Comedians from Chris Rock to Margaret Cho to Jeff Foxworthy have carved out a niche for themselves by making jokes about people who share their cultural heritage. But just because these comics play up cultural differences in their standup routines doesn't mean that the average Joe should attempt to follow suit. Unfortunately, ordinary people try their hand at racial humor all the time and fail. Unlike the aforementioned comics, these people don't end up making humorous statements about race and culture. Instead, they dredge up racist stereotypes in the name of comedy. So, how do you respond if a friend, family member or colleague makes a racist joke? The main goal is to exit the encounter with your integrity intact.
Say you're at a department meeting and all of a sudden your boss makes a crack about a certain ethnic group being bad drivers. What do you do? Your boss doesn't know it, but your husband is a member of that ethnic group. You sit in the conference room simmering with indignation. You'd like to let your boss have it, but you need your job and can't risk alienating him. Accordingly, the best response here is to do and say nothing. Don't laugh. Don't tell your boss off. Your silence will speak for you. It will let your supervisor know that you don't find his racially-tinged humor funny. If your boss doesn't take the hint and makes another racist joke later on, give him the silent treatment again. The next time he makes a non-racist joke, be sure to laugh heartily. This positive reinforcement will teach him the kinds of jokes appropriate to tell you.
Leave Before the Punch Line
Sometimes you can sense a racist joke coming on. Perhaps you and your in-laws are watching television together. The news features a segment about an ethnic minority. "I don't get those people," your father-in-law says. "Hey, did you hear the one about the…" And that is your cue to leave the room. This is arguably the most non-confrontational move you can make. Yet, you're taking your fate into your own hands by refusing to be party to racism. Why take the passive approach? Perhaps you're certain that your father-in-law is set in his ways. You know he's prejudiced against certain groups and has no intentions of changing. Given this, you'd rather not fight with him over the issue. Why else avoid confrontation? Perhaps your relationship with your in-law is already tense, and you've decided that this battle is not one worth fighting.
Question the Joke-Teller
You're lunching with an old friend when she abruptly launches into a joke about a priest, a rabbi and a black guy entering a bar. You listen to the joke in its entirety but don't laugh because it played on racial stereotypes, and you don't find such generalizations funny. You care for your friend dearly, though. Rather than making her feel judged, you want her to see why her joke was offensive. Consider this a teachable moment. "Do you really think that all black guys are like that?" you ask her. "Well, a lot of them are," she answers. "Really?" you say. "Actually, that's a stereotype. I read a study that said black guys weren't any more likely to do that than others." Remain calm and clear-headed. Keep questioning your friend and peppering her with facts until she sees that the generalization used in the joke isn't valid. At the end of the conversation, she'll rethink telling that joke again.
Turn the Tables
Your run into your neighbor at the supermarket. She spots a woman from a certain ethnic group with several children. Your neighbor proceeds to joke about how birth control is a dirty word for "those people." You don't laugh. Instead, you repeat a stereotypical joke you've heard about your neighbor's ethnic group. As soon as you finish, explain that you don't buy into the stereotype; you just wanted her to understand what it feels like to be the butt of a racist joke herself. Mind you, this is a risky move. The goal here is to give the joke-teller a crash course in empathy, but you may very well end up alienating the joke-teller if she doubts your motive was to get her to see that stereotypes hurt. Moreover, because this isn't the nicest way to get your point across, use this method only with thicker-skinned people you believe will respond well to having the tables turned on them. For all others, you'll likely need to be more direct.
Speak Your Mind
If you've got nothing to lose by having a direct confrontation, go for it. The next time an acquaintance tells a racist joke, say that you don't find such jokes funny and request that he not repeat such jokes in your presence. Expect the joke-teller to tell you to lighten up or accuse you of being "too PC." Explain to your acquaintance that you think he's an okay guy but feel such jokes are beneath him. Break down why the stereotypes used in the joke aren't true. Let him know that prejudice hurts. Tell him that your mutual friend who belongs to the group being stereotyped wouldn't appreciate the joke. If the joke-teller still doesn't see why this type of humor isn't appropriate, agree to disagree but make it clear that you won't listen to such jokes in the future. Create a boundary.