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Does Racist Humor Promote Racism?

Research illuminates aspects of humor that people tend to ignore.

Consider the following two jokes.


Q: Why aren't Jews concerned about the abortion controversy?
A: Because they don't consider a fetus viable until after it graduates from medical school.


A young Jewish man excitedly tells his mother he's fallen in love and that he is going to get married.

He says, "Just for fun, Ma, I'm going to bring over three women and you try and guess which one I'm going to marry."

The mother agrees.

The next day, he brings three beautiful women into the house and sits them down on the couch and they chat for a while.

He then says, "OK, Ma, guess which one I'm going to marry."

She immediately replies, "The one on the right."

"That's amazing, Ma. You're right. How did you know?

The Jewish mother replies, "I don't like her."

Do you find these jokes offensive? Are they anti-Semitic jokes? Do these jokes change your views about Jews?

Earlier this month, I attended the annual conference of the International Society for Humor Studies (ISHS). Yes, there is a place where people can discuss research on humor in a serious manner, although it is probably more light-hearted and fun than other conferences. You get to listen to talks from almost any possible field imaginable, from linguistics, philosophy, psychology, sociology, anthropology, folklore studies, theatre and more (though we are still looking for the first physicist to present his theory of humor).

One of the most interesting talks I attended was by Thomas Ford, a psychologist from Western Carolina University, who has studied the effects sexist and racist humor has on people, and how prejudiced attitudes combined with disparaging humor may affect one's tendency to discriminate against others.

One of Ford's students, Mark Ferguson, along with another colleague, Chris Crandall, proposed what is called the "Normative Window Theory of Prejudice." Simply put, the theory suggests that we place social groups on a scale, in terms of how legitimate it is to discriminate and have prejudice attitudes against them. It is totally acceptable to hold prejudiced views against racists, or against kids who steal lunch money because these behaviors are condemned in our society. It is not acceptable to hold prejudice views or discriminate against doctors or farmers. This distinction between the groups is pretty clear and robust, meaning that we will always hold these clear-cut views about those groups regardless of the situation.

However, there are other social groups that it was once acceptable to discriminate against, but over time we have slowly shifted our views and consider prejudice against them as unjustified. Among these groups are women, racial and religious minorities, and gays and lesbians. These groups suffered historically from discrimination but today, more and more people agree that discriminating against them is immoral and wrong. The problem is that some people are still prejudiced toward these groups despite the fact that many consider it unjustified. The question is, does disparaging humor that targets these groups foster discriminatory acts against them?

To test this, Ford and his master's student Shane Triplett conducted a series of experiments. They wanted to see if people exposed to various forms of disparaging humor would be influenced by it and discriminate against these groups. Specifically, they looked at homosexuals and racists as two representative groups. People justify prejudiced views against racists, but there is more ambiguity in regard to homosexuals.

In the experiments, subjects completed a questionnaire that measures the extent to which they hold prejudiced views against each of these groups. Later, they read several jokes targeting homosexuals and racists. In the next part of the study, they were told that due to budget cuts, the university has to cut money from several student organizations and they ask for their help to determine how to allocate the money. The subjects had to determine what organizations should lose the university support and suffer from budget cuts. Among the organizations presented to the subjects were the gay and lesbian student association and a racist organization, Southern Heritage Student Association (SHSA). The SHSA was described as "committed to serving and protecting the political and social advancement of white people, and has recently drafted a proposal to eliminate government oppression of students through affirmative action admission policies."

The results were very clear. Subjects that held anti-homosexual views supported significantly higher cuts for the gay and lesbian organization after they were exposed to anti-gay humor, compared to subjects who were not prejudiced against gays and lesbians who were exposed to the same jokes. On the other hand, disparaging jokes against racists did not foster more cuts to the SHSA from people who were high on prejudice against racists, and their cuts were no different than the ones offered by subjects with low prejudice towards racists.

In other words, when we consider groups that most people discriminate against, and feel they are justified in doing so, disparaging humor towards that group does not foster discriminatory acts against them. On the other hand, for groups for whom the prejudice norm is shifting and there is still no consensus not to discriminate against (women, gays, Muslims, and so on), if you hold negative views against one of these groups, hearing disparaging jokes about them "releases" inhibitions you might have, and you feel it's OK to discriminate against them.

Previous studies by Ford and others on sexist humor showed the same pattern. People who are sexist to begin with and enjoy sexist jokes show higher tolerance for sexist events, tend to accept rape myths, and tend to show greater willingness to discriminate against women.

These studies illuminate some aspects of humor that people sometimes tend to ignore. First, humor depends largely on the context and on the personality and the attitudes of the audience. Jokes are never neutral. The same joke can be funny or not, but can also be racist or not racist depending on who tells it and to whom. The jokes I presented at the beginning of the post may be anti-Semitic to some, but to others, including most Jews, they are not considered offensive. Depending on the views you hold against or in favor of Jews, or what you consider to be justified or unjustified racism, you might find derogatory jokes against Jews funny or not funny, and hearing these jokes may or may not prompt you to discriminate against them.

Second, humor is not always positive and fun. We tend to think about humor as something that is innocuous, something that might be good for our health, moods, relationships, and so on, but humor also has its dark side, and we should all be aware of it. Sometimes humor can lead to negative and harmful outcomes against others, and we should be conscious of when and how it can happen.

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