How to Respond to a Racist Joke

Suggestions range from the 'silent treatment' to a confrontation

two men talking
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Comedians from Chris Rock to Margaret Cho to Jeff Foxworthy have carved out niches by making jokes about people who share their cultural heritage, but just because they play up cultural differences in their stand-up routines doesn't mean the average Joe should follow suit with racist jokes. Unfortunately, people try their hand at racial humor all the time and fail.

Unlike the aforementioned comics, these people aren't making humorous statements about race and culture. Instead, they're dredging up racist stereotypes in the name of comedy. So how do you respond if a friend, family member, or colleague makes a racist joke? The goal is to make your point and exit the encounter with your integrity intact.

Don't Laugh

Say you're at a meeting and your boss makes a crack about an ethnic group being bad drivers. Your boss doesn't know it, but your husband is a member of that ethnic group. You sit in the room simmering with indignation. You'd like to let your boss have it, but you need your job and can't risk alienating him.

The best response is to do and say nothing. Don't laugh. Don't tell off your boss. Your silence will let your supervisor know that you don't find his racially-tinged humor funny. If your boss doesn't take the hint and makes another racist joke later, give him the silent treatment again. 

The next time he makes a non-racist joke, however, be sure to laugh heartily. Positive reinforcement might teach him the kinds of jokes appropriate to tell.

Leave Before the Punch Line

Sometimes you can sense a racist joke coming. Perhaps you and your in-laws are watching television. The news features a segment about an ethnic minority. "I don't get those people," your father-in-law says. "Hey, did you hear the one about the…" That is your cue to leave the room.

This is arguably the most nonconfrontational move you can make. You're refusing to be party to racism, but why take the passive approach? Perhaps you're certain that your father-in-law is prejudiced against certain groups and has no intention of changing, so you'd rather not fight with him over the issue. Or perhaps your relationship with your in-law is already tense, and you've decided that this battle is not one worth fighting.

Question the Joke-Teller

You're lunching with an old friend when she launches into a joke about a priest, a rabbi, and a black guy entering a bar. You listen to the joke but don't laugh because it played on racial stereotypes, and you don't find such generalizations funny. You care for your friend dearly, though.

Rather than make her feel judged, you want her to see why her joke was offensive. Consider this a teachable moment. "Do you really think that all black guys are like that?" you might ask. "Well, a lot of them are," she answers. "Really?" you say. "Actually, that's a stereotype. I read a study that said black guys aren't any more likely to do that than others."

Remain calm and clear-headed. Keep questioning your friend and offering facts until she sees that the generalization in the joke isn't valid. At the end of the conversation, she might rethink telling that joke again.

Turn the Tables

Your run into your neighbor at the supermarket. She spots a woman from a certain ethnic group with several children. Your neighbor jokes about how birth control is a dirty word for "those people."

You don't laugh. Instead, you repeat a stereotypical joke you've heard about your neighbor's ethnic group. As soon as you finish, explain that you don't buy into the stereotype; you wanted her to understand what it feels like to be the butt of a racist joke.

This is a risky move. The goal is to give the joke-teller a crash course in empathy, but you might end up alienating her if she doubts that your motive was to show her stereotypes hurt. Moreover, this isn't the nicest way to make your point. Try this only with thicker-skinned people you believe will respond well to having the tables turned. For others, you'll likely need to be more direct.

Confrontation

If you have nothing to lose from a direct confrontation, go for it. The next time an acquaintance tells a racist joke, say that you don't find such jokes funny and request that he not repeat them around you. Expect the joke-teller to tell you to lighten up or accuse you of being "too PC."

Explain to your acquaintance that you think such jokes are beneath him. Break down why the stereotypes used in the joke aren't true. Remind him that prejudice hurts. Tell him that a mutual friend who belongs to the group being stereotyped wouldn't appreciate the joke.

If the joke-teller still doesn't see why this type of humor isn't appropriate, agree to disagree but make it clear that you won't listen to such jokes in the future. Create a boundary.