Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Kids, race and dangerous jokes

I wish that everything my children will hear about race at school will be salutary, but you and I know it won’t. Their peers will expose them to a panoply of false stereotypes and harmful ideas about race, and much of that misinformation will be shared in the guise of humor.

The New York Times recently asked teens about their experience of racist jokes in school. Kaylee, at Bentonville West High School, wrote that racist humor at her school is “as common as the amount of people with Stanley cups, they’re everywhere. You hear them directed at you, directed at others, directed towards teachers, toward your dog, toward your mom….” (Stanley cups are so trendy that people have camped out in parking lots to buy them.) Kaylee goes on to describe the jokes, and others laughing at them, as “diminishing.” Kaylee’s description is apt. Jokes like this convey negative ideas and stereotypes that play a role in maintaining unjust social hierarchies, thus belittling people by lowering them in power and status. Further, I believe that wholehearted laughter at racist jokes—as opposed to, say, an uncomfortable or involuntary giggle—welcomes belittling ideas into a conversation.

Another student who participated in the conversation with the Times, Caio from High Tech High, wrote, “School administration should require guilty students to attend a lesson that teaches in detail how making racist jokes perpetuates racism.” While I believe Caio is right that racist jokes perpetuate racism, I think that many of the cultural ideas that we hold about derogatory jokes—like the idea that it’s OK to tell derogatory jokes about one’s own social group—are mistaken. Given the ample evidence that our culture does not understand how derogatory joking works, there are very few people who could construct the lesson plan that Caio envisions.

Many teens, like many adults, don’t think that racist humor is always wrong; Abigail from New York told the Times that “depending on who you’re with or where you are, [racist or other hateful] jokes can be okay. If a person of that race is telling the joke, I feel it is fine. If someone is ever offended, then the joke should stop, but if it’s all fun and laughs, it’s fine. Maybe a place like school or work isn’t okay, because you never know who could take it the wrong way. If you’re just hanging out with friends, it should be fine.”

Abigail’s opinion that you can kid around about race with friends is widely shared among adolescents. Research tells us that even though teens think that joking about race or ethnicity with your friend group is harmless, in fact it has negative consequences. For example, Douglass et al. (2015) found that teens who are generally not anxious experienced more anxiety if they directed racial or ethnic humor towards themselves. For teens who already experience anxiety, the same humor from others that they dismiss as harmless—just their friends kidding around—raises their social anxiety not just on the day that it happens but on the following day. Over the course of three weeks, the teens in this study experienced an average of 3.49 incidents of racist or ethnic humor in their friend groups. Thus, socially anxious adolescents had an average of a little over two days of anxiety every week because of jokes that they deem harmless.

This study did not consider the effects of racial or ethnic humor on what teens believe about race or ethnicity, nor on how they act. But we can extrapolate from research with adults, which shows that exposure to derogatory humor affects adults who are already prejudiced against the derogated group. For example, for people who are prejudiced against Muslims, anti-Muslim jokes (not anti-Muslim statements) affect how they perceive an incident in which a manager sends a Muslim woman to work in the stockroom, rather than with customers, because she is wearing a burqa. The effect is limited to groups that the researchers characterize as groups of “shifting acceptability”—these are groups where social attitudes are in flux, moving from a time when prejudice was widespread to a time when prejudice against the group is less socially acceptable. So, for example, for people who are prejudiced against gay people, exposure to anti-gay jokes decreases how much money they are willing to allocate to an organization that promotes “the political and social advancement” of gay people; but for people who are prejudiced against racists, jokes about racists have no effect on how much money they are willing to allocate to a similar organization that promotes the advancement of White people. There’s no reason to think that adolescents are immune to these effects in a way that adults are not.

In adults, there is no evidence that exposure to racist jokes makes people more racist; rather, it seems to encourage the expression of pre-existing racism. However, adolescents are still mapping the social world in a way that many adults are not; while I was working on Dangerous Jokes, I read and heard anecdotes from adults who recall gleaning derogatory ideas and stereotypes about social groups from humor. I suspect that racist jokes spread and cultivate prejudice among young people by introducing negative stereotypes and ideas about race in a way that many adolescents consider socially acceptable.

Featured image by Caroline Hernandez via Unsplash.

Recent Comments

There are currently no comments.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *