Should a Dinner Guest Call Out Racist Jokes?

Race Manners: You're within your rights to humiliate friends for their bigoted humor, but there's a better way.

Generic image (Thinkstock/Getty Images)
Generic image (Thinkstock/Getty Images)

( The Root) —

“I’m white, but I’ve read an extensive amount of material about race-related issues. In learning more and more about them, some of which I had never even been able to conceive because of my whiteness, I’ve attempted to engage my white peers in order to educate them about how some of their comments are inappropriate.

“For example, I’ll tell friends that ‘jokes’ are not at all jokes when made by a white person who enjoys the privilege of being able to say whatever and do whatever. I’ve tried to explain the very real history and present-day existence of racism and note that these ‘jokes’ that people think are just lighthearted and innocent in fact carry a lot of weight because they help perpetuate stereotypes and do nothing to advance the issue of race in today’s society.

“I’ve found that people take my attempts at education as offensive or dismiss them because I myself am white and therefore ‘shouldn’t care,’ and it can cause tension. So what do you recommend I do when these ‘jokes’ come up, especially when I am a guest in someone’s home and don’t want to be seen as rude or become isolated from my friends? When and how is it appropriate to tell someone (at a dinner party, for example) that their words are inappropriate and that they further the problem we have with race?”

In the face of a racism-fueled attempt at humor that makes you choke on your meal, what constitutes an “appropriate” response depends on the content. Unfortunately, in this arena, “joke” is used so often as a defense that it’s nearly meaningless and has historically translated to “that ignorant, awful thing I’m kicking myself for saying.”

On the one hand, there are those racist-with-a-capital-R jokes. Two examples from this month’s headlines alone: A federal judge will retire over an email that included a punch line about bestiality and President Obama’s mother. And a British sports announcer has resigned after what he said was “just a bit of banter,” including, “What’s black and eats bananas? Half of London.”

After hearing a comment like one of these, you won’t be able to digest your food anyway. So put down your fork and address it. Know that there’s little you could do that would be any less “appropriate” than what you just heard.

“[You] always [have] the option of excusing [yourself] from the table and saying, ‘I have to leave; this isn’t what I thought it was going to be,’ or ‘Sorry, I don’t have an appetite after I heard that nonsense,’ ” Karen Grigsby Bates, a member of NPR’s Code Switch team and co-author of Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times, says. Or, Bates adds, you could try, “Tell me why that’s funny. I’m afraid I still don’t get it.”

I don’t think you even have to be that classy. Interrupt. Point a finger. State your objection with clarity and logic, and don’t back down until the offender apologizes, leaves or ends up under the table in a fetal position. Do not expect to be invited back to “N–gerhead Ranch,” or whatever the name of your friend’s home may be. As Bates puts it, “That’s the price of being a civilized person sometimes.”