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Sometimes a Joke Is Not Just a Joke

Nowadays, and too often, a joke is used to camouflage anti-group feelings.

“What do you tell a woman with two black eyes?” That’s the first line of a “joke.”

Joking is a social interaction strategy that people use to do a variety of things. Sure, even Freud would say that sometimes a joke is just a joke. I, myself, love punctuation jokes. “A panda bear walks into a bar, eats, shoots and leaves.” Yes, sometimes a joke is just a joke.

Even so, sometimes a joke is used in an attempt to reduce interpersonal anxiety between people who are interacting with each other. Sometimes a joke is used to make a social comment. Today in America, interpersonal anxiety and social comments are both often motivated by neo-diversity anxiety.

Neo-diversity refers to the interpersonal situation all Americans now live in; a situation where every day we all have encounters (and sometimes interactions) with people from many different groups by way of gender, bodily condition, ethnicity, sexual orientation, mental health condition, religion, gender identity, and race. For some, that situation brings out neo-diversity anxiety that activates prejudice and bigotry.

Nowadays, jokes are too often used to camouflage prejudice. But the camouflage is itself a neo-diversity problem. Camouflage does not eliminate the bigotry of the joke. Outward expressions through words or deeds of anti-group feelings are bigotry. No matter how it is dressed, bigotry is still bigotry.

Understand that the point of bigotry is to incite group division; us versus them. Jokes activate that minimal group effect; automatic categorization of people into groups with a tendency to see those groups as being in competition with each other.

A blonde joke, then, is not just a joke; it is divisive.

A joke about women is not just a joke; it is divisive.

A joke about violence against women is more than divisive; it is demeaning and dangerous.

You might wonder, though, who would joke about violence against women. It turns out far too many college men think those jokes are funny. And not only do some college males think such jokes are funny, but they are so confident that these jokes are acceptable they tell such jokes to female classmates. A female student in my “Interpersonal Relationships and Race” course wrote a paper about the time a male classmate told her a “joke.”

She wrote: “In this particular class, there was one guy that I got to know pretty well, but it was strictly a classroom interpersonal relationship. To elaborate, we joked around a lot, but … one moment, in particular, caught me way off guard and to this day I am a little frustrated with my own response of laughing in an effort not to seem uptight. But let me tell you about the interaction.

I can’t remember why the class was so relaxed that day, I think we had just gotten back a test and we were waiting to go over the answers. This young man made a comment about something (to this day I still don’t know what he said) and I couldn’t hear him. After asking him twice what he said, he looked at me and asked, “…what do you tell a woman with two black eyes?” My response, simply enough, was "um, I don’t know, what?” “Nothing, you already told her twice,” and then he laughed to my face, as it turned red from embarrassment.”

How could a college-educated male think this was funny and acceptable enough to tell a female peer? It seems this is a more general problem than previously understood. Consider the Sigma Nu fraternity at Old Dominion University.

For the first day of the new semester, members of the fraternity hung giant welcome signs outside a private house where some resided. The signs of welcome were directed at incoming female students and their mothers saying:

“Rowdy and fun, hope your baby girl is ready for a good time.”

“Freshman daughter drop off.”

“Go ahead and drop off mom too.”

Many on the campus and in the nation were offended. Implied was the belief that women are only good for one thing; that group prejudice showed clear in the gender-bigotry of those “welcome” signs. Yet some thought, come on it’s just a joke. One online commentator said, “These are hilarious, it's what happens in college and people just need to chill out. I can't believe they suspended the fraternity for this.”

But official reactions were rightly swift and condemning, which isn't surprising given the real concerns universities have about sexual assault on campuses, concerns about what some call a “rape culture.” John R. Broderick, President of Old Dominion, used his Facebook page to address the campus. He wrote:

“I am outraged about the offensive message directed toward women that was visible for a time on 43rd Street. Our students, campus community, and alumni have been offended.

While we constantly educate students, faculty, and staff about sexual assault and sexual harassment, this incident confirms our collective efforts are still failing to register with some.

A young lady I talked to earlier today courageously described the true meaning of the hurt this caused. She thought seriously about going back home.”

Camouflaged or not, these kinds of demeaning jokes about groups have a real social impact on our peer citizens. Yet too many of us think we should be able to say what we want, when we want, to whom we want, especially if what is said is camouflaged as a joke. But what that misses is that in America today, the camouflage is easy to see through.

We no longer live in an America where anyone can say anything about anybody and go unchallenged. When Americans did live in that kind of social context, it was because our country was living under the belief and social structure that made some groups less than other groups.

  • Women were less than men, in the law.
  • Blacks were less than whites, in the law.
  • Homosexuals were less than heterosexuals, in the law.

Through legitimate means, America got rid of and continues to get rid of those laws and customs. As a result, we are no longer living separately from one another. In fact, Americans from all kinds of groups are interacting with each other every day on equal footing supported by new legal statutes that give us equal citizenship under the law.

Moving into the light of the 21st century, the social-psychological context of American interpersonal life has been changed in fundamental ways as we move toward a more perfect union. And we are not going to go back into the darkness where camouflage can work. We are not going back. No joke.

Dr. Rupert W. Nacoste is Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Professor of Psychology at North Carolina State University.

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