Should a Dinner Guest Call Out Racist Jokes?

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."

However, making a judgment call on how to address comments of the bestiality or banana variety isn't really tough, and I doubt you're actually hearing anything that extreme. (The way you wrote the questions makes it hard to imagine that you surround yourself with people who traffic in outright hate and washed-up racist imagery.)


Instead, I bet the jokes popular among your friends are more like these, which the Atlantic used as examples in a recent piece suggesting a racism taxonomy:

Casual Racist. … The tone of condescension — this form of racist is most associated with the caricatures of rich people — usually indicates that being racist is a good idea to protect oneself. A stand-out specimen is Arrested Development's Lucille Bluth, who in one episode says to a Spanish-speaking mover, "And that goes into storage right? Not into your apartment." Or like when then-Vice President George H.W. Bush referred to his Mexican-American grandchildren [as] "the little brown ones" …

Hipster Racist. … Hipster Racist knows racism is wrong, but thinks that if it's wrapped up in enough layers of irony it can be turned into a cool inside joke. Last year, for example, when people noticed Girls had no real characters who weren't white, Girls writer Lesley Arfin tweeted about the well-received Gabourey Sidibe movie, "What really bothered me most about Precious was that there was no representation of ME" …


Here, again, you'd be well within your rights to clear your throat, clink your glass and, as you put it, "educate" everyone at the table that the speaker is "furthering the problem we have with race."

However, I'm not sure if you should. Don't get me wrong — I don't think the offender's comfort is more important than the point you need to make. But if your goal is actually to get a friend to stop perpetuating racism, versus just getting him or her to stop including you on the Evites, then humiliation might not be the best strategy. (You know how adults love to be publicly corrected: not at all.)


Try this instead: Take your friend aside before you leave and have a chat. "Something like, 'I'm still thinking about what you said, and I have to tell you, it really bothered me because … ' You can do it without throwing bombs at them," says Bates.

Or take the time to gather your thoughts and find the exact words to communicate what you need to say. The next day, when no one has had one too many glasses of wine, and no one is put on the spot, call or send an email ("Hey, so your joke about Mexicans and robbery really bothered me because the stereotype behind it — that black and brown men are criminals — actually causes real harm to people I care about … ").


If he or she is still defiant or dismissive after you've expressed your view intelligently, kindly and privately, you have bigger concerns than being impolite. You actually need new friends.

Need race-related advice? Send your questions to

Previously in Race Manners: "No, Neither Asians Nor Blacks All Look Alike"

The Root's 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. 


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