The Do’s and Don’ts of Laughing at Race

Dealing with diversity issues on a daily basis can be tough. Sometimes, even we just want to laugh a little. But is there ever a good time to laugh at “jokes” about race? Humor is one way to make difficult-to-discuss issues like race and culture more accessible, yet it’s important to remember when and how it should be used. If you are interested in using humor as a way to build a bridge to more in-depth conversations on race and culture, here are our thoughts on what to do and what not to do.

Don’t laugh at cultural communities. Do laugh with them.
It’s a familiar adage but worth repeating. No one wants to be laughed at; yet most want to be understood. Humor, used wisely, can foster greater understanding of diverse communities. Used unwisely, however, it can perpetuate stereotypes. For instance, Indian Country Today reports that the online provider Coursera recently offered an underwater basket weaving course on its website as an “April Fools’ Day” joke. The fake course description attributes the basket-weaving technique to a faux indigenous community and even uses a fake language to perpetuate the joke. The description was seen as no laughing matter for many in the tribal communities who felt the fake course trivialized legitimate basket-weaving traditions. As one professor of aboriginal education at the University of Toronto was quoted in the Indian Country Today article, “Taken together over time and in quantity, embedded in schools and media and harmless jokes, these attitudes and opinions in turn can lead to discrimination and the support of racist laws and policies.”

Don’t be cheap. Do be smart.

Relying on cheap stereotypes and misunderstandings, such as in the Coursera example above, might lead to some laughs but it isn’t smart and doesn’t lead to any greater understanding of cultural communities. Smart humor, however, can bring controversial topics into the mainstream dialogue in an accessible way. Recently, the popular comedian Stephen Colbert hosted author and MacArthur Genius Grant award winner Junot Diaz on his show the “Colbert Report.” On the show, Diaz discusses issues related to immigration reform, The Dream Act, and Freedom University—a Georgia institution that educates immigrant resident youth who are not U.S. citizens—while Colbert uses his outlandish political pundit “shtick” to counter Diaz’s analysis with comic relief. The segment works to bring out serious perspectives on immigration issues while using humor to make the conversation accessible to those who might otherwise avoid the topic.

Don’t put down. Do reach out.
Humor can be used as a lighthearted way to make difficult conversations slightly easier if the humor is based on reaching out and not putting down. In a recent segment on WBEZ radio, journalist Susie An explores “awkward racial moments” using humor and featuring the voices of people who have dealt with unintentional stereotyping. One such person, Emma, tells a story of being mistaken for another Asian woman at a bar, harkening to the stereotype that “all Asians look alike.” While the stories in this clip are told in a lighthearted way, they open the door to meaningful conversations about race, identity, and how unintentionally stereotyping can still be harmful.

Has  your organization or institution used humor to open up conversations on race and ethnicity? Tell us your story on Facebook and Twitter. 

04.30.2013   |   , ,

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