4 Things to Tell Teens Who Joke About Race

Race Manners: It’s up to them to decide what’s funny, but it’s your job to teach them about compassion and consequences.

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“I am a white woman who works with a racially diverse group of teens in an after-school program. I hear a lot of jokey, self-directed racism: a Latino teen with a new haircut jokes that he now looks like ‘Justin Beaner’; two girls from Peru make negative comments about who has darker skin after they spend the afternoon at the pool; black teens tease one another about liking fried chicken.

“I don’t think these comments are entirely harmless, but most of the time I just roll my eyes and say something like, ‘Wow, that’s racist.’ I don’t hesitate to initiate serious conversations when something cringe-worthy happens, like when someone who isn’t Asian squints his eyes and does a mocking ‘ching, chong’ Chinese routine, or when a white kid flippantly uses the n-word.
“When I first started working there, I was dismayed by all of this very casual racism. Now I feel that most of these comments are from kids coming to terms with the overt and covert racism that they encounter every day, mixed with a bit of ignorance. Does a middle-aged white woman have any business calling out the casual (self-directed) racism of teenagers who are navigating an often racist and sometimes hostile culture? If so, how? And should I even be making a distinction between self-directed and other-directed racism?” —Thoughtful Teacher

You’re right to sense that you might be out of touch with what’s happening in these overheard exchanges, and that “calling out” or banning racism-inspired jokes wouldn’t be the best use of your influence.

After all, the teens’ generation—called the “Pluralist Generation” by some as a nod to its ethnic, racial and religious diversity—is coming of age in a reality much different from the one that shaped your experience. Racial bias is less likely to show up in their lives in the form of slurs or overt attacks based on stereotypes or physical features. It’s more likely to involve, for example, racially coded language or policies—or simply being treated as if they’re invisible by people who see their color before their contributions. See today’s response to Dylan Byers’ liist of public intellectuals that included not a single person of color as just one example.  

And of course, the ways in which race, humor and power interact are evolving. Consider the stream of constant commentary and analysis known as “black Twitter,” which often draws attention to revelations of racism with mockery instead of straight-up outrage. It’s refreshing and it works.

So, you’re wise to defer to teenagers when it comes to how they process the racial minefield they’re navigating.

But there are areas in which adults, however out of the loop they might be, are generally understood to have an advantage over teens: Higher-level thinking. Empathy. Consideration of consequences.

As one piece explaining research on this topic put it, “We think that a teenager’s judgment of what they would do in a given situation is driven by the simple question: ‘What would I do?’ … Adults, on the other hand, ask: ‘What would I do, given how I would feel and given how the people around me would feel as a result of my actions?’”

And this is where you step in.