Two Important Lessons About Our Silence in the Presence of Racist Jokes

Paul Scanlon is a motivational speaker in England.


While I’m sure that few of us actually tell racist jokes at this point, how do/would we react if we were in a situation where we realized that one was about to be told? The importance of Scanlon’s message can’t be sufficiently underscored as we grapple with the systemic racism that has finally become more widely apparent at this pivotal juncture in our national life.

In speaking of white solidarity and white social capital, Scanlon makes observations that I find critically important.  We must not be silent. We must speak up–knowing we will feel uncomfortable and may lose “social capital.”

Scanlon’s talk brought me back a few decades to another instance of harmful humor, albeit not racial in nature. At that time, I sat with a group of office colleagues who were making “gay” jokes. I recall my discomfort at remaining silent.

Not long after that, one of our colleagues “came out” publicly, and I felt ashamed that I hadn’t ended a conversation that must have been deeply hurtful to him.

I feel confident that it doesn’t dilute the focus on the heinous original sin of slavery that still haunts us and demands redress at last to expand the discussion of what I view as the abusive application of humor.

It seems obvious that there is also personal harm–and often different but important historical relevance–applicable to any “joke” that is designed to depict the “other” and to separate the joke’s target from the rest of us mortals in a derogatory way: anti-gay jokes, anti-Semitic jokes, anti-Muslim jokes, anti-immigrant jokes, anti-Asian jokes, anti-Native American jokes, anti-women jokes, anti-people with disabilities jokes…

None of these jokes can be considered benign when we know that hate crimes are rising–and people are hurting.  And as long as our nation is divided into “us” versus “them,” we are diminished–individually, nationally, internationally.

I am not talking about “in” jokes that people of a particular group tell one another, well aware that they are stereotyping themselves and their group.

Some may feel this sentiment is political correctness carried too far. But can’t we be funny without being cruel?


20 thoughts on “Two Important Lessons About Our Silence in the Presence of Racist Jokes

  1. Well said Annie. No, we must speak up. When I was a bartender in a predominantly WASP boat club, the jewish jokes were rampant. I’d just say “I’m Jewish” and walk away. We can’t change the way people think or what they say, we can only make them aware that maybe MAYBE it’s not appropriate. Hard to do as you know. Bottom line, there is no cure for stupidity or for ignorance or prejudice. Keeping an open mind is VERY HARD. Most people just can’t do it. After all, we’re just human.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. But as the song goes, “Ya gotta be taught…” I’m hoping we’ve had a national awakening that will endure. Most people are tired of the hatred and divisiveness.


  2. Agree. Although I had a black kid in one of my classes use the “n” word once. When I called him on it he said that since he was black he could use it. I told him he couldn’t because it offended ME. He accepted that explanation.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. The current president sets a horrendous example when he makes fun of people with disabilities and encourages racist humor. Here’s hoping those traits cost him many votes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. People really seem to be appreciating Biden’s compassion; mid-pandemic, I think it shows them what they’ve been missing and hadn’t realized how much it’s needed. When I wrote about women leaders who were doing well handling the pandemic, compassion was a critical leadership trait.


  4. I was fortunate to be raised to believe that “jokes” that demean other groups were unacceptable. The intensity and quantity of these kinds of statements seemed to have increased ever since Barack Obama was elected.
    I’ve never turned my back on these kind of statements, the results having varied to me walking away from some acquaintances to having to stay and deal with them in the workplace.
    To me there are only two ways to overcome these situations: enlightened leadership at all levels and secondly for people having to deal with those who have become the victims. I see the former as distinctly possible, the latter as being more difficult to achieve.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I hope so too… and I agree we’ve reached a critical juncture.
        I think lots of white people have had an awakening. They really didn’t see how systemic racism is.


  5. Wonderful. Thank you. I’ve been known to open my mouth, as well, and have certainly experienced the repercussions. It can be a lonely place to be the lone voice, but so be it. What helps, I think, is to be mannered in my objection. People can hear me better and I can live with myself no matter the consequences. D.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. You make a good point. But you know me, ever the contrarian, I’m reminded of how Jerry Seinfeld has said that he won’t perform shows at colleges any more because everything is off limits due to everyone is so offended by everything.

    The old style racist joke told by one with racial animus belongs in the dumpster. But I fear that we may be in a period of overcorrection. There is much about the human experience that is funny. I hope we find that balance where we don’t pick on others but where we can also laugh at ourselves and share those laughs with others.


    1. You’ll get no argument from me, there, JP.

      As for the Seinfeld comment and many more like it, I’ve been grappling with how we find the balance for some time. If I come up with anything that I think advances the conversation, I’ll look forward to receiving your contrarian views!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks to Scanlon for the specific “script” which is descriptive, formed like an “I” statement, assertive, but not aggressive. He preempts the joke and offers to step away if the speaker chooses to continue.


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