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Racial Jokes and Racist Jokes

On October 24th, the Rock Fellows Seminar took part in a workshop for Luvell Anderson, the Alain Locke Post-Doctoral Fellow in Philosophy at Penn State. Luvell's paper, "Why So Serious? An Inquiry into Racist Jokes," considers the relationship between race and humor, offering a rubric for determining the appropriateness of a racial joke. Rejecting the simplistic view that a joke either is or is not racist, Luvell suggests a tripartite distinction whereby a given joke may be classified as "merely racial," "racially insensitive," or "racist." 

He distributed a handout in which the distinction is presented briefly: 

1) Merely Racial: A racial joke is merely racial if (i) the speaker has an aim to subvert the stereotype associated with the target group and (ii) the audience can be reasonably expected to recognize this aim.

<p 2) Racially Insensitive: A racial joke is racially insensitive if the speaker (i) lacks an aim to subvert the associated stereotype and is motivated by a non-malevolent attitude, e.g. attempting to be funny, or (ii) has a subverting aim but cannot reasonably expect audience uptake of that aim.

3) Racist: And finally, a racial joke is racist if the speaker either (i) endorses the stereotype or (ii) is motivated by a malevolent attitude or one of disregard.

Having situated his argument within the literature on racist humor (citing Michael Philips, Reed Richter, and Joshua Glasgow, among others), Luvell advances his distinction with help from a number of examples. These fall on various points of the scale between racial and racist. On one end, for instance, we have a relatively benign joke from comedian Paul Mooney. Moving in a more problematic direction, we consider remarks made about Tiger Woods by fellow golfer Fuzzy Zoeller, for which Zoeller later apologized (sort of) and explained that he had "not intended to be racially derogatory." These jokes allow us to consider the virtues of an "Act-Centered" view of racism as opposed to an "Agent-Centered" view. In other words, there are competing perspectives as to whether the act is definitive of racism (through the joke's effects) or the agent (through his/her intention in stating the joke). Other examples fall on the overtly racist end of the scale, due to their endorsement of stereotypes and unequivocally malevolent attitudes.

The conversation following Luvell's presentation was driven by examples, as participants tested the construction with specific case studies. One fellow asked about the practice of "awkward humor" on popular television shows like "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "The Office," for instance. While much popular culture employs racial stereotypes in order to subvert them, the audiences that laugh along with these jokes may not be totally cognizant that a subversion is taking place. This prompted further discussion about key terms like "sensitivity," "subversion," "stereotypes," and "reasonable expectation." Other questions dealt with racial jokes that are told by members of the affected group, private joke-telling versus public, and the relative measures of harm caused by such jokes. Luvell's work offers an interesting and nuanced way to evaluate racial jokes on their merits, rather than instinctively dismissing them out of hand.

(The Summary of this discussion was provided by Rock Fellow Eric Miller)