Dealing with racist jokes can be difficult if you’re not used to.
As an Italian living in Germany I deal with these on a recurrent basis:
But why do I deal with this topic now?
This is not a website on political correctness, it’s not a blog on how things “should be” (shudder) nor a place where to complain.
This is a website on interpersonal skills, social empowerment and, well… Power moves.
- Mean Jokes Are Power Moves
- How Mean Jokes Work
- Dealing With Racist Jokes
Mean Jokes Are Power Moves
I deal with it because these types of jokes are nothing but a form of social power moves.
Hidden under a sheath of irony, racist jokes tell the story of a power relation: the joker is the one taking the dominant position, while the butt end of the joke gets socially demoted.
This technique does not have a name, so I will use, interchangeably: mean jokes, racist jokes or “power moves jokes”.
How Mean Jokes Work
Power Moves masked as jokes work by reinforcing a stereotype, prejudice, public perception or sometimes, let’s be frank here, an uncomfortable truth.
The joking layer with which the power moved is sheathed allows the joker to set the power relation in a socially acceptable way. And it allows him to sidestep any possible backlash behind the joking pretense. I’m sure you’ve seen these:
Funny Joker: Hey come on, it was just a joke
Funny Joker: God I was just kidding, I actually love Italy (/Africa /women /blacks etc. etc)
But don’t be fooled by the “joke” pretense, most of the times that’s only the sugar coating for the dominant power move.
Power Jokes Breakdown:
When you put your social x-ray goggles on this is what a superiority joke really says:
- I’m superior
- You’re inferior
- By accepting the joke you accept that power dynamic
The Mean Jokes Consequences
The joke can have lasting consequences.
If it’s not met by any backlash, the public opinion can start shifting. Not only it becomes more OK to throw mean and racist jokes, but some people can start believing they are actually true.
Equally important, the joker feels more powerful, and the butt of the joke starts feeling inferior. As the butt of the joke starts buying into that frame the joke becomes more and more reality.
Until the joker doesn’t even need to throw power moves anymore: everyone accepts his superiority.
Mean Jokes Examples
Power jokes happen more often than most people could think.
They are often used by insecure men to keep the upper hand in their romantic relationships (see examples in combative relationships). Or they are used to pump their own ego or for a good old social climbing.
Here are a few examples:
Skin Color Power Move
White guy in Asia: “I’m whiter than you”
Girl: “so what, you think you’re better than me?”
Guy: “ahaha I’m just joking, in Europe it’s actually cool to be tanned”
Result: behind the joke’s smokescreen -and helped by her offended reaction- he slots himself as the superior one by virtue of skin color. In the long run she will feel insecure and inferior to him.
Notice that her overreaction proved to him that she indeed has skin-color hang ups.
Gender Power Move
Guy: “you bought a new pair of shoes?”
Girl: “yes, do you like them”
Guy: “yeah.. And good for my figure you don’t spend as much time in the kitchen as do with shopping”
Result: he implies she spends too much and that her role is that of cooking (and she’s failing it). In the long run she might feel insecure and less of a woman for failing in what he presents as her female duties.
Nationality Power Move
The mean joke in the message example at the beginning of this post was basically saying:
- (We) Germans are (economically) superior to you (Italians).
Result: If I left all these jokes slip I would contribute to these type of jokes becoming more and more pervasive and, worst of all, I might start believing it myself.
Also, I would admit that yes, he’s right, and there are good reasons why Germany is a bigger economy (namely because Germans are superior).
I don’t know you, but I’m not cool with that.
Dealing With Racist Jokes
1. Hit Back
When someone pulls a power move disguised as a mean joke, you should react.
Because taking the hit without pushing does a few bad things:
- Leaves you dealing with resentment
- Confirms the joke’s status quo (that you indeed are “inferior”)
- You can internalize the idea of being, indeed, “inferior”
Here are a few ways of hitting back:
2. Tit For Tat
Make a mean joke back about them, their ethnic group, gender or whatever you can think.
If someone were to exaggerate here with those German / Italian jokes, I would go with something like this:
The Romans did their best to civilize the barbaric Germanic tribes here. Obviously not everyone joined the civilized world
3. Stay Serious
Don’t laugh. Just look at them and they will understand what’s up. Or do some expressions like she does:
4. Call Out Their Rudeness
You can draw attention to their meanness, rudeness and insensibility either with a zinger of a comeback, another joke or simply seriously pointing it out.
No need for anything too complicate, this is enough:
Sorry man, I don’t see the fun in that. It just feels very rude to me
When you do that you will go from defender to attacker. At which point:
5. Don’t Accept “I was kidding”
When you accept the “I was kidding” right away you let the power mover get away too quickly and too easily. And, most importantly, you let the joke sink in.
Letting the joke sink in means you and the people around accept the power moving consequences of that joke (ie.: that they’re “better”).
Push back further, let them roast for longer in the apologizing limbo (That’s what I’ve done in the text above when I said “I wasn’t“).
6. Avoid Exaggerating
If they went racist 5/10 hitting back at 10/10 might seem an easy solution.
But it’s not.
A German told you something? Just drop anything with “nazi” into a sentence and you’ll win by default, some might think.
But when you do that you show they got to you too powerfully.
And you let them drag you down to the low level games. Stay superior instead: don’t wallow with the pigs but fly with the eagles.
7. Go Meta
Going meta means that you explain what they just did. Basically, you give them a shortened form of this article:
Well, not really, people say it was a joke, but the joking form is only a more acceptably form of sharing racist feelings and aggressive opinions.
If you feel that way about me or about X, you should tell me openly.
And watch them backtrack in shame.
8. Stay Emotionally Nonreactive
Battles always run at a mental level as well.
When you overreact, you communicate that you are emotionally very sensitive.
And when you’re emotionally very sensitive to something, people will suspect it’s because you actually feel that way (ie.: if you overreact if someone tells you that Germans are “superior” you communicate you actually believe in that).
As George Thompson says in Verbal Judo, if you learn not to take things personally, you are 80% done.
9. Chill and Relax: Have a Laugh
As a final important remark: not all jokes are power moves and not all jokes are mean. If you find yourself feeling offended a bit too many times, well, probably it’s not society being wrong but it’s just you.
Don’t be that guy who always overreacts, always calls out racism and always gets offended for gender humor.
Nobody wants those people around.
Here are a few examples of innocent stereotype jokes:
- Non offensive cultural jokes (food, weather, places of holiday etc.)
- Lateness and geography (seemingly the southerner you are the later you’ll arrive)
- Women being bad drivers
- Men being braggarts / proud etc.
Intimate Racist Jokes
Also keep in mind that racy jokes are also a way of getting more intimate. The more someone can push the boundaries without repercussions, the closer you two are.
Having dated Asians and black women, my jokes with them would have been terribly offensive outside of our intimate settings.
But within that “we can say whatever we want to each other” frame, racist jokes can only bond you closer (as long as they’re not mean, of course).
Outgroup Mean Jokes
Sometimes some people will make a mean joke about a group that neither of you belong to.
Before you get offended and tell him that’s not cool, consider the joker might have actually tried to get closer to you (albeit awkwardly).
Some mean jokes and racist jokes are masked power moves. Ways of implying the superiority of the joke teller, of his ethnic group, or of his power position in the relationship.
Never allow those jokes to pass you by or you are tacitly confirming their power play and help crystallize their position of power over you.