How would you react to a racist, sexist or homophobic joke?

by , under Enrique

By Enrique Tessieri

How would you react if somebody at work during a coffee break would crack a racist, sexist of homophobic joke? We’ve all been in such uncomfortable situations many times in our lives. Sometimes our silence glares back at us, other times we do react. 

A study in the United States by Janet Swim and Laurie Hyers asked the following question to women who’d hear a sexist joke or comment: Would you put them in their place, or would you be too nice to confront?

When the study was actually carried out, 50% of the women participants ignored the sexist comment, while 16% commented on its inappropriateness. Two percent grumbled but did nothing.

According to Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton of the University of California at Berkeley, when faced with sexism or prejudice our reaction will be very different from what we think we will do.

He continues: “Why? People underestimate the power of social norms (specifically, the norm of being polite, even against social transgressors). In addition, in such situations, people anticipate feeling angry, but in actuality they feel anxious…In other words, we ancticipate that we will stand up against prejudice, when in reality we end up being, well, too nice and polite to further disrupt the social order.”

Probably Mendoza-Denton’s conclusions are correct but in a wider context, if we saw how the media and other politicians reacted to the anti-immigration and even racist platforms of some of the Perussuomalaiset (PS) and other party candidates before the April election, was their reaction like the 50% in the Swim and Hyers study? Did they choose to remain quiet because they didn’t want to disrupt the social or political order of things?

If, on the other hand, we totally agree with Mendoza-Denton, does it imply that prejudice is so ingrained in our society that most of us are afraid to challenge it because that would be questioning our social order and the very essence of how we see ourselves and who can belong to our ethnic club?

  1. getgln

    I’ve noticed myself twice with customers and once with a co-worker NOT saying anything in response to a racist joke or comment. I was disappointed in myself each time but I gave myself the excuse of not wanting to risk my job by getting into a fight with a customer or co-worker.

    However, when one of my family members said that “immigrants are draining the system” I spoke up. And, as I might have guessed, I became more and more upset the more I continued – because this person was not backing down and was not acknowledging the truth in the facts I was saying. My error was that I was pushing my facts on someone who had their mind made up already. I should have only asked this person if she had the data to backup her argument. My problem is that I could read the disrespect in her tone of voice and I let my anger get the best of me.

    • Migrant Tales

      Hi getgln, thank you for your comment. I know what you mean and we’ve all been in such awkward situation.

      Maybe the issue is that you have to admit that there are some people who never learn and with whom you can never have a meaningful discussion. If some don’t know better, we must find more effective ways of putting our views across. Migrant Tales is one channel as I am certain your blog and electronic publications are as well.

      Keep up the good work, Glenn!

    • getgln

      Yeah. We must pick and choose our battles. I like to listen to the Smiley and West podcast to learn how they speak up to oppression, but with love and respect.

    • Migrant Tales

      –but with love and respect.

      You are right. Remember what MLK said: Only love can drive away hate.

      After writing actively a blog for about five years on a passionate topic like immigration/identity I have learned to mellow out and take some punches with stride. The strength of those punches depend on my “love and respect.”

    • getgln

      Good point. I have also noticed myself mellowing out; some by choice and some by exhaustion 😛

    • Migrant Tales

      –but with love and respect.

      You are right. Remember what MLK said: Only love can drive away hate.

      After writing actively a blog for about five years on a passionate topic like immigration/identity I have learned to mellow out and take some punches with stride. The strength of those punches depend on my “love and respect.”

    • Migrant Tales

      Hi Linus and welcome to Migrant Tales.

      –everybody is equal, many gays have no problems with gay jokes.

      True, but maybe you should ask before making the joke. I personally don’t see any value in such jokes especially ones that promote stereotypes about immigrant and ethnic groups.

  2. Mark

    The impact of jokes is all about context. In the right context, gays are happy to laugh at themselves, as are immigrants, as are Finns.

    The issue is when the jokes are used to deliberately denigrate a group. Why do we laugh? Because an element of competition between national identities invovles putting other nationalities down. In some ways, it’s normal ‘team’ play. But it can also be dangerous. Competition when it works well brings out the best in all of us, but at its worst, it is monopolising, abusive, ruthless, underhand, dishonest and motived entirely by self-interest.

    I once heard a friend who was perhaps the most popular and senior worker in a large group of men (building a gofl course) make a reply to nasty homophobic joke in the canteen during the lunch break. He said, ‘don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it’. He said it with a wink and a smile, and it got a good laugh, because it was quite surprising. It also stopped the whole nastiness that you sometimes see when men start doing their macho bonding by having a go at gays. The guy making the joke was often aggressive and trying to create his own clique of workers and slagging people off left right and centre.

    The popular guy was also known as popular with the ladies too. What he did that day was not to protect his own freedom or reputation but someone else’s, and for that, I greatly admired him. He was a wise as well as being confident and popular. It made me realise that you can stand up to dicks who want to use their own status to bully others. In fact, you can do it with a very disarming cheeky smile that says, ‘hey, I’m way too confident for you to take a piece out of me with your petty hatreds…’ 😀

  3. Mary Mekko

    You have to be able to turn the ideas around. When I went with the “Helsinki hunters” up to Lapland at the Ruska time, all of them were golf fanatics. They told me this joke, “Golfing is like women – every hole is different.” I laughed and said, “That’s funny! We say in California, ‘Golfing is like men – every golfer swings differently – some good, some bad, and some miss!’

    You can have fun with anti-female jokes by simply flipping them upside down, but if I were a gay male who got offended by jokes, I’d do the same, it’s way more effective than getting angry. That’s the reaction they want! They won’t quit… so give ’em something to laugh at, themselves!

    We used to call all the black youths who wouldn’t stop insulting us on the public buses here in San Francisco (1970’s) “the watermelon seeds”. When they all got up in a big gang to get off the back door, we’d call out, “Hey, the watermelon seeds are leaving!” Everyone got a bang out of it because it was so idiotically harmless compared to the very nasty racial words they used against us “whites”.

    IF you can laugh at your enemies – and those guys WERE our enemies – then you feel better.

    I’m sure the Somalis have a lot of jokes about Finnish men. It would be fun to learn what they really say when they’re joking about the Finns. “Sausage eaters”???

  4. Mark

    MaryMekko

    We used to call all the black youths who wouldn’t stop insulting us on the public buses here in San Francisco (1970′s) “the watermelon seeds”. When they all got up in a big gang to get off the back door, we’d call out, “Hey, the watermelon seeds are leaving!” Everyone got a bang out of it because it was so idiotically harmless compared to the very nasty racial words they used against us “whites”.

    You only see racism against whites. I’ve NEVER seen you discuss or even acknowledge it the other way. Even in this example, you describe your very obvious racism as ‘harmless’ and their racism as ‘nasty’. Even though I point this out to you again and again, you never respond.

    You can have fun with anti-female jokes by simply flipping them upside down, but if I were a gay male who got offended by jokes, I’d do the same, it’s way more effective than getting angry. That’s the reaction they want! They won’t quit… so give ‘em something to laugh at, themselves!

    While I agree that this is probably a good way for the victim to cope with the abuse, it in no way excuses the abuse, and focusing only on asking the victim to change is a huge part of the problem. You have to also stand up and say ‘that’s not funny’ – no pun intended.

  5. D4R

    mary mekko : You can have fun with anti-female jokes by simply flipping them upside down, but if I were a gay male who got offended by jokes, I’d do the same, it’s way more effective than getting angry. That’s the reaction they want! They won’t quit… so give ‘em something to laugh at, themselves!

    It’s easy for you to say that jokes need to be taken lightly when the jokes is not on you. You can never know how others take jokes, people are different, and they have different emotions. Some may tolerate and some not. You cant compare all people to yorself, you need to consider others too, if something bothers others or offends them, then stop it. What’re you getting off of offending others. And remember peple are different and different people tend to react differently to stimulus coming from environment.

  6. khr

    It is however, a valid point that using humour against malignant jokes works well. Saying “that’s not funny”, works, but not particularly well – for the simple reason that several people in the group probably found it actually funny. That’s shaming people in the compliance; a working tactic, but positive emotions are better. The risk is that you give an impression of yourself (and more seriously, the group you are trying to defend) being humorless.

    Mark’s example about a reaction to a homophobic joke is awesome: at the same time it manages to create a positive attitude toward homosexuals, and cuts the edge from the malignant joke telling it was inappropriate. That said, it is not easy to always come up with a playful retort, and then saying “that’s not funny” is better than nothing. (I know I let those pass way too often. That’s something I have to work on).

  7. Cascara

    What’s wrong with joking about the worst stereotypes of some groups, like the promiscuous shallowness of gay culture and how some women really are gold-digging airheads? There’s lots of jokes laughing at the geekiness of asians and jews, silly MTV-emulating machismo of blacks and latinos… we even laugh at the stupidity of religions! Nothing is as funny as fundamentalism in action 😀

    This is not hatin’ on anyone. It’s a cultural melting in process, people connecting to each other and stating the basis for a common morality on the safe playground of humor. Sexist jokes about women who only care about shopping, slacking and finding a husband to foot the bill are also an ultimatum from a camaraderie of decent women who are unwilling to suffer the consequences of the negative stereotype, this so-called sexism is also telling that shallow, calculative behaviour is not acceptable anymore: If women want freedom they have better also be responsible, productive citizen. Same goes for the negative stereotype jokes on each group and minority: they are all re-defining acceptable behaviour and mocking the worst of us all.

    • Migrant Tales

      Hi Cascara and welcome to Migrant Tales.

      Certainly it is healthy to laugh at yourself but to be on the safe side, I try to keep clear from jokes that involve ethnic groups, gays and women.

      I grew up listening to Cheech and Chong during my university days. Yes, they were funny but who was laughing?

  8. khr

    Stereotype jokes aren’t necessarily wrong by themselves, but they do take some extra tact. What you can say in a group of close friends, where you know it won’t be offensive and nobody takes the joke seriously (yes, there are really some people that somehow manage to take an egregious stereotype seriously), is quite different from what’s safe in newly met company. If you don’t know the audience, it’s safest to avoid that type of jokes (or joke only about your own group). Jokes are supposed to be funny, so if they end up hurting somebody they fail their purpose.

  9. Farang

    People sometimes even misunderstand (maybe on purpose) the jokes. Many time, a so called “racist joke” is not actually racist but instead it makes fun of white people who are racist. So it seems that a sensitive person immediately judges the joke racist if just a black man is mentioned.

    I have one example of this kind of joke. Please comment, whether or not you think this is racist of offending joke.

    A black man is sitting on a plane with his son when the captain speaks:
    – “This is your captain speaking. Unfortunately 3 of our 4 engines are out and we can’t make it to the destination with this much weight. We have already dropped all the luggage and that was not enough. It’s a difficult situation, but in order to avoid us all dying, we need sacrifise some of you and start dropping passengers out. To be fair, we have decided to start in alphabetic order.”

    Then captain starts:
    – “Are there any African people on board?”

    The black boy starts to raise his hand but his father stops him.

    – “Are there any black people on board?”

    Now the boy looks at his father askingly, and father just shakes his head.

    – “Are there any coloured people on board?”

    Father is still silent, so the boy speaks to him:
    – “Dad. You have taught me to always be honest. We are from Africa, we are black and we are coloured, but still you haven’t said anything. Isn’t this against everything you have taught me?”

    Father turns to his son and replies:
    – “Son, I know. But today son, today we are niggers.”

  10. Mark

    Farang, for me it was a funny joke! 🙂

    But this can be funny for a racist or a non-racist. It still depends on who’s telling it as to whether it’s acceptable.

    Told by a racist with a sneer, and it can be using humour to reinforce the idea that blacks are of less value and also mocks the fact that some blacks call other blacks ‘nigger’.

    Told by a black or someone who isn’t a racist, and it can be an acknowledgement of how things can be made to appear as not racist, when clearly they are ‘African, black, coloured…’ It can also be seen to buck the idea that blacks are not smart.

  11. Farang

    Mark: “But this can be funny for a racist or a non-racist. It still depends on who’s telling it as to whether it’s acceptable.”

    I really don’t get this. This must be somekind of a sick joke. Talking about double standards here. You are seriously saying that in your opinion something being acceptable or not is based on who is telling the joke. So for person A it’s ok to tell the joke, but for person B it’s not?

  12. Igor Del Toro

    I have heard all kinds of racists jokes and slurs over the 10 years I’ve got living in Finland. Everything ranging from the truly offensive to very funny. I moved here as a very young man and I didn’t believed in racism when I arrived so my reaction to it ranged from disbelieve to annoyance to indignation to raging anger to complete obliviousness during a long and arduous journey of trial and error. It is not OK in any situation to make racist jokes unless you are intimate with someone and even then it might be possibly of bad taste. The thing is, no matter how witty and well intentioned your remark was, chances are the victim of your joke has heard this same comment many many many times before. Sadly, I have to admit I’m beyond caring and that anyone who displays such behavior is just not worth of my time and energy. So I will (usually) just ignore you and go on with my day. Just 2 days ago I was faced with this situation at work and tried something different: During lunch break there was this man who constantly would make racist “jokes” whenever I was in earshot, (he also made rude comments about women and even from other Finns who came from Karelia!) instead of simply ignoring him, I gave the guy my full attention and waited for the punchline. When he was done I kept regarding him with saddest smile I could muster and everybody kept this very uncomfortable silence. No-one backed him up and he rose to get back to his duties silently. Once he was gone I finished eating in peace and to my surprise his friends started to make jokes about him. I believe “juntti” and “punaniska” where the adjectives they used for him. Even though other people making fun of him gives me little satisfaction, the fact is that had I reacted defensively (as I often have) other Finns would immediately sympathize with him and join him in the mockery (as it often happens) and they would all feel justified in alienating the immigrant. While apparently simplistic and immature this role-reversal does teach him a bit of humility and tolerance when he realizes that even tough other workmates have similar physical characteristics as him; none of them shares or supports his bigoted humor.

    Igor.

  13. Kanerva

    For the love of (please insert deity of choice)!

    Is it just me or are we all so scared of not being politically correct that all humour has gone out of the world? Now I’m sure that some of you will jump on me from a great height for saying this and probably my next statement to. I fail to see what is wrong with a joke based on a stereotype that is universally accepted (you know lawyers, blonds, Irish, etc). Call me naive if you will, where is the harm in these jokes?

    A good joke comes not necessarily from the punchline, rather from the delivery leading up to the punchline. I think Farangs joke is great. I can also see how some people would take great delight in using against blacks.

    Generally sexist jokes don’t trouble me. There will always be a ‘battle of the sexes’. There are whole industries based around this battle, plus the magazine industry would have nothing to write about..

    Racist jokes however are a different kettle of fish. I’m old enough to remember hearing jokes about our indiginous population on the radio. I can also remember feeling conflicted – funny joke, but you know you really shouldn’t laugh at. I’m old enough now to know it’s better to say ‘I dont get it’ rather than ‘That’s not funny’. Everyone knows a jokes ceases to be funny if it has to be explained.

    Sorry Farang, Mark’s comment is on the money. Your jokes was good though!

    FYI: I’m an Accountant from Tasmania who lives with an Engineer from Turku, in Helsinki. I think we’ve got the stereotype jokes covered in our house.

    What’s the definition of an accountant? Someone who solves a problem you didn’t know you had in a way you don’t understand.

    BTW: First time to leave a reply and not enough time to figure out how to quote, get things bold or in italics. I’ll do better next time!

    • Migrant Tales

      Hi Kanerva and welcome to Migrant Tales. Good to hear from you and we hope more of in the future.

Leave a Reply