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Notes on Racist Jokes

"What do you call a black with a Harvard education?"

There is a black man who listens to racist jokes. He laughs at jokes about black people being lazy, ugly, and unintelligent. He enjoys jokes about black women as perpetually pregnant parasites chasing welfare checks. He laughs at jokes that portray black men as sex-obsessed criminals. This man laughs at jokes about violence against black women, men, and children. And, he laughs at jokes about white people.

This man, this black man, exists. I know he exists because many white people tell me he exists. I tell them that jokes that stereotype and dehumanize black people are not funny; they tell me about the black man who listens to -- and laughs at -- racist jokes. How offensive could the joke be if a black man offers his approval? He, that man, can take a joke. He has transcended political correctness. He has given his approval -- spoken and tacit. Why should they listen to me and not him, they ask? He is, after all, a darker black man.

"Did you hear the one about the Chukchi farmers?"

Laughing at racist jokes or ethnic jokes may not indicate that the laugher holds enmity toward the victimized group, but the laughter is not likely unless the laugher is familiar with the stereotypes directed against the group -- and accepts that the stereotypes are true. An American hearing a Greek joke about Pontians or a Russian joke about the Chukchi will not, in all likelihood, laugh. We do not know the stereotypes of the Pontians or the Chukchi -- and we do not have opinions on the accuracy of the stereotypes. We do not know the Pontians or the Chukchi. But we do know Mexicans. It would be difficult to be an adult American and be unfamiliar with the stereotype that Mexicans are lazy; however, one may reject the stereotype, making jokes about lazy Mexicans unfunny. Of course, if one does have prejudiced views toward an ethnic group, say Mexicans, anti-Mexicans prejudice is validated, and may be extended, by jokes that defame Mexicans. The stereotype of the unemployed, sombrero-wearing, sleeping Mexican is easily contradicted by the thousands of Mexicans and Mexican Americans working long and hard in corporate offices, fruit-bearing fields, and every job category in the United States.

"I am not racist, but I like a good (racist) joke."

Anthropologists accept as an axiom that laughter develops and strengthens bonds between people. Laughter within a group reflects a level of comfort that the members have with one another. The more they laugh the more they bond. Jokes that play on racial stereotypes of the other may strengthen relations among members of the in-group. Add the common desire to not be different and situations are ripe for listening to and not challenging jokes that degrade out-group members, in this case racial groups. Listeners may even laugh at jokes that are not funny to them because they value their membership in the in-group.

I have colleagues who claim that racist jokes do not perpetuate racial stereotypes. They argue that a racist joke, alone, cannot make an individual accept racial stereotypes. They are right. It is unlikely that hearing a joke about Haitians being violent is sufficient, by itself, to make the hearer accept the belief that Haitians are violent; yet it introduces the belief to some listeners and reinforces the stereotype in the minds of other listeners. The racist joke is part of a larger puzzle; it combines with unfavorable portrayals in movies, television shows, novels, and video games to perpetuate the belief that Haitians are more violent than other Americans, especially white Americans. The derogatory depictions of Haitians are interrelated, interconnected, and mutually reinforcing. The fact that the joke does not act alone -- or is not successful alone -- hardly diminishes its important role in the perpetuation of racial stereotyping.

It is an unfortunate truth that few if any minority groups escape stereotyping. Indeed, sociologists use "victims of stereotyping" as one of the criteria for being conceptualized as a minority. To the stereotyping one, the Dutch are seen as stingy. Jews are viewed as greedy. The Dutch want to keep their money; the Jews want their money and yours. These stereotypes are reflected in the phrases, "Going Dutch," and "Jew you down." The Japanese are stereotyped as smart but sneaky. Puerto Ricans are brilliant entertainers, but likely to stab you with a knife. The list of stereotypes of minorities, especially peoples of color in the United States, is a long one. The stereotypes are found in material culture -- for example, souvenir objects, tee-shirts, and posters -- and also popular culture, especially newspapers, television shows, popular music, radio programs, magazines, including pornography, and the Internet. If popular culture is what "ordinary" people want, like, and listen to, then it is clear that racist jokes are basic to American culture. Racist jokes that originate in one mind are spread via the Internet, found by a "creative" writer, placed in a movie, heard by millions, repeated by thousands in private conversations, returned to the Internet, and reshaped by other minds.

When told by members of the dominant group, racist jokes reflect ethnocentric notions of racial superiority. The joke's victims (butts) are seen as odd or weird. At best, the victims are quaintly amusing; at worse, they deserve to be mocked and ridiculed. They are inferiors. They are less intelligent. They are physically ugly. Their behaviors are indicative of moral failures and cultural deficiencies. A white person telling a joke that ridicules black people as dim-witted thieves suggests, in effect, that black people are inferior to white people. Jokes that defame racial minorities are passed from one generation to another, rehashed, functioning as ego massages for any white listening to the jokes -- even those who do not laugh. This is racial joking as propaganda.

"I've heard worse . . ."

Some jokes are worse than others. Jokes that question the human-ness of a racial group are worse than jokes that mock the spending habits of a group. To say that the Dutch are cheap is an insulting and faulty generalization, but it does not suggest that they are "out of the tribe." Many of the jokes directed against black people compare them to monkeys, apes, and gorillas -- often unfavorably. Most of the jokes aimed at black people demean their work ethic, mock their physical features -- dark skin, big lips, nappy hair -- or tap into traditional stereotypes: black people are lazy, eat excessive amounts of chicken and watermelon, love big cars, steal, embrace welfare, especially food stamps, and are sexually deviant. A flawed human is better than a sub-human. The jokes that characterize black people as simians don't suggest that black people are culturally different, or even culturally deficient; they are not humans, at all. This may explain, in part, the popularity of jokes about black people being lynched, hanged, pushed out of airplanes or off cliffs, run over by cars, shot by guns, eaten by alligators, drowned, or burned alive. These "funny stories" represent jokes as hate speech. There are, obviously, Americans who would not laugh at these death jokes; though some of them laugh at jokes that imply that black people are worthless, cultural leeches.

"What's the difference between a Jew and a pizza?"

Sociologists conceptualize Jews as an ethnic group, not a racial group; nevertheless, Jews are treated with a disdain usually reserved for minorities of color. This is not to say that all jokes about Jews are equally offensive. Most anti-Jewish jokes exaggerate the old stereotypes that they have big noses and are obsessed with money; these jokes are nasty and, on the whole, inaccurate descriptions of Jews; however, the loathsomeness of these jokes pales in comparison to the jokes about Jews as Christ-killers, children of Satan, and as literal blood drinkers. Like black people, Jews are victimized by jokes that make fun of their deaths, especially deaths during the Holocaust.

The venom of racist jokes is increased by using racial slurs to describe the targeted group. So, "What do you call a white man surrounded by one hundred blacks?" becomes "What do you call a white man surrounded by one hundred niggers?" And, "How do you blindfold an Asian? becomes "How do you blindfold a gook?" Many Americans will laugh at a racist joke if it does not include a racial slur -- though the demeaning stereotypes remain.

"I hate black people, too."

There is a black man who listens to racist jokes. I began this essay with that sentence, and, to be honest, the remainder of that first paragraph was disingenuous because it implied that that black man was fictional. I know there are many black people who listen to and tell jokes that demean African Americans; they try to tell the jokes to me. Some of these jokes are told with irony or self-deprecating sarcasm. Unfortunately, there are black people who have internalized the anti-black loathing that is apparent in racist jokes. Chris Rock, the popular black comedian, is not the only African American who says, "I love black people, but I hate niggers." In his stage routine, niggers are lazy, ignorant, sexually irresponsible, "low expectations having motherf**kers." The niggers he believes to be real are the source of much of the racist humor that is directed against black people. When middle-class black people (the class that produced Rock) tell anti-black jokes they are referring to black people unlike themselves: black people who are poor and undereducated, black people who are loud and obnoxious, in other words, black people who they believe are embarrassing the race by self-stereotyping. When I hear black people telling racist jokes, I tell them that those jokes may be found on white supremacy Web sites, for example,, the brainchild of White Aryan Resistance. There are black people (and whites, yellows, reds, and browns) who are anti-intellectuals, connivers, malcontents, criminals, thugs, and marauders, but there are no niggers.

Scholars debate whether black people (and other racial minorities) can be racist against white people, but there is no debate that black people can hate white people. Much of this hatred is confined to bitter commentary and diatribes that remain in-group -- and tend not to be expressed in jokes that live long and spread. There are black comedians who pander to the anti-white feelings apparent in their black audiences. White men are ridiculed as being physically weak, sexually inadequate, cowards; white women, as sexually promiscuous "freaks." Black audiences laugh, and nod their approval, when white people are said to smell like dogs -- and hate black people. There are relatively few "white jokes" on the Internet; however, there are many jokes that defame white ethnics -- Irish Americans, Polish Americans, Italian Americans, and Jewish Americans -- and poor Americans, so-called rednecks, trailer trash, and white trash. The jokes that defame these white people are, in the main, created and spread by other white people, not minorities of color.

Sometimes racist humor masks a racist attitude; sometimes it reveals a racist attitude. Politicians are vilified for telling racist jokes. This makes sense. A bigoted politician undermines democratic ideals. A mayor who finds "Spic jokes" funny cannot be trusted to make decisions about immigration -- or many other issues. There is an element of insensitivity always -- and an element of hatred sometimes -- with racist jokes. One would hope that a mayor, minister, educator, or other person occupying a position of authority would meet would-be racist joke tellers with a short rebuff: "I don't find racist humor funny or clever, please try something different."

"All humor has a victim, why should races be exempt?"

There are those who claim that political correctness has run amuck. Get a sense of humor, they say, lighten up. Quit being sensitive. Learn to laugh at yourself; learn to laugh at others. Humor is good. True, but humor at the expense of others is divisive and selfish. Humor that relies on racial stereotyping promotes an us-versus-them dichotomy. It ensures our membership in the in-group by excluding others. It promotes an unjustified sense of superiority. Hatred as humor is still hatred. How is humor that insults and deliberately ridicules whole segments of the population good for America?

"Those who get offended by racist jokes are the true racists, not the ones who tell the jokes."

Acknowledging racism does not make one a racist. Indeed, acknowledging racism may be the first step in eradicating it. The reality is this: many Americans enjoy racist humor -- so many Americans listen to and tell racist jokes that one could argue that racist jokes are normative in this country. These Americans resent someone telling them what they can and cannot say. They have a right to listen to and tell racist jokes. Having a right does not make you right. I do not often embrace absolutist sentiments, but I am reminded of some words that an elderly man said to me when I was a child: "Right is right, if no one does it; wrong is wrong, even if everyone does it."

Here is a black man who does not listen to racist jokes. He does not laugh at jokes about black people being lazy, ugly, and unintelligent. He does not enjoy jokes about black women as perpetually pregnant parasites chasing welfare checks. He does not laugh at jokes that portray black men as sex-obsessed criminals. This man does not laugh at jokes about violence against black women, men, and children. And, he does not laugh at jokes about white people.

David Pilgrim
Curator, Jim Crow Museum
September 11, 2006
Edited 2012