4 Things to Tell Teens Who Joke About Race

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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.

You have something to offer them besides “That’s racist.” Whether it’s through a guest speaker, a project, a debate led by the teens themselves or just informal conversation, here are the things you should encourage them to think about before they deliver racial laugh lines.


1. Perception matters as much as intention.

Remember Richie Incognito, the Miami Dolphins offensive lineman who called his teammate a “half-nigger,” among other things? Perhaps “It sounds [like] a lot of things it’s not” made sense to him, but it would have saved a lot of trauma to his teammate and national scrutiny if he’d mulled that over before saying it and invoking the “misunderstood friendship” defense.


It wouldn’t hurt, either, to remind the teens of the failed “but I was just kidding” narrative of all the people who’ve lost jobs over racist jokes—often on private Facebook pages. Encourage them to consider, out of a sense of compassion as well as self-protection, not just whether a joke is funny to them but also how its recipient and observers might receive it.

2. Environment can provide a dangerous sense of comfort.

Incognito eventually said that he regretted using racial epithets but insisted that his language was a “product of the environment” in the team’s locker room. Your teens should develop an awareness that what works with a current group might not work somewhere else—or even for others who enter their seemingly safe-for-jokes comfort zone. They should know that offensiveness happens person by person, not based on what you’re used to doing in a particular place or with particular friends.


3. Jokes about racism can be misunderstood as racist jokes.

It’s fair to say that in many of the instances of “self-directed racism” you’ve described, the joke is actually on a stereotype that happens to have to do with race: On the silly assumption that any particular black person loves fried chicken more than any individual of another race. On the unreasonable links between complexion and beauty that anyone can see aren’t based in reality. This type of humor, I think, is healthy and—as you suggested—not a bad way for teens to process their environment.


But the difference can be hard for many people to see. So even if Melissa Harris-Perry wasn’t actually mocking Mitt Romney’s black grandson but, rather, as Ta-Nehisi Coates put it, “making any kind of light of a fraught subject—a black child being reared by a family whose essential beliefs were directly shaped by white supremacy, whose patriarch sought to lead a movement which derives most its energy from white supremacy,” good luck explaining that to people who were already outraged beyond the point of being able to engage in analysis of the actual statement.

4. People who look like you might not identify the way you do. And they might not agree about what’s funny.


Even “self-directed” versus “other-directed” gets messy when there are other participants or observers involved. With the face of America becoming increasingly multiracial, skin, hair and other physical features really provide only the initial hint of how someone might identify him- or herself. Plus, it’s not as if people who check the same box automatically agree on what’s appropriate or hilarious.

Consider the disparate views of black people regarding the word “nigger” or a friend’s Latino husband who cringes at Mexican comedian George Lopez, whose self-directed humor he thinks makes the culture look bad and “gives us a bad name.” The kids should know that the perception of shared identity doesn’t signal a free-for-all when it comes to this stuff.


Obviously, there aren’t strict rules here, and there never will be. But if you can fortify the teens with a mental checklist of “Why am I saying this?” “How might it affect those who hear it?” and “Is it funny enough to be worth it?” that they can wait a beat and consider in the seconds before a joke is verbalized, they’ll be ahead of many adults.

There’s a way for them to use their sense of humor as a tool for navigating their experience with race, for enjoyment and for relief—but not for embarrassing themselves or inflicting pain or misunderstanding. When you trust that they can do this, you might even laugh with them. 


The Root’s senior staff writer, Jenée Desmond-Harris, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life—and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. Follow her on Twitter.

Need race-related advice? Send your questions to racemanners@theroot.com.

Previously in Race Manners: “A Year of Race Advice: Mixed Kids, Miley and ‘My Ghetto Name’

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