Can't shake the devil's hand and say you're only kidding
February 29, 2012 1:46 PM   Subscribe

Please help me explain why a racist joke is still racist. I have a (now ex-) friend who is still friends with some of my friends. He thinks it's okay to tell "jew jokes" because "jews are white like us so it's not racist". Never mind that I'm of mixed heritage (not "white like us"); though I don't believe I have any Jewish ancestry, I know quite a few of my friends do.

He says he doesn't mean anything harmful by it and that he is against hate and bigotry. I think he sincerely doesn't see any harm in racist jokes. He does, however, now believe I'm reactionary, full of outrage and oversensitive and is telling our mutual friends that I am the problem, that he was just telling harmless jokes.

However, it is my understanding that racist jokes are a mild form of bigotry. Please help me explain to my friends why this is still harmful and still a part of what keeps that hatefulness in our culture.

FWIW, I didn't flame out or run around screaming "hater, hater". I just quietly left the friendship and said to a few (without mentioning his name or the incidents) that I will consider racist jokes to be racist and will not be around those who repeat them.
posted by _paegan_ to Society & Culture (35 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I'm not offended, I'm contemptuous.
posted by Jairus at 1:48 PM on February 29, 2012 [38 favorites]

However, it is my understanding that racist jokes are a mild form of bigotry. Please help me explain to my friends why this is still harmful and still a part of what keeps that hatefulness in our culture.

Do you really need to explain to your friends why racist jokes are racist, and, therefore, not cool? If so, as Yo, Is This Racist? would tell you, you need to get some new friends.
posted by coupdefoudre at 1:49 PM on February 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

He says he doesn't mean anything harmful by it and that he is against hate and bigotry. I think he sincerely doesn't see any harm in racist jokes.

Okay, so if "racism" is the sticking point here, tell him that "jew jokes" are hateful towards a specific religion. Take the "is it a race thing" question out of it if he's all "but 'Jew' isn't a race."

He's still othering someone, and THAT'S the issue, not the exact nature OF that othering.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:52 PM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

also, if this is your self-professed Ex-friend, why are you bothering to even talk to this assnozzle in the first place?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:53 PM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Well, apparently there are two different types of antisemitism.

My friend who is Jewish sometimes makes tongue-in-cheek Jewish jokes. I once gave him a raised eyebrow and he said, "I'm Jewish, it's okay, you can laugh." And I said, "I'm not so I won't."

Do your friends really need an explanation? I'm guessing they don't. Any explanation beyond "I think Jewish jokes are antisemitic and I don't participate in that" seems pretty unnecessary. If they need more than that then they are boorish idiots. Sorry. DTMFBI!
posted by amanda at 1:54 PM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'd like to address his claim that "Jews are white like us so it's not racist". Whether or not Jewish people are still considered a race other "white", the jokes: a) stem from a time when they were indeed considered a separate race, b) the jokes hinge on different inherent traits and are therefore racist, anti-Semitic, and bigoted.
posted by Specklet at 1:55 PM on February 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

also, if this is your self-professed Ex-friend, why are you bothering to even talk to this assnozzle in the first place?

EmpressCallipygos, I think the OP is asking about explaining to their mutual friends why she views his behavior as harmful, not to the assnozzle himself.

posted by Specklet at 1:56 PM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Leaving aside why racist jokes are bad - because I'm sure you'll get good answers on that topic - I just want to respond to one small part of your question:

"jews are white like us so it's not racist"

This is so ignorant that frankly I'm not sure how much success you'll have trying to speak to this person from a place of logic and intelligence. For one thing, plenty of Jews are not at all "white." Ethiopian Jews, for instance. Second, even those of us with pale skin are not "white" in the American sense of "privileged majority culture." We're a distinct ethnic group with a distinct history and experience who were not considered "white" until quite recently, and even now are not considered "white" by a lot of people in a lot of places. And when we are, it's often for the personal convenience of the one doing the considering, like with your ex-friend - i.e. to make it easier to dismiss Jews as a group.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 1:58 PM on February 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

Racist does mean "referring to different skin color" to many people, so you would want to explain that it's an ethnic joke and it's not relevant that one skin color range holds many, many ethnicities. You go on to explain that high-quality jokes of that sort can be funny or friendly between people who have a relationship and understand the intent, but they are appreciated if they're poor, mean or just unwanted as they are in this case.
posted by michaelh at 1:58 PM on February 29, 2012

There is no universal rule. The key is knowing your audience and your place.

I've got a friend who is jewish, and we make jokes about it all the time. He's usually far worse than me, in fact.

I have another jewish friend who absolutely won't stand for it. So, I don't crack the same jokes around friend 2 as I do around friend 1.

Context is really important.

The other thing is being sensitive to crossing the line. A joke that hurts someones feelings, for whatever reason, isn't a joke. Hurting people's feelings is not funny. If he's not aware of that, he's sort of a jackass.

What I'm trying to say is that racist, sexist, whateverist jokes can be funny and enlightening. But they don't have to be, and sometimes really aren't at all.

I'd suggest telling your friend that the problem isn't that he racist or anti-semitic. It's that he's not as good at judging his audience and context as he thinks he is. That's the real problem.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 1:59 PM on February 29, 2012 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Sometimes our social circles include people we wouldn't necessarily have chosen to include; I'd have to get rid of a huge chunk of very nice people to avoid this one person who was generally nice except for the few times he thought it was a good idea to tell racist jokes. The friends I'm still talking to grasp that there is something not right about the jokes but none of us had the words to explain. FWIW, I think European stereotype jokes are racist also.

So can we please get back to my question and off my back about my friend choices?
posted by _paegan_ at 2:01 PM on February 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Ask him in what way all Jews are alike and how this set of traits common to all Jews is funny.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 2:02 PM on February 29, 2012

What Pogo_Fuzzybutt said, you two are looking at this from two different angles and neither is inherently wrong.

The best you can do is point out that you find the Jew jokes offensive and ask him to knock it off with you.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:04 PM on February 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

If all of your other friends agree with him that bigoted jokes are totally cool, I think you're the odd man out and you're better off finding new friends than trying to "fix" the people in question. If your explanations so far have fallen on deaf ears, I'm not sure that any new protestations will be effective.

If the one guy were the odd man out, it would be easier to correct his behaviour (I have an acquaintance who occasionally does the old: "I'm not a racist, but..." thing; we all just kind of ice him out when he makes statements like that and he is slowly learning that those kind of statements are not appropriate). When you, the non-racist, are the odd man out, I'm not sure that you can do much in this situation other than to find better people to be friends with.

Something I wonder about is, why is it acceptable in most circles (that I have observed, anyway) to make jokes about Irish people and people of most other European nationalities? Isn't that equally bigoted?

I think, sometimes, the groups in question are not traditionally marginalized, so it is more acceptable to make these jokes. Also, many (most?) white people in North America have Irish or Scottish heritage, which means that Irish and Scots jokes often fall into the "it's OK because I am part of the group I'm making fun of" category.
posted by asnider at 2:05 PM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I meant no offense, Paegean, if that "get off my back about my friend choice" was directed at me; I assumed you were trying to figure out how to explain yourself to the ex-friend alone, and not the other friends.

My point about "okay, if 'race' is the point they're missing, then maybe pointing out that making fun of a CREED is also not cool and they'll get that better" still stands.

And for the record, I don't think that it's acceptable to make jokes about other European nationalities either. Making fun of any group difference, regardless of what that group is or what kind of difference it is, is just plain not cool.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:09 PM on February 29, 2012

Speaking as a Jewish person, I'd suggest you tell your circle of nice people that Jewish people, regardless of how "white" we are, find jokes about Jews offensive. Especially when told by non-Jews. My experience is that Catholic people feel this way about jokes about Catholics, Irish people feel this way about jokes about the Irish, etc.

Stereotypes are predictably offensive to people from the group being stereotyped, particularly since they tend to come with built in histories of aggressively bigoted behavior. I know you and this nice group of people are aware that there is a long and painful history of oppression of many "white" groups.

It also makes me very uncomfortable to have the justification for offensive ethnic/religious/racist jokes be that the people telling and hearing them are "white." Surely this isn't a privileging status? If it is OK for "white" people to tell jokes about other people based on race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or whatever, then the built in assumption is that "white" people are privileged to be bigots. I'm sure the nice people in your circle do not endorse that assumption.

Hope this helps you to explain.
posted by bearwife at 2:10 PM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

He called them "Jew jokes"? Eesh. Reminds me of a story about semantics:

When my younger sister was about 12 or 13, she asked if the word "Jew" was offensive. I replied something along the lines of, "It's fine as a noun-- same as a Jewish person. Not okay as an adjective."

Then my dad, who's listening nearby, pipes up: "Or a verb."
posted by supercres at 2:13 PM on February 29, 2012 [10 favorites]

help me explain to my friends why this is still harmful and still a part of what keeps that hatefulness in our culture

This is the disconnect; this isn't a math problem. You're trying to objectively demonstrate a value you hold but some people do not. Your ex-friend doesn't believe his statements are harmful, and he clearly thinks context is big factor here while you do not.

There's no way for you to make your case this universal; if you say it hurts someone's feelings, someone will point to someone who is not offended and just argue that proves that sometimes it's okay.

You're not going to convince them to share your values; you can only ask them to respect yours. You've already removed yourself from the person causing you offense, so the problem is solved. If your friends think you are wrong, or blew this out of proportion, or any other thing, they have that right to think that. They will have to decide if friendship is worth being around someone with different values just like you have to.
posted by spaltavian at 2:17 PM on February 29, 2012

Words matter. It's worth getting clear on what certain words mean. "Jewish" refers to an ethnicity and a religion. Ethnicity isn't race. Religion isn't race. They are three different categories. They can blend into each other sometimes, but they're still different. "Jewish" is not a race.

I'm Jewish (in a certain sense of the word, because we all know that one word can have many meanings). I know a lot of Jews, and I can assure you there are plenty of jokes about Jews that are generally not offensive to Jews. Metafilter has a strong leaning toward saying that any joke that touches on ethnicity in any way is offensive, but that's not quite in keeping with the Jewish tradition (try watching a Woody Allen movie, for example).

I'm not going to start pontificating on how much it matters who is telling the joke. Personally, I don't care whether the person telling a joke is Jewish or not (after all, I often don't even know or care whether someone is Jewish, and there are many gradations of Jewishness). I know other people feel differently. I'm not going to get into it here because it's a big can of worms and it leads to endless arguments.

However, I feel pretty confident in saying one thing: even if there is some relevance to who the joke-teller is, it makes absolutely no sense to think it's more acceptable for a white gentile (non-Jew) to tell a particular joke, than for a non-white gentile to tell the same joke. So the idea that it's specifically OK to tell a Jewish joke if you're "white" because Jews are also "white" makes no sense at all. (I want to be totally clear that I'm not commenting one way or another on whether gentiles should tell jokes about Jews.)
posted by John Cohen at 2:18 PM on February 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Two reasons to explain why those jokes are not cool:

--racial/ethnic jokes reinforce stereotypes, and stereotypes can be used to hurt people
--while your friend may not hate jewish people, if a jewish person overhears him telling antisemitic jokes they may be afraid or insulted.
posted by feets at 2:22 PM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

The friends I'm still talking to grasp that there is something not right about the jokes but none of us had the words to explain.

So then to whom are you trying to explain the offensiveness of theses jokes? In your original post, you asked us to: "Please help me explain to my friends why this is still harmful and still a part of what keeps that hatefulness in our culture."

If your friends already understand this, then I'm not really sure what your question is.
posted by asnider at 2:37 PM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

The reason a person within a particular group can get away with making a joke or using an otherwise offensive word is because they have an innate authority to poke fun at their community or themselves to which outsiders simply aren't entitled.

Aside from that, telling sexist/racist/-ist jokes creates a culture of casual acceptance of bigotry. It reinforces the status quo. That's a good reason to not put up with it, and a good reason to speak up if you feel safe doing so.
posted by i feel possessed at 2:42 PM on February 29, 2012

I think you're allowed to believe what you believe; he's allowed to be a douchecanoe, and you're allowed to avoid him when possible. I do understand why having to run into him because of mutual friends can make this more difficult, unfortunately. But I'm curious: why do you feel it's necessary to explain to your friends why you're offended by his jokes and educate them about what's offensive and what isn't? You don't need to justify your dislike for his behavior to others.
posted by kinetic at 2:42 PM on February 29, 2012

Best answer: I thought the original question was pretty clear. The mutual friends understand that there is something not quite right about these jokes, but lack the ability to explicitly reason about why exactly they constitute unacceptable behavior. The OP would like to be able to explain this to them clearly, I assume so that they 1) understand for real that the problem is with the jerk and not with the OP's oversensitiveness, and perhaps 2) can communicate this to the jerk so he sees that more than one person considers it unacceptable.
posted by dfan at 2:46 PM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Please help me explain why a racist joke is still racist.

Well here's the thing as I see it. I do not think he just doesn't get that it's racist or promoting racism. If he really just didn't get that, or didn't get how it promotes badness in society, he would just very simply think that you were incorrect. There would be no need to lash out with a defensive reaction attacking you. He would just be like, "whatever, I disagree."

So I don't think explanations of the racism of this will get you anywhere because I believe he knows it is problematic behavior.

I think he knows and he just doesn't want to stop. He enjoys this behavior, of telling racist jokes. It amuses him or whatever. He thinks the jokes are funny. Or he likes being the center of attention by telling them. He doesn't want to stop it. I think that is why you're getting this defensive reaction.

Oddly enough I notice the same phenomenon in people who lash out at me for being a vegetarian, of all weird things. I have never, even as a pompous teenager, preached about vegetarianism, yet there have been people who, upon finding out that I am one (even if I wasn't the one who told them), rip into me about it.

These people in my experience have been the ones to most frequently turn into vegetarians years later!!!

It's these people who have this inkling that they are wrong that makes them lash out in defensiveness. People who just disagree with you don't lash like that, they just don't care. In the vegetarian case it's people who are distraught and overwhelmed at the idea of having to give up meat. In other cases it's people who just don't want to give up whatever they see themselves having to give up if they admit that their inkling might be the truth.

So. I think this guy is just not ready to give up his racist jokes for whatever he is getting out of them. I don't think further explanations of racism will have a dent.
posted by cairdeas at 2:53 PM on February 29, 2012

Also, if I were to hazard a few more guesses at what he's getting out of telling these jokes, in addition to just finding them funny, and enjoying being the center of attention, I would also guess

-feeling like he's some kind of transgressive truthteller who will admit truths that all the sheeple are scared too.
-feeling like a rebel who is saying fuck you to society and the PC nannies who are oppressing his freedom of speech.

I think taking those things away from him will affect the behavior a lot more than earnestly explaining more about racism to him.

If everyone just kind of stared blankly for a second and then went back to talking about a different subject, ignoring him, when he busts out with these "jokes," that would really deflate his balloon.
posted by cairdeas at 3:08 PM on February 29, 2012

I think that your next step depends on your friend's conscious attitudes towards Jewish people. Does he actually basically feel like Jews are people just like everyone else, and deserve respect and equal treatment and so on? Or does he actually feel like Jews are somehow inferior?

If he's in category one, you may be able to make some headway by pointing out that this sort of joke is tremendously encouraging and comforting to the evil fuckwads in category two. Deliberately or not, he's sending a message that says "Antisemitism is okay with me. Antisemites are welcome here, and I won't lift a finger to resist them." The thought that he's spreading a meme that gladdens the hearts of the future Hitlers of the world may give him pause.

If he's in category two, I don't care how many friends you have in common. You need to confront him or stop associating with him altogether.

But the best plan of attack is to assume he's in category one. That way you can buy into his framing of the issue — "No, no, of course I know you're not a racist" — and still make a case to him that he needs to cut this shit out.
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:23 PM on February 29, 2012

In other words, now that I see the title on the question, that quotation is exactly the right message to be sending. "No, of course you're not the devil yourself. But why would you want to tell jokes that cheer the devil up?"
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:27 PM on February 29, 2012

I usually go with "It's not that it's racist, it's that it's not funny," so I can sidestep the race issue without getting into the whole 'you're a racist and a bad person' thing. They just file me in a mental category of "Doesn't like racist jokes", without having to defend themselves.

I mean was your point that you want to make him feel bad or that you want him to stop telling racist jokes around you? There's almost no way you're going to make a guy like that feel bad about telling racist jokes -- he's just going to think you're a spoilsport, no matter what you say.
posted by empath at 3:37 PM on February 29, 2012

The trouble with "That's not funny" is that it suggests that a really funny racist joke would be acceptable (I won't lie — some of those fuckers make me chuckle; but that doesn't make me feel like they're even the slightest bit okay). It also doesn't explain why you're actively trying to shut him down. Normally, when someone tells an unfunny joke, I just sigh and roll my eyes; I don't go on a personal crusade to prevent anyone from repeating it ever.

A more consistent message would be "It doesn't matter whether it's funny or not, because it's evil either way."
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:50 PM on February 29, 2012

"Dude, can't you tell a joke that's funny without resorting to hurtful stereotypes? Because this 'Jews walk like this' shit was old and tired before your grandmother was born."

Or if you're a total crankypants like me, you could say "Gee, where did you find that one? Hitler's jokebook?"
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:18 PM on February 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Honestly? You already left the friendship. You no longer have any bearing on his values/lack thereof. If your friends don't see any harm in it, you can simply explain in your own words why you're offended by it, but I'd back away from imposing your own values onto them.

I would also disagree that all Jew jokes perpetuate hate. If you read up on Jewish Humor, it quickly becomes evident that there is a good deal of self-deprecation within the culture, and many of the current day jokes are derived from Borscht belt comedians. As a Jew myself, I can recognize that a lot of these jokes have layered meanings designed to recall the history of oppression within our community without the darkness of straight historic scholarship. I would also argue that this brand of comedy is something of a point of pride within some communities. So, please keep in mind that others might not share your views on that topic based on their background, and that it's okay that they have a dissenting opinion.
posted by oxfordcomma at 5:50 PM on February 29, 2012

Response by poster: I must apologize for my own lack of sensitivity. I did not find the correct word for the -ism I was referring to and just used 'racism' as a general term for the kind of anti-ethnic statements I was hearing. These were not the type found in oxfordcomma's Jewish Humor link, but the basic stereotypes implying one group is to be disdained.

dfan put clearly the goal I failed to convey. And cairdeas completely pegged the young man in question; he does believe he's some kind of rebel truthteller persecuted by the PC police and those who are easily offended. I, myself, do not believe he's actually racist/creedist/bigoted, just a young fool. How he actually treats people and interacts with those of various backgrounds leads me to believe he just doesn't understand the part joking can play in hate speech.

Thank you all for providing my friends and I with words and concepts to explain. My friends that have known him for years think he's worth the effort. I, personally, haven't known him longer than a few months.
posted by _paegan_ at 6:38 PM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

He thinks it's okay to tell "jew jokes" because "jews are white like us so it's not racist".

If so, the "jokes" wouldn't make any sense anymore.
posted by desuetude at 10:14 PM on February 29, 2012

This all having been said, Jewish Humor is quite often self-deprecating in quite an amusing way.

My vote goes for 'context is important' and it also probably depends who is telling the joke, and the tone.
posted by softlord at 2:25 PM on March 3, 2012

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