Is It Ever Okay To Make A Racist Joke?

RacistJokes_slide-01Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
I'm black, and most of my friends are white. It's been like that my whole life, and there's never been any major issues until a new friend started making little "jokes." She's actually part of an improv group, so it's her job to be funny, but her idea of funny often involves doing impressions of black people. They're not out-and-out racist, and sometimes, it is admittedly funny, but she does it so often that I truly believe that she just thinks the idea of black people is ridiculous and hilarious to her. I don't want to come off as the overly-PC, "angry black woman," but I do want to let her know that she needs to tone it down a bit. How can I get her to stop without sounding like a buzzkill?
Bea Arthur, Licensed Mental Health Counselor:
Ah yes, the age-old defense of “I’m just kidding!” Whoa, looks like someone had a rough night — kidding! Your engagement ring is such a cute size — kidding! I’m going to stand next to you so I look skinny — kidding! Jokes are not a get-out-of-jail-free card, and whether or not the jokester’s intent was malicious, all that matters is the impact of those words. A true friend would understand that, so I don’t think that you’re the one that needs to be worried about how you come off, but the clueless comedienne.
As a woman of color myself, I totally get why you’d be worried about coming off as sensitive or angry, but regardless of your cultural reputation, you have a right to voice your opinion when you feel offended. In fact, your non-objections could be perceived as acceptance by your friend, which might be why she feels so comfortable making you uncomfortable. Look at the case of Justin Bieber — yes, there have been many but the most recent one — where he thought it would be funny to drop the n-bomb as a punch line, while knowingly being filmed for a feature length film to be distributed nationwide. Now, you may slap your forehead in exasperation, but he actually thought it was okay. In fact, before he “went there,” someone clearly advised him not to say it, and he did it anyway. He released a mature apology that thankfully did not include the old “but I have black friends” excuse, but instead just acknowledged that he was young, wrong, and didn’t know better. Your friend does not need a public backlash to learn this lesson, she needs a friend like you to give her some constructive criticism.
It is your responsibility to let her know she should be a bit more careful — and not just for your sake, but for hers. I bet Kramer wishes he’d had a friend like you before he crashed and burned in his infamous standup routine back in 2012. If it weren’t for that, he might have been on Veep or Seinfeld’s car show instead of being professionally blacklisted. I happen to have a few clients who are comedians and what I love about them is how perceptive and introspective they are; they’re constantly observing people in order to point out the humor of human behavior.
That’s what makes the greats relatable, but with something as sensitive and complex as race, you have to be clever and cautious. Buzzkill or not, I recommend that the next time she says something iffy, say something like, “You’re hilarious and I want you to go far in your career, but some of your racial jokes leave a bad taste in my mouth so reel it in a little, okay?” Then, go get drinks and tell jokes about bad dates — the great equalizer.

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