Why Your Racist Jokes Aren’t Funny

Isabella Rodriguez

Imagine this—you’re sitting in your class telling yourself that you’re paying attention to your work, but in reality, you’re spacing out. There’s a group of kids in front of you talking and messing around, and you’re not paying attention to what they’re saying until you hear one of them say, “Dude, that’s so racist.” No one laughs, per se, just giggles. Then, the same kid later says, “You’re racist,” directed at another person at their table that made a joke. And once again, everyone goes along with it. This has happened three different times. Same kids, same class, same reaction. The teacher told the kid to stop, but he must’ve not heard her, considering how he repeated it not even 5 minutes later.


I noted two things after this. 1. Nothing he or his friends said was racist or racially insensitive. And 2. His friends acknowledged what he said but didn’t laugh. Meaning they didn’t think it was funny but let him get away with it anyway. A common theme whenever sexist, racist, or homophobic jokes come into the conversation. Someone makes the joke, no one laughs or reciprocates, but we let it slide. 


Something that may surprise some people reading this is that this type of “joking” actually has a name. It’s called disparagement humor, described as when someone utilizes putting down another group of people as the punchline of their joke. Jokes about women liking shoes and makeup, black people being stupid, Islamic people being terrorists, you get the idea. Most people don’t think twice about it because of the argument that it’s “just a joke” and shouldn’t be taken seriously. Which is equivalent to saying, “I’m not racist, but—”


This kind of “humor” has a variety of negative impacts on the people who it marginalizes and the standards of socially acceptable behavior. Society tends to play a massive game of following the leader—if someone else says it, anyone who hears them will pick up on it and start saying it too, and nobody thinks about asking questions. But when they also happen to be making fun of another group of people, that’s where everything starts to go downhill.


I know there are people reading this whose first reaction will be to dismiss everything I’ve said here. “It’s not that big of a deal,” “I don’t do it, so it doesn’t apply to me,” “But my friends joke like that all the time, it’s not harming anyone.” And I get it; it’s so easy to dismiss something that may be overwhelming or complicated. But as a community, we have witnessed countless scenarios involving racially motivated attacks, especially following initiatives such as the Black Lives Matter movement. Discussions around racism are unavoidable and necessary, and making jokes about the issue doesn’t solve anything. It only makes things worse. 


Try to imagine if someone came up to you and started calling you a racial slur or made demeaning and humiliating jokes about your community. It wouldn’t be funny then, would it? So what’s the difference? The difference is the audience. There are a lot of jokes you may make with your friends that you would never want to repeat in front of your parents. But that shouldn’t give West students the freedom to push the limit between what’s a joke and what’s offensive. It takes a lot for some people to care about strangers and communities they aren’t a part of. But the reality is that it’s not just about you, and your “harmless jokes” are hurting people that have already suffered for generations. Jokes like this are rooted in stereotypes, and those stereotypes are rooted in a gruesome history. We cannot condemn one part and accept the other. Showing accountability and empathy is not as complicated as it’s cut out to be. It’s a step towards changing how we interact with each other. Even if it’s a light-hearted joke, it still has a harmful history hovering behind it. And if that change doesn’t start with us, then it’s never going to happen.