Nov. 16th, 2016

alanajoli: (mini me short hair)
This isn't my normal topic or style for this blog; it's a piece I wrote for another blog, geared toward college students, that the editors couldn't use. In light of a conversation I had with a friend today about her concerns on interacting with certain relatives at Thanksgiving, I thought I'd share the piece in hopes it would be useful. Definitely read the Nadra Kareem Nittle article I link to in full--she has several really useful articles, including another that might be useful for awkward Thanksgiving conversations: "Top 5 Reasons Not to Call Someone Racist."


We’ve all been there. Someone in class or in the dining hall or at work says something that’s racist or makes a racist joke. It’s possible that they’re just using a word they didn’t know was offensive. It’s also possible that they’re cracking racist jokes because they have deep seeded prejudices that no one’s ever called them on. It’s often hard to know what to say in the face of blatant racism, and I know that as much as I try to be a good ally, I falter sometimes, unsure how to respond to a casual phrase that I know is offensive. Here are some tips on how to respond to racist jokes.

If they’re well-meaning, consider correcting them

I remember being corrected for using the word “token” in a conversation—I had thought it meant the single representative, like “Smurfette is the token female Smurf.” But the truth is, it implies that the person has no other value than the reason they’re a “token” member—kind of like Smurfette. I should have been able to figure that out on my own, but until it was pointed out to me, I just didn’t get it.

Some of your peers may respond well to being corrected. They may, like me, be horrified to learn that a phrase has a meaning they didn’t intend and be ready to strike it from their vocabularies. Or they might not, but in a situation where you don’t need to interact with a person regularly, it might still be worth pointing out that the comment they made was racist. In the NPR article “How Should You Respond to a Racist Comment?” posted July 23, 2006, ethicist Randy Cohen advised, “I don't think you have an obligation to reform the world, but it's an awfully good thing if you have it in you to not let such things pass, if you can stand up for it.”

Don’t laugh

If someone is making a racist joke—especially someone who is in a position of power over you, like a boss or a professor—one response it simply not to laugh. Nadra Kareem Nittle of, in “The Top 5 Ways to Respond to a Racist Joke,” recommended that you pair not laughing at racist jokes with laughing heartily at jokes that aren’t. That’s a kind of feedback to show that you’re not a stick in the mud, you’re just not willing to find racism funny.

Nittle’s other tips include:

  • Walk away. If you hear the racist joke being set up, get out of there before it’s told.

  • Ask the joke teller why the joke is funny. If you “don’t get it,” they may feel obligated to explain why it’s funny… and realize that it’s not all that funny on their own. Or you can be more direct and question the assumptions required for the joke to be funny, which are typically negative sterotypes.

  • Tell a joke about people with their background in response, explaining that you don’t find it funny either, because you know the joke teller, and know those stereotypes aren’t true. It might shock them into empathy.

  • Confront them directly and ask that such jokes not be told around you.

It’s probably not useful to call someone racist, however. It puts them immediately on the defensive, and may make them unwilling to listen.

How to respond if a friend calls you out

And what if you’re the person who unwittingly made a racist joke? The first step is to stop and listen to the friend or peer who is calling you out. Stop. Listen. Don’t get immediately defensive, because if you really didn’t mean to say something racist, your best bet is to take that feedback and apply it, not protest. And remember, it’s not the job of others to correct you; it’s your job to try not to be offensive in the first place. Try to appreciate the risk they take in explaining.

We all say stupid things. It’s hard to tell when a comment or a joke will go the wrong way—not just with racism but with all sorts of assumptions about gender, sexuality, abledness, education, and culture. Many jokes rely on the ability to lump a group into “other.” So tread lightly when you’re telling jokes, and listen when others explain how some words have more baggage than you realized. I know that I slip up, despite my best efforts, but the least I can do is keep listening and improving as best I can.


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Alana Joli Abbott

March 2019

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