Harmless Fun or Disguised Disrespect?

Sometimes people just want to make others laugh. We all want to laugh. It feels good. It’s the best medicine. So why not repeat that hilarious sexist, racist, or homophobic joke?

Because no matter who cracks them, sexist jokes are a form of sexism. Racist jokes are a form of racism. Homophobic jokes are a form of homophobia. These jokes matter: they can shape our beliefs and our actions:

  • They present and perpetuate stereotypes, repeating oversimplified, usually negative views about a group. Through these jokes, false and disrespectful statements are brought into the present conversation and hearers’ working memory. Everyone who heard the joke is reminded of the stereotype. The effect is to continue to legitimize prejudice in society.
  • They set up a duality: us against them. The sense of division can make people forget about the values that unite them.
  • They hold one group up as the standard by which the “other” should be judged, and paint the “other” as falling short. The “other” is seen as inadequate and deviant compared to their more highly valued peers.
  • They portray the groups as less human and less worthy of respect, legitimizing poor treatment.
  • They disguise insult and disrespect, and because they take the form of humor, any negative intention can be denied.
  • They oppress and subordinate the target group to maintain the status quo.
  • They, like other microaggressions, hurt people.

Everyday conversation is filled with subtle meanings that preserve and maintain the status quo. These meanings are often so implicit that speakers do not recognize the force of their words. Sometimes people clearly recognize the problematic nature of their jokes, claiming that they are tired of being “politically correct.” But, what this phrase does is effectively dismiss the real hurt that words and ideas can cause while maintaining the superiority of a dominant group. It positions anyone who objects as being “overly sensitive” to the portrayal of their inferiority in society. Members of the target group sometimes say it is okay to tell problematic jokes because they themselves are part of the group. Being a member of that group, however, does not give one permission to harm others.

When sexist, racist, religious, homophobic, and other group-stereotyping jokes are told, a person who is a member or ally of the target group may feel they are caught in a trap: they can laugh along with everyone else and be complicit in the harm caused, or they can raise their objection openly, killing the happy mood and being ostracized for having no sense of humor. This trap may lead many of us to remain silent instead of seizing the opportunity to interrupt the perpetuation of biases.

Interrupting bias can be tough, especially when doing so feels like a public confrontation or when there are obvious power differences in the relationship. Being prepared ahead of time can help in those moments when emotions may run high. NCWIT offers several resources that can help prepare you for these situations.

“Interrupting Bias in Academic and Industry Settings” from NCWIT can help you decide whether and how to confront bias. These resources will help you assess the situation and your relationship to the person who introduced the bias and share some specific bias-interrupting techniques you can put to use right away:

 
  • Ask a question (e.g., "Where did you find data to confirm that?")
  • Invite clarification (e.g., "What do you mean by that?")
  • Point out dissonance (e.g., “I’m surprised you would say something like that, considering how supportive you are of women in computing.”)
  • Change the focus back to where it should be (e.g., "I think Jamie had a thought she wanted to finish?")

The NCWIT “Critical Listening Guide” classifies common problematic statements into three categories:

  • Fix the person, not the system.
  • Essentialism (the overgeneralization of similarities among members of a group and the belief that these characteristics are innate)
  • Framing a societal issue as relevant only to one group.

Understanding why statements that we hear are often false can help you respond more readily.

If you want to practice on your own so that you are ready to intervene the next time you hear a biased statement or offensive “joke,” use Dr. Colleen Lewisexamples with suggested responses.

Finally, if you are going to speak in front of a group or are teaching a class, and you want to avoid inadvertently perpetuating biases, these narrated slides can help you be sure you are being inclusive.