Ask Racialicious: Should I Be Offended by this Joke?

by Latoya Peterson

Earlier this week, I received an email from a new reader:

Hi Latoya,

My name is B and I live in Florida. In fact, the neighborhood where I reside is a very desirable, mostly residential area centrally located near downtown and only a few short minutes to our lovely beaches.

The reason I am writing is because I just received the current issue of our neighborhood newsletter. The publication is several pages long and is in a glossy magazine style format. It is widely read not only by the neighborhood residents but also by other neighborhoods because of a general curiosity of all the events that take place here year round.

Well, each month, a regular feature is written called “Mr. Trivia, things you need to know, things you wanted to know, things you would care less if you ever knew!” I read it regularly and consider it mildly entertaining. However, this month, I was left with distaste after reading its opening paragraph.

It reads:

    “Senor Trivia est en Mexico on vacacione. He has ad to muy tequila. He as me too rite de newleter fo viktor pak. I not god en Englsh. He sho me ow to copy on cumputr. I hop u lik me yob. Senor Mex trivia.”

The article then continues in its regular format citing various facts and then ends with:

    “I ride burro now and bring this to u.

    Gracias.

    Senor Mex trivia.”

I mentioned my dissatisfaction about the article to a friend and she felt I was overreacting. I’d considered writing the editor of the newsletter stating that I thought it bordered on a negative racial stereotype, though I have held off from doing because of my friends comment about my “overreacting”.

What do you think?

I wrote back:

Hello B,

Thanks for writing.

You were right to feel offended. Here’s why:

Race based humor is a tricky subject. However, there are some very clear signs when the joke shifts from humor into racism.

One way to tell is to ask “Is this joke still funny if I don’t know the stereotype?”

Our publisher Carmen Van Kerckhove wrote a popular post on 5 New Rules to Deal With Race at Work and included a tip on how to react to a racist joke:

Rule 3: When someone tells a racist joke, play dumb.
Figuring out how to react when a co-worker makes a racist joke is tricky. If you don’t call the person out on her racism, you seem to be condoning the behavior. But if you do say something, you risk alienating him and sabotaging your working relationship.

The best response to a racist joke should accomplish 3 things:

1) Communicate that you find this behavior unacceptable.
2) Demonstrate that the joke is racist.
3) Inflict as little damage as possible to your working relationship with the joker.

My recommendation? Play dumb.

Put on a bewildered expression, act as if you don’t understand the joke, and ask your co-worker to explain it to you. He will not be able to explain why the joke is funny without evoking a racist stereotype. You can then question the veracity of this stereotype, thus pointing out the racism of the joke, without being confrontational and without humiliating your co-worker.

Racist jokes rely on an unspoken, shared knowledge of racist stereotypes. Without the stereotypes, there is no humor.

Also, check comedian Kate Rigg’s take on the subject when she talked about the difference between humor involving race and racist jokes (strong language!):

Kate, was Sarah Silverman saying “chink” in her one bit about jury duty different from you saying chink?

KR: You know what, it actually was not. Because her joke was not about the word “chink,” it was about racism. It was actually a very good joke, a very socially responsible joke. And everyone freaked out : “She said ‘chink’!” I’m offended when I see comics get onstage going “…and then I went to the Laundromat. Ching-chong, ching-chong, ching-chong!” Then I’m fucking offended. When someone tells a joke about Asian people and there’s no actual joke – the joke is the Asian people. The joke is [racist-comic voice] the funny way they talkie-talkie! “They don’t use proper diction! Only verb and noun! Verb and noun!” I just heard a comic that I respect doing that fucking joke the other night. An Asian comic. And I was like, “Dude! Write a punch line or you’re just being racist!”

So that was my take readers. Feel free to add your own in the comments.