  It sounds to me like some people just want to make racist comments without being accused of racism.

Anyway, I’m not saying people don’t tell racist jokes anymore.  It’s just not mainstream (except maybe on Hollywood award shows).  If people still tell them a lot, I don’t see or hear them.   They’re probably used by trolls in the comments sections of some websites, for example, but you probably don’t see them in the original article/video.

I’m not saying that racist jokes were good.  I’m not yearning for “the good ol’ days” when we could tell racist jokes without repercussions.  I’m just trying to explain to my daughters how things used to be different without justifying it.

“If racism is bad, why do you laugh at racist jokes?” my daughter asked after the movie was over.

“I don’t laugh at racist jokes,” I said.  “I laughed that one time, and I caught myself.”

“Why did you laugh if it was racist?”she asked.

“Uuhhhhh…. It was a comedy,” I stammered.  “I wasn’t expecting to think about racism during a comedy.”

“Why was it in the movie?”

“Uuhhhh…. Because stereotype humor is easy.  It’s low brow, like sex jokes, or puns, and memes.”

“Why didn’t anybody tell them not to put that in the movie?”

“Uuhhhh… Because jokes like that were common back then.  And not everybody has a sophisticated sense of humor like me.”

I looked at my wife who continued to stare at her phone.  Explaining racist humor was worse than discussing the birds and the bees.  When talking about controversial issues, there’s only so much a parent can take.  I finally got tired of trying to explain the unexplainable (inexplicable?), so I sent my daughter to the den to finish her homework.

She had to read two chapters of To Kill a Mockingbird.  I remembered some humor in the book, and I remembered racism, but I didn’t remember any racist jokes.


For more about old things that are tough to explain, read Old Things That Are Tough To Explain: Lack of Safety Precautions.


Swearing isn’t as bad as telling a racist joke, but still…

Saying “Sh*t!” is pretty bad.

Saying “F#ck!” is worse.

But “Crap”?

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From → Pop culture

  1. If you thought that was fun, try explaining most of television sitcom history to her. Yeah, I’ve laughed at plenty of racist jokes, in shows like All In The Family, Sanford And Son, The Jeffersons, In Living Color (which joked about everyone. No one was immune on that show), MadTV. Even SNL had Samurai Delicatessen, (which still cracks me up), and would certainly be considered racist today.

    In fact just about every sitcom, before the rise of the Internet, had some stereotyping and racist humor. You almost couldn’t avoid it. I don’t blame you for laughing. I’m a WoC, and I laugh at it all the time. It just means stereotypes can sometimes be funny.

    I wouldn’t beat myself up over it, too much.

    • “It just means stereotypes can sometimes be funny.”-

      I agree with that. It’s just that I don’t want her laughing at stereotypes too much yet. To me, it’s one of those things that should be saved until we’re adults. And even then, we should be careful about it.

  2. I think there is a useful distinction to draw between prejudiced comments that have the weight of social pressure behind them and those which don’t. I’m not sure I’m convinced that’s the difference between bias and racism, but I’m open to terms that would make the distinction clear.

    The thing that gets me is old racist jokes that depend on stereotypes so out of date they barely register. In movies this seems (to me) most often jokes about Scandinavian housekeepers or the like.

    • That’s true. A lot of those jokes (the ones I remember) are outdated.

      I’m sure a lot of those outdated jokes can be (or already have been) updated, but I’m not going to be the one to do it.

  3. Humor only works when we are okay with making fun of something, or being made fun of. Humor doesn’t work when we are unwilling or unready to make fun or be made fun of, or when it’s really just hate or mockery in disguise. To some degree, it’s a matter of perspective, and right now, we’ve lost perspective. When I saw Silver Streak in the theater as a kid, everyone laughed when Gene Wilder put shoe polish on his face and pretended to be black but couldn’t ‘walk black’, and Richard Pryor asked him why whiteys have such tight asses. There were no undertones of hate or mockery, and no buttons or envelopes were being pushed. It was just funny. Everyone is hypersensitive right now, which fuels the fire on all sides.

    • Yes, those Wilder/Pryor movies were full of stereotyping, but I don’t consider them racist. To me they were “all in good fun”, types of films. The distinction is subtle but I know denigration when I see it and that’s not it.

      I recently watched Tropic Thunder and thought it was absolutely hilarious and its full of horrible sterotyping of black people, Hollywood, Asians, clueless white men, drug addicts. Everyone gets npoked at, but I didn’t consider it mockery of those people.

      There’s a difference between punching up and punching down. Someone in a power position mocking someone without the ability to retaliate is very different then someone with little or no power doing that.

      I think maybe keep in mind who the humor is aimed at and why. In the example you used, the humor is aimed at both actors, and is the kind of observational stereotyping of , “black guys do this, white guys do that”, sort of humor.

      • I think this concept of punching up vs. punching down is way too overused, with definitions of what’s “up” or what’s “down” often twisted in order to fit a pre-existing narrative and justify being offended. Like, for example, a cartoonist drawing a cartoon that offends 1.5 billion people and has to go into hiding due to death threats is considered to be “punching down”. A rich black comedian making a joke about Asian kids used as props on stage is “punching up”.
        Of course, sometimes it clear where up or down is – like making fun of the FBI is up. A boss making a joke about his subordinate is down.

  4. It is difficult for the older generation because to conform to today’s cultural norms, that person has to be constantly reviewing the attitudes and language they learned as a child. Unlearning anything you absorbed at a very young age is difficult, and unlearning/changing gets more difficult per se, as you get older. (I know, because I’m older.) My father was a very sociable man. He was in India during the War and used to try out his little bit of mangled hindi on the many Indian customers he visited in his work as an electrician. They loved him, appreciated that he was trying to communicate, offered him cups of tea etc. He was a friendly face in a not very welcoming Britain.

    And yet only recently I recalled a song he taught me to sing as a child and realised that it was appallingly anti-Semitic. In his day it was part of the culture to make fun of (stereotypical) Jews though people probably wouldn’t have been able to pick out a real Jewish person unless he or she had a long, hooked nose and talked like Fagin.

    And in his eighties, becoming senile, some of the remarks he made in public on that and a range of other sensitive subjects used to make me cringe. Yet he was unaware of having said something embarrassing and would have been perfectly affable to a real Jewish person.

    It’s good to monitor our language and change our attitudes, but also good to give the elderly a little leeway, knowing that sooner or later you will be old, and accidentally putting your foot in it too!

  5. A joke is racist only if people want to perceive it as racist. Once, we paid a visit to an uncle of my wife; she is native from the Balkans but I am German. His computer was still running when we arrived and there was “Command & Conquer” paused. Our kids gathered delighted in front of the screen and asked what was the aim of this game. The uncle, well aware that I was standing behind his back, said, “That’s easy to be told. If you see a German: fire at will.”

    Racist? Some people might say so. But I am at good terms with my wife’s relatives and I still think the uncle’s reply was a good one. 🙂

  6. This sounds harsh and critical, but read the whole thing first. I think it sounds like your daughter needs to lighten up, but that it’s not her fault, and that’s my point.( It also sounds like she’s a very intelligent and caring kid!)
    She, as a young person immersed in the culture and without as much context of other times, as we older folks have, has been taught to be a bit on the lookout for racism. In other words, that it is right to be oversensitive about racism, that not being over-scrupulous about racism is very wrong.
    There’s merit to having no tolerance for racism. But racism is very broadly defined now as anything which refers to race no matter the context and no matter the intent. Certainly there is no room for humor, and there is no such thing as good-humored humor when race is involved. This attitude is actually just race-centric and so it is counterproductive in my humble opinion.
    The other thought which occurs to me is that if your ethnic group is “incapable” of racism that is a signal that you are still regarded as basically children (by those who claim to advocate for you).I wouldn’t want anyone to think of me as so powerless or so marginal that I couldn’t mean any harm.

  7. I’ve heard it explained that racism today is based on power structure and that people not in power are incapable of being racist. Since some groups are part of the institutional power structure and others aren’t, groups who aren’t in the power structure can make negative race-based comments without being actually racist.

    I’m not sure I buy that. It sounds to me like some people just want to make racist comments without being accused of racism.

    I’m with you 100% on that. I lost friends because I refused to accept that calling for black-on-white violence in the wake of certain national tragedies was a justifiable response.

    Then you have those that swing too far in the other direction and ban a high school production of “The Producers” because it features a swastika.

    Today’s definition of “racism” runs something like this: If (a) you said something I don’t like and (b) you’re a different color than I am then (c) you’re a racist.

    • And in the end, a social climate is created this way that leads to situations like in Rothenham, where for years, British police refused to investigate against Islamic child molesters out of fear to be called racists.

  8. Oh, times change so quickly. When I was a kid we had sitcoms on British TV filled with sexist and racist jokes – Benny Hill was hugely popular at the time.
    Language is a very tricky issue – my dad worked in the East End of London as a young man, working in Asian and Jewish communities and was totally accepting of everyone. But … I distinctly remember him calling me a ‘filthy Arab’ when I needed a good wash – pretty damn racist as far as I’m concerned.
    It’s a tricky balance. We all need to have a certain amount of respect for one another whilst maintaining a sense of humour about things, you can offend anyone with any comic material but you can’t stop telling jokes about death or sex etc just because some people are offended. If there’s something on TV or in a film you find offensive, stop watching.

  9. One of my wife’s co-workers gave us a bunch of old VHS tapes and we have a working VCR so we popped in Dumbo thinking it’s something a 3-year old would enjoy. Well, Dumbo is the most racist movie EVER! There are these three “jive” talking crows (the leader is actually named JIM Crow) who talk all black to Dumbo. Then we did some research and found out all the crows were voiced by white guys doing their best “black guy” impressions. I thought maybe I should say something to my son but then I realized he just thought they were silly talking crows. It made me realize how sensitive we’ve all become about race and racism. The high school where I teach, the kids say racist jokes to each other all the time and they just laugh about it no matter what race they are. They’ve got it right. Everyone just needs to lighten up. I wish me saying this would matter but I’m just an overprivileged white boy so I don’t “get it.”

  10. I love how gutsy and honest this post is. People nowadays are so concerned with being politically correct that they often forget what the real issue is in the midst of their self-righteousness. Yes, you should root for the underdogs like black people because they’re discriminated against, but when black people make racist jokes, people justify that by saying, “Oh, black people can’t possibly be racist because they know what it’s like to be discriminated against. It’s only the evil WHITE people who are racist.” Heck, that is reverse racism right there! So I’m very glad you brought this matter to light in this post.

    Btw I’m Asian, so please no one dare accuse me of playing sides. It’s happened to me before, so just saying:)

  11. I agree with everything in this post. It’s really hard to talk to anyone of a different race than you anymore because they might turn around and start saying you’re racist. The other thing I’ve seen is that the only time I really ever see the word racist thrown around is when it’s white versus black. I don’t ever see Asians getting pissed when people make jokes about them. And why does the media only portray this one-sided racism? I have a Korean friend and we’re mean to each other. I’ll pick on him for not knowing complicated (and ridiculous) math questions and he picks on me all the time for being a white girl. Then we laugh and move on. In my opinion, all these people screaming ‘racist’ constantly are going to die early from being so miserly.

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