Why can't Turner be pink?
April 29, 2008 2:43 AM   Subscribe

I want to explain clearly and simply why a joke I was told is racist. Embarrasingly, all I can come up with right away is: If the joke needs to perpetuate racial stereotypes in order to be funny, then it's not funny.

I was told this joke:

"A skinny little white guy goes into an elevator, looks up and sees this HUGE black guy standing next to him. The big guy sees the little guy staring at him, looks down, and says: '7 feet tall, 350 pounds, 20 inch private, 3 pound testicles, Turner Brown.' The white man faints and falls to the floor. The big guy kneels down and brings him to, shaking him.. The big guy says: 'What's wrong with you?' In a weak voice the little guy says, 'What EXACTLY did you say to me?' The big dude says: 'I saw your look and figured I'd just give you the answers to the questions everyone always asks. I'm 7 feet tall. I weigh 350 pounds. I have a 20 inch private, my testicles weigh 3 pounds each, and my name is Turner Brown.'

The small guy says: 'Turner Brown. Sweet Jesus, I thought you said, 'Turn around.'

When I said it was racist, I got poopoo'd. I said "Tell it again, and don't specify the men's skin colours... is it stiil funny? If it is, then why does skin colour come into it?".. and dropped it for the moment.

Is there a compelling phrase that I can use that will be more convincing? Am I overthinking this?

The joke was told to me by my daughter. Several people overheard our discussion and disagreed with me (yes, I am re-evaluating some friends). I could pull rank on her, but I'd prefer to educate her. I did a search on the joke. I didn't find much.

Also, I'm sure I have heard this stinker in the past, with another man's name being part of the punchline.
posted by reflecked to Society & Culture (62 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think the joke in question is particularly funny, but if you watch stand up, you'll see comedians of race/ethnicity x tell jokes that "perpetuate racial stereotypes" about race x all the time. Sometimes it's funny, sometimes it's not. Are some people of race x still going to be offended even when the teller is of the same race/ethnicity? Sure. But some jokes are offensive without involving race at all. Being offensive doesn't automatically make a joke funny, but it doesn't automatically make it not funny either.
posted by juv3nal at 2:59 AM on April 29, 2008

Well, the joke pretty much boils down to a repetition of the stereotype of the over-sexed black man (comically large junk, thinks of nothing but sex even in an ordinary situation). It's a pretty nasty stereotype to boot, having been used to justify all sorts of repression ("they'll come for our women!", Birth of a Nation, etc.)
posted by alexei at 3:02 AM on April 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

I wouldn't say the joke itself is not rascist but it does play on American racial stereotypes (slapstick social commentary?)... it's funny because people are rascist. So, when people get cross, they shouldn't be cross at the joke, they should be cross about society!
posted by popcassady at 3:04 AM on April 29, 2008

I don't think that this joke is a clearcut example of racism. You are right that it relies on racial stereotypes to get its point across. But, the point of the joke is not that black (or white) people are inferior, but rather that we all tend to possess biases. In the joke, the black guys assumes that the white guy will be interested in the size of his private parts, and the white guy assumes that the black guy is out to harm him. The point is that both people are quick to jump to conclusions, based on prevailing racial stereotypes. I'd say the joke is more a comment on the racism in the American society today rather than some attempt to perpetuate said racism.
posted by epimorph at 3:09 AM on April 29, 2008 [11 favorites]

If the guy was a huge Austrian bodybuilder, the joke would be just as funny. (Which is to say, it still wouldn't be.)
posted by jbickers at 3:16 AM on April 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Well, jokes about the idea of men raping men (pretty common, think about all of the jokes when a man is threatened with or sent to prison) always strike me as creepy-violent, depressing, related-to-sexism-about-women-and-gay-men.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 3:18 AM on April 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

It doesn't have to be a racist joke... Pair any weak and feared character and the joke works. That said, the joke your daughter told is certainly racist because it portrays racist stereotypes: black men are big, scary, and have large genitals; white men are afraid of blacks. Next time maybe she should tell the joke with a pirate or ninja cast as the scary guy in the elevator and some other punch line name.
posted by maniactown at 3:20 AM on April 29, 2008

You might want to look at this thread about the Giant Negro motif. Jokes like this are connected to a long running white American fear/ myth regarding large black men. They are big and uncivilized, and they might do things like rape you in the bathroom just for kicks. The reason it wouldn't be funny if Turner were white is because white men are able to keep their desires in check, of course. And if the races were just reversed, it would make no sense at all. A white man raping a black man? Ugh. Why would he want to do that? Whites are civilized and desirable, blacks are oversized and out-of-control.

For the joke to work, you have to have a "normal" person (white) encounter a "strange" person (black) who is likely to be dangerous. (In sociology, this is the distinction between the unmarked and marked races.) It makes white the default ethnicity and black the "other." Basic "us and them" kind of thinking.

A generous interpretation of the joke would be that it is mocking the smaller man for his unthinking acceptance of this stereotype and his therefore humorous over-reaction.

But it's not really a funny joke anyway. Ha, ha! The dude thought he was going to be raped! Ha, ha! Not my thing.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 3:36 AM on April 29, 2008 [16 favorites]

I don't think I helped with a clear and simple explanation. I'd just suggest that your daughter try an experiment. The the joke to a group of people who haven't heard it before, and switch the races. "So, this black guy goes in the bathroom, and there's a HUGE white guy there." See how people react. If it's as funny as before, then keep telling it that way, no harm, no foul. If it's not, figure out why. That's the racist component.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 3:43 AM on April 29, 2008

"Tell the joke...." I meant.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 3:43 AM on April 29, 2008

The joke isn't racist. So, you can't make a compelling argument against it.

In fact, it could be argued that it is making fun of the little white guy's expectations, as he is the one who mishears what the black man says and assumes that he's in danger. So, it's a joke about how racial stereotyping is wrong.

Turner can't be pink because then the little white guy wouldn't have cultural baggage to associate with him. Just because Turner needs to be black for the joke to work (on whatever minor level that it does work) does not make the joke racist.

You should keep your daughter from telling that joke because it isn't funny.
posted by paperzach at 3:44 AM on April 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

It's a) really not funny
b) on the edges of racist because it seems to assume that all black men are gigantic and have gigantic junk and all white men are intimidated by them. It's kind of fuzzy because certain black men might be well endowed, and certain white men might be scared by them. But it's just way too edgy and stupid to be funny anyway. You should tell your daughter that if she's going to tell an edgy joke, it should at least be funny.

And I'm like the 100% least politically correct person I know. But it makes me feel a little off.
posted by sully75 at 4:04 AM on April 29, 2008

You could get essentially the same joke if Turner is a great big biker gang type. The thing as it stands hinges on the idea that Turner is big, scary, possibly violent and criminal. In this case, all the "scary" part is supplied simply by the fact that Turner is a black man and nothing else, and that's also where racism comes in.
posted by dilettante at 4:13 AM on April 29, 2008

Response by poster: All seem to agree with me that the joke's not funny, over and above the stereotype issue. I'm not going to censor my daughter, just inform her, and encourage her to think more about why something is funny or not.

It still seems racist to me, because of the assumptions you are asked to make about the black man. I'm agreeing with alexei's and Pater Alethieias's, words... heh.. likely because they're reinforcing what I think. I'm trying NOT to write a speech to give her, but have some focussed thoughts to share.

The first time I heard this joke, the "huge black man" was thought to be about to assault and rob the frightened white man. I wish I could remember the name given; it was, I think, a famous musician. Eh, makes no difference.

Thank you, Pater Aletheias, for the link to the "Giant Negro" thread. That was illuminating.

I guess the "American racial stereotypes" are pertinent to Canada, too. [/grin
posted by reflecked at 4:18 AM on April 29, 2008

it seems to assume that all black men are gigantic

It doesn't.

"...looks up and sees this HUGE black guy..."

If it did, it wouldn't contain the word "huge."
posted by grumblebee at 4:19 AM on April 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

As you can see from the responses so far, some people think the joke is racist and some don't. I personally think that it perpetuates racial stereotypes with no redeeming value and is therefore rascist, but I respect other people's opinions when they interpret it differently.

I think the more important point is that it's a racial joke. One thing that can't be argued is that the joke is explicitly about race, because the only physical descriptions given of the main characters are basically "small skinny white guy" and "huge black man". Racial humor is hard to do right, and when a white person tells a racial joke to all of her white friends, it's always going to have a kind of "LOLBlackPeople" vibe.

Unless your daughter is a comedian, I would suggest that she avoid telling corny unfunny jokes about race, because in addition to the risk that people will not laugh there is the added risk that people will be offended. Similarly, I would suggest not telling corny unfunny sexual jokes (such as ones about male rape) for the same reason.
posted by burnmp3s at 4:21 AM on April 29, 2008

(1) Lame joke.
(2) None of the black men I know mind the large-junk stereotype. Some even say it's been useful to them. Imagine that.
posted by rokusan at 4:33 AM on April 29, 2008

It does utilize a stereotype. But there are some really racist jokes that make assumptions about an entire race's character, and I wouldn't say this one does that. And only the premise deals with race; it's not inherent to the joke and could easily be changed without losing the point of the joke. In fact, the core of the joke (i.e. the punch line) doesn't have anything to do with race. This particular joke is more homophobic than it is racist.
posted by boomchicka at 4:34 AM on April 29, 2008

But because your daughter told you the joke, I would have probably made the same points you did about race. Even if this joke isn't the most racist one out there, a kid should still be aware of what they're saying when it comes to race.
posted by boomchicka at 4:35 AM on April 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you tell it without saying skin color it's not racist OR racial. But it's still mildly homophobic.
posted by mccxxiii at 4:40 AM on April 29, 2008

Grumblebee, point taken. But I've heard many versions of the big black dude joke, and never "a tiny black man and a gigantic, imposing white man" jokes. It almost seems like the joke is apologizing for itself by putting the word huge in there. Unless the joke is breaking new ground, seems like a subject best left alone for a while. At least, for jokes.
posted by sully75 at 4:42 AM on April 29, 2008

Nobody's mentioned the importance of context and the assumptions of the hearer of the joke. Ultimately the joke is either 'racist' or 'non racist' in the mind of the person who hears it, so it depends on the context and on what the hearer hears.
My wife and I (and I'm sure we're not alone in this) say horrible things to one another about all kinds of people, and use words that we would NEVER use with anyone else. The reason is that we know each other well enough that we know how the other will hear it.
Unless you want to be thought of as a racist by at least some people, I think it's better to steer clear of race jokes altogether.
In this particular case, I'll also join the chorus of 'racism aside, not very funny'.
posted by crazylegs at 5:05 AM on April 29, 2008

I say racist.
Huge (possibly over-sexed violent) black guy with big dick jokes seem racist to me.
Rape/homophobia stuff also icky.
posted by beccaj at 5:09 AM on April 29, 2008

Best answer: Snopes discussion of a related urban legend.

Reflecked, could you just show this thread to your daughter? It might be more informative for her to see the varying arguments, and decide for herself what she feels about the issue.
posted by hilatron at 5:18 AM on April 29, 2008

It is a racist joke but really most of the racism falls on the white guy. True, there is a physical stereotype on the black guy, but its the white guy who is made to be afraid, assumptive, and racist. Not all white guys are diminutive, afraid, and homophobic.

On another note....3 lbs? I would think that would be a hassle.
posted by ian1977 at 5:43 AM on April 29, 2008

It's racist because the big is black, or it's racist because that's the popular version of it.

It also sucks, and is less funny than a Jay Leno castoff.
posted by chuckdarwin at 5:43 AM on April 29, 2008

Is your daughter racist? If no, then why are worrying about a somewhat off color joke? I'm a black guy and say "Lighten up dude", it was mildly amusing and depending on the age of your daughter, it was probably quite funny to her and her circle of friends.

Does it perpetuate stereotypes? Sure, so what? It's a fucking joke, not a life lesson that will permanently shape her outlook on life. Instead of fretting about a stupid joke, are you ensuring that she has positive examples of black people in her life? If no, why not?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:48 AM on April 29, 2008 [4 favorites]

I will take a slightly different stand on the joke. It's funny *if* it's told the right way.

It is racist, by definition, because it involves race. That doesn't mean it's bad racist, if it's told in a way that makes it clear that the skinny white guy is the racist, not you. If in telling it you play up the fear and racism of the skinny guy and the normalness of the big guy, it's actually anti-bad-racist. You are showing the folly of prejudice.

In your daughter's case, I would use it as an example of how-

- sometimes people take well-meaning jokes in a way that wasn't intended.
- it's not nice to use race to make a joke.
- joke telling is all about delivery.

Ask her why she thought it was funny. If she thought it was funny because she understood that the skinny guy was unreasonably afraid and that the big guy was sick of people prejudging him, they she got it.
posted by gjc at 6:29 AM on April 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

What paperzach said. It is mocking the assumptions white people make, not black people, and the fact that there is a whole thread of worried white folks explaining why it is racist is hilarious (yes, not all of you are white; plenty of you are). If there is any racism in there it is the whites who are the butt. (Similar to the "hit the floor" elevator joke.) That said, it is not terribly funny.
posted by dame at 6:50 AM on April 29, 2008

I wouldn't call the overall story of the joke racist, just the details used to flesh it out. Since I try to keep my jokes centered around uncharged issues (hair color, etc.) or groups into which people volunteer (the medical profession, the military, despots, etc.), I'd probably tell it with the scary dude as a giant ex-con done up in gnarly prison tats. And I wouldn't say a damn thing about the protagonist, since he's automatically defined by contrast to the Man Mountain.

Except, I wouldn't tell that joke. I don't find it at all funny.
posted by Netzapper at 6:53 AM on April 29, 2008

It seems like the question of whether or not the joke is racist hinges on why you think the white guy's reaction was funny. Was it:

A) He was justifiably scared that the black guy would rape him, and we're amused by the relief that it was just a misunderstanding and this *particular* black guy meant him no harm and it was just a misunderstanding


B) Hes a racist jackass who foolishly assumes all black guys are dangerous, so gets his comeuppance through his own stupid assumptions.

One could argue that either interpretation is equally valid, which is the problem. Even if you're assuming that its funny because of (B), theres nothing in the text of the joke which indicates to the hearer that the correct interpretation is (B), and they may assume that you're trying to express (A). It gets trickier if, having heard the joke the hearer interprets it as (B) and it doesn't occur to them that the interpretation (A) is possible or likely, so they turn around and tell it again. Then the teller isn't being intentionally racist, but they are helping perpetuate the attitude of (A), and you can be sure that there will be some people who will gleefully tell this joke with interpretation (A).

In short, that sure is one racist plate of beans.
posted by Reverend John at 7:04 AM on April 29, 2008 [4 favorites]

Except, I wouldn't tell that joke. I don't find it at all funny.

Yeah, it needs something better than "Turner Brown" -- it's not close enough to "turn around." How about the old standby "Ben Dover." Now that would have been funny!

Oh, while I'm here: "Several people overheard our discussion and disagreed with me (yes, I am re-evaluating some friends)." Please don't do this. Someone is or is not racist because of what is in their heart, not how they interpret a stupid joke. Is your opinion of your friends so tenuous that it can be changed by this little incident?
posted by pardonyou? at 7:07 AM on April 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Is there a compelling phrase that I can use that will be more convincing?

Yeah - how about "Some Black guys get treated poorly and passed up for jobs because of the ideas spread in jokes like this".

Am I overthinking this?

Yes, but only because I think you're worried for some reason about the tragedy of this crappy ass joke not being able to be told. Worry not.

It gets annoying having people look at me like I'm going to rape them, steal their purse or do anything to them at all, just because I'm around. Jokes like this just help people continue latching on to some remaining vestige of the idea that I am a black man, therefore I am dangerous.

I always hated the "it's just a..." crowd. It's just a joke, it's just a tv show, it's just a movie, it's just a website. It's just talk radio. Blah blah blah. I know, I know. To me that's just an excuse to behave poorly and not get called on it.

And no, the "ooh you gotz big junk" is annoying and stereotypical too. Can't have it both ways. I can't be all "yeah dog, you know us black guys are hung like dragons" and then look surprised when that same person has a negative stereotype to go along with the "positive" one.
posted by cashman at 7:22 AM on April 29, 2008 [4 favorites]

You know, theres one other odd aspect of this joke that hasn't been discussed, which is Turner's initial unprompted statement.

First, he says those are the questions everyone always asks him. Now, I have a hard time imagining anyone really asking those questions of a stranger in almost any circumstances, but even if we assume for the sake of the joke that people find Turner threatening and wonder about his height and weight and are so bold to ask, the questions about his penis and finally his name (in that order) are non sequitors. Also his phrasing is odd. In his clarification he says "my name is.... I suppose this is just all part of what makes this a bad joke, in that it is so contrived and labored.

I'm not sure what to make of it but there seems to be something odd there to me. Like Turner's preemptive response indicates the white guy's concerns are normal. This pushes the joke more toward the interpretation of "Haha, its funny because the dangerous black guy really meant no harm". It could still be seen as a commentary on the overall social folly of racism, but I think that interpretation is farther away.

And finally, because it is a bad joke with a questionable racial component it makes one wonder why the teller is bothering to relate it. At best it indicates a bad sense of humor and a certain lack of tact.
posted by Reverend John at 7:27 AM on April 29, 2008

Homophobic more than racist. I'd see that as an equal opportunity for education.
posted by catlet at 7:57 AM on April 29, 2008

The joke is not inherently racist, but is likely to be more funny to a racist audience, since they will relate to the white guy's sexualized fear. It was also probably a lot funnier in the 1950s. In any event the joke certainly lives from racism, and while it may undermine the stereotype by disarming it and making the white guy's insecurity the butt of the joke, it may also perpetuate the stereotype by mentioning it one more time, thus keeping it alive in the public consciousness. The moral of the story is: your daughter should not feel bad for telling it, but you should explain to her that one should be careful telling racially charged jokes.
posted by creasy boy at 8:00 AM on April 29, 2008

Here's a good rule of thumb for racism: would you say it to your non-white friends? If she'd be embarrassed to make the joke in front of someone from a different racial group, then she probably shouldn't tell it at all. The furtive, winking reinforcements of stereotypes between white people is a practice that perpetuates a subtly racist outlook. It's not as though your daughter is out lynching people, but it's the unquestioning abuse of tropes like "oversexed black dude" that lay the foundation for a more simplistic view in general.
posted by Help, I can't stop talking! at 8:01 AM on April 29, 2008

Btw, I don't really see how the joke is homophobic. The butt of the joke is that the guy doesn't want to be raped and he immediately assumes himself to be the sexual target of a physically powerful black man. But the first part -- not wanting to get raped -- does not make the guy homophobic in any way.
posted by creasy boy at 8:04 AM on April 29, 2008

Now, what does it do to the joke if you add, "And then, disgusted by the tiny man's racism, Turner Brown forcibly rapes him out of sheer spite"?
posted by DoctorFedora at 8:12 AM on April 29, 2008 [3 favorites]

I'm really surprised at the people flatly saying "it's not racist" because it would be equally funny (or unfunny) if the race weren't specified or if he were specifically white. Maybe so, but this joke specifies that the big scary guy is black.

It's like saying that "dumb blonde" jokes aren't prejudiced against blondes -- after all, they would be equally funny if you substituted "dumb person." Yes, but those jokes are anti-blonde because they aren't just about a "dumb person." They are designed to get the listener to laugh at the stereotypically dumb blonde.

It's not really relevant that the black guy in the question isn't actually a rapist. The fact is -- and I'd offer this as an explanation of why the joke is racist -- the joke encourages you to put yourself in the shoes of the white guy who's afraid of a BLACK, oversexed, gay rapist. There's no point in specifying that he's black other than to play on this stereotype. A joke that reinforces a racist stereotype is racist, period. I don't see what's complicated about this.

What I want to know is: why are you concerned only that the joke is racist? Isn't the more obvious complaint that it's homophobic? A man who's overly fearful of men raping him is literally homophobic, in the sense of being afraid of gays. The joke encourages you to empathize with the homophobic guy.
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:28 AM on April 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Obviously racist. Why does it matter if the people are black or white? The joke is that the guy is scared of being raped by the other guy. Doesn't matter what color the skin is.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:33 AM on April 29, 2008

Jaltcoh, being afraid of getting raped doesn't equate to being afraid of gays, the black guy in the joke isn't identified as being gay, the imagined threat of rape has much more to do with a power dynamic than with sexual orientation, the joke doesn't play to gay stereorypes, etc...in my view the joke is far from being homophobic. It also doesn't fit into the category of "gay panic" jokes since the guy in the joke isn't afraid of being gay.
posted by creasy boy at 8:33 AM on April 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Jaltcoh, being afraid of getting raped doesn't equate to being afraid of gays

Yes it does, if you're a man afraid of getting raped by men.
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:43 AM on April 29, 2008

To my mind it's the same (not funny) joke if you take out the adjective "black", and just tell a joke about a huge guy and a little guy in an elevator.
posted by orange swan at 8:52 AM on April 29, 2008

Yes it does, if you're a man afraid of getting raped by men.

Any women who are afraid of rape are afraid of 'straights', then? I agree that there's usually some element of homophobia to the 'omg gay guy will rape me,' but it depends on the person how much the 'gay' part and the 'rape' part are emphasized.

Anyways. I'm leaning towards 'it's racist.' While it does make fun of racial stereotypes, it also reinforces them. In essence, I agree with Pater Aletheias.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 8:55 AM on April 29, 2008

I'm really not academic enough to explain this properly but -- Jokes about men raping men sort of assume a male teller and/or listener thinking, "ha, ha, funny, and I'm not susceptible to being raped." The perspective of these jokes sort of exclude women and male inmates (who really do get raped). At the same time, these jokes play on a straight male nervousness about penetration, uh oh, maybe I am susceptible to being raped/penetrated. So there's a push back to the straight male laughter at these jokes, "ha ha ha (!!) I am *not* a person who is penetrated." (Please, graduate students and PhDs, chime in.)
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:04 AM on April 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

As told, the joke brings up the "giant oversexed black man" thing, which is a tired stereotype. It's also offensive because racial identification is so totally unnecessary -- tall, big, white men have the "you must have a giant dick" stereotype, too.

Here's the other weird thing -- the stereotype of burly black men does not generally include random acts of buttsex, unless you invoke prison. To provide the joke with the context to make it kind-of funny, you'll have to make it much more racist and have them trapped in the elevator (i.e. imprisoned.) I'm not recommending this joke, in case any budding racist joke-tellers are looking for material, by the way.

In the further analysis of racist elevator jokes, I think the oft-reported "hit the floor" joke is much funnier and more cutting.
posted by desuetude at 9:13 AM on April 29, 2008

Any women who are afraid of rape are afraid of 'straights', then?

Yes, they are afraid of straight men. Most straight women are afraid of straight men. (If you don't believe me...start noticing how often women joke that they're "afraid" of a man or find him "scary." You rarely hear men talking like that.)

The fact is, straight men are alarmingly inclined to rape women. They're more likely to rape women than, say, straight women. Or gay women. Or gay men. It's a pretty obvious fact.

As a straight man, I'm not offended if women recognize these facts. But to deny that this fear exists would be unrealistic. I don't criticize women if they have a realistic fear of men -- I criticize those of my own gender who behave in a way that gives rise to this fear in the first place.

I wish that instead of focusing so much energy on whether it's OK to recognize these facts or whether this or that joke is racist or homophobic, more energy would be focused on how to actually deal with the underlying social ills that we're talking about.
posted by Jaltcoh at 9:20 AM on April 29, 2008

Jaltcoh, being afraid of getting raped doesn't equate to being afraid of gays

Yes it does, if you're a man afraid of getting raped by men.

I was going to say that I'm a straight woman, and I would certainly be afraid of being raped by a man -- am I man-phobic? But upon preview I saw your response. On top of being straight, I am married, I have had partners prior to my hsband, I have male friends, and I am able to pass many men down the street on a daily basis without any kind of phobia. So do most women. I think you may be misconstruing what "phobia" means, or even what constitutes fear. And even if we're generous and classify phobia as a mild fear, or feeling uncomfortable around men, I'd argue you're still exaggerating the issue. I am not afraid of men. I am afraid of the act of rape. And afraid doesn't mean that I live my life in terror, fearing it will happen. It means that when I hear stories about it, I shudder. It means that I take precautions when I am in sketchy situations. And if I find a man scary, it's probably because thgat particular individual looks like he'd be a threat -- not because I'm scared of men in general.

re: the OP, I have to disagree with the statement that because race is touched on in a joke, that makes the joke racist. I would say that the mere presence of race makes the joke racial in nature, not racist. If inserting race into something immediately falls into racist categories, then any discussion about race will be taboo and uncomfortable. Which it is, and if lots of people think race=racist, then that right there explains why in our society we can't talk about race without a certain level of freak-out.

I feel like this joke is not racist, but still in poor taste. And if your daughter is young enough to not understand the reactions she will get by telling jokes that deal with race, then this is a good opportunity to teach her that lesson before she learns it the hard way.
posted by DrGirlfriend at 9:29 AM on April 29, 2008

Also, I disagree with reconsidering your friends over the fact that they didn't find this joke racist. As you can see just from these responses, there are plenty of people who didn't like the joke, but disagree on whether or not it's racist. I just don't think this particular joke is a good litmus test for who in your circle of friends is a big ol' bigot. It's a little harsh to use it that way.
posted by DrGirlfriend at 9:33 AM on April 29, 2008

I think you may be misconstruing what "phobia" means, or even what constitutes fear.

Ugh, I really didn't mean to spark an extended derail, so this will be my last comment...

Look, being afraid of a group of people doing something is fear, by definition. So I'm not "misconstruing ... what constitutes fear." Then there's a totally separate question whether the fear is well-founded. If it's not well-founded, it's a phobia. For instance, I despise the fact that there are a lot of men raping men right now (in prison, for instance), and a lot of men raping women right now (in the Congo, for instance). That doesn't make me phobic, just realistic. If, OTOH, I go out of my way to avoid going to a gay bar because I'm afraid some gay guy will try to rape me, then I'm homophobic, not realistic. It's all a matter of circumstances.

In the above joke, the circumstances are such that the fear of rape is homophobic: "Oh, there's a big scary black guy with big genitals -- I'll bet he wants to have sex with anyone he meets because he's so oversexed." If that's not racist and homophobic, then I don't know what is! That's not undermined by the fact that you can easily posit lots of other situations where a fear of rape would be justified.
posted by Jaltcoh at 9:46 AM on April 29, 2008

Notwithstanding the above, I laughed, I admit it. I think it's a great joke. it is, however, in 'the telling' - also helps that it's one of those that translates well to being read.

You don't specify the age of your daughter - somewhat important really - and more to the point, racism is hardly the backbone of the joke nor the issue - surely it's the "offensive" plain ole' type-casting?
posted by DrtyBlvd at 9:48 AM on April 29, 2008

Isn't the more obvious complaint that it's homophobic? A man who's overly fearful of men raping him is literally homophobic, in the sense of being afraid of gays. The joke encourages you to empathize with the homophobic guy.

This assumes all male-male rape is instigated by gays, which isn't true. Also, it equates fear of an action with fear of an entire gender, which doesn't make much sense.

I don't criticize women if they have a realistic fear of men -- I criticize those of my own gender who behave in a way that gives rise to this fear in the first place.

So why do you criticize men who have a realistic fear of men? Why not "criticize those of my own gender who behave in a way that gives rise to this fear in the first place" in the same way you do for women?
posted by null terminated at 9:50 AM on April 29, 2008

This assumes all male-male rape is instigated by gays, which isn't true.

Splitting hairs. Male-male rape is "gay" in the sense that it's an expression of male-male sexual desire, even though I realize that it is often committed by prisoners whom one wouldn't think of as "gay" in the conventional sense. Also, men who are inordinately afraid of being raped by men are homophobic as long as they're subjectively envisioning male-male rape as something perpetrated by gays, even if that's not objectively true.
posted by Jaltcoh at 9:59 AM on April 29, 2008

Jaltcoh, being afraid of getting raped doesn't equate to being afraid of gays

Yes it does, if you're a man afraid of getting raped by men.

No, again, it doesn't; it equates to being afraid of rapists and getting raped.

Also, men who are inordinately afraid of being raped by men are homophobic as long as they're subjectively envisioning male-male rape as something perpetrated by gays, even if that's not objectively true.

Yes, but they don't; typically they don't envision male-male rape as something perpetrated by gays. They envision it in the sorts of scenarios where a more "manly" man is dominant, like in this joke or in prison. There's no sign that the white guy in the joke thinks this that the black guy is gay -- he's signified as being more manly in every way, which runs counter to the homophobic stereotype of gays. Nothing in the joke identifies the black guy as gay, and a big black guy raping you in an elevator is simply not a gay stereotype. In the real world, and in jokes, homophobia relates to much different stereotypes than "big black elevator rapist".

"Oh, there's a big scary black guy with big genitals -- I'll bet he wants to have sex with anyone he meets because he's so oversexed." If that's not racist and homophobic, then I don't know what is!

You've precisely identified the racism in the joke. The harmful stereotype is the oversexed black man, which in your very own formulation has nothing to do with sexual orientation.

Male-male rape is "gay" in the sense that it's an expression of male-male sexual desire

It's more about dominance than sexual desire, although obviously sex has something to do with it.
posted by creasy boy at 10:16 AM on April 29, 2008

You know what I think is racist? Assuming that you know what is going to offend someone else of another race.

I happen to belong to a cultural heritage renowned the world over for the sheer number of jokes generated upon its behalf. I learned very quickly to acquire a sense of humor and an understanding that most people of the world don't think I'm dumb as dirt by virtue of my last name.

I find it much more off-putting when people walk on eggshells around me, stopping mid-guffaw when I enter a room, scared to death of offending me.
posted by tjvis at 10:48 AM on April 29, 2008

You know what I think is racist? Assuming that you know what is going to offend someone else of another race.

Aw, I think that it's possible to employ some basic common sense here without being a complete stick-in-the-mud. Much of the problem with racist/cultural-based jokes is that they're really not good jokes, they're just an opportunity to be a dick with the built-in defense of "c'mon, take a joke."

I can take a joke, but I can also call out a tiresome boor for yammering on.

/fellow Pollack. Former blonde. Insert joke here.
posted by desuetude at 11:30 AM on April 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

So, I'm generally with the "racist and gay-bashing, yuck!" crowd, but I also think that Brandon Blatcher has an excellent point about positive examples of black people in your daughter's life. It's great and all if you can make a teaching point about cultural sensitivity and Why Race Jokes are Bad, but if you do that and don't teach her how to make friends across cultural and ethnic barriers, then you've kinda missed the forest for the trees, you know?
posted by bettafish at 6:08 PM on April 29, 2008

Humor, especially racially tinged humor, is a tricky beast, and is best avoided. You have to take your audience into account, and if you're not a member of that race, you have to be aware that your perception of what is harmless/hilarious may not be shared by them.

I'm Asian, and for whatever reason, people feel a bit free-er about letting loose on us. A lot of the time, when somebody lets loose and another person objects, the first person employs the "get a sense of humor/Alas the PC police is out to get me" defense, and I think that really misses the point, which is that you can't just generally expect people to 'take a joke'. For example, if I call one of my guy friends a fat balding bastard, he will probably laugh. If I call a random fat balding stranger the exact same thing, he might punch me in the face, and I would deserve it.

I don't face the same set of stereotypes as a black guy, so I don't know exactly how racist the joke is. I'm sure a lot of people are thinking, "I would LOVE to have that stereotype where people are constantly afraid that my pants will explode from the sheer stress of trying to contain my mighty over-sized genitals." But then again, a lot of people didn't understand why Asian people were upset when some Canadian councilman started talking about how Asian people 'worked like dogs' and 'slept next to the machines'. A lot of people were all, "HE IS TRYING TO PAY A COMPLIMENT, WHY ARE YOU PEOPLE SO UPSET?!" You have to understand where these stereotypes come from, and how they affect people -- I suspect this stereotype may not be as harmless as you might imagine.

And maybe you'll do OK if you only tell your jokes to your friends who think that sort of thing is funny. But on the other hand, maybe one day you'll tell the joke at the wrong time, you end up on YouTube, and next thing you know, you're no longer the Senator from Virginia. And not because the PC police is out to get you, but because you're not the one who gets to decide how upset the other person gets if you take a poke at someone.

(I'm really not trying to turn this conversation into a discussion about Asian Americans or whatever, I'm just trying to explain my perspective on things.)
posted by Comrade_robot at 7:39 PM on April 29, 2008 [3 favorites]

Humor, especially racially tinged humor, is a tricky beast, and is best avoided.

There's seems to be no shortage of standup comics who have successfully avoided this advice.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:04 PM on April 29, 2008

Hi reflecked,

You and your daughter seem to have different ideas about the definition of the words racism and racist. Comrade_robot is right - many times it is in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps you could explore what your daughter defines as racist speech. Perhaps hers includes malicious intent?

A general rule of thumb I use around racially tinged humor is the whoop-ass litmus test. For example, let's say I have a joke with a reference to Asian Americans that a large group of my African American friends find rockingly funny. Say, "A large Chinese man walks into a bar...."

I always ask myself -sure, I'm chuckling now, but what would happen if I as an African American woman walked up to a group of Asian Americans and told that same joke? Because if I can imagine something along the lines of anyone in that group even thinking they'd want to unleash a can of whoop-ass upon my person for my poor judgment and bad taste, that would give me pause.

Lord knows I wish a number of people would do that little self reflecting test before starting with the stereotypical jokes about large-membered African American men or highly-sexed African American women. Particularly in front of me, and then complain that I don't have a sense of humor. Laughing at my own degradation is not my cup of tea. Neither is dancing to my own degradation for that matter (...yes, snoop dogg, you lyrical pauper, I am talking you). And I still chuckle at the number of men I've dated who actually looked *confused* as to why I didn't seem to embody the "highly-sexed" stereotype. As if they were victims of false advertising, or something.

Anyway, perhaps since race doesn't matter, your daughter could say Huge Korean man, and small Polynesian man. Cause you know, I think part of the tension of the joke is the racial element.

And rape jokes...meh, always more grimace than giggle with those. Always.

Good luck!
posted by anitanita at 11:46 PM on April 29, 2008

There's seems to be no shortage of standup comics who have successfully avoided this advice.
Sure, yeah, there are plenty of comedians who rely on race-tinged humor. There are a few things about this, the most important part of which is: If you're reading this, you're probably not a stand-up comedian. And if you are, don't listen to me, what do I know, I'm just some guy on the internet. If you aren't, though, you might want to think about some things ...

If you're a stand up comedian, part of your humor may be based on pushing boundaries, and saying the most offensive thing you can think of can be really hilarious. Note that, of course, that part of the social dynamic between a comedian and his audience is that the audience is willing to put up with a bit of abuse. They've bought tickets to your show, tuned on to you on the TV, bought the two drink minimum, whatever. This social dynamic does not necessarily carry over if you are, say, an Assistant to the Regional Manager telling even the very same joke at lunch.

Secondly, even if you are a professional comedian, and you are going for the offensive laugh, if you misjudge your audience, you are still in trouble -- remember that whole thing where the guy who played Kramer got in big trouble? He was going for a joke, trying to say the most offensive things he could think of, but he misjudged. Personally, I think that part of it was because he didn't really understand the history of lynching and that sort of thing, so instead of his joke being light mockery, he touched on an ugly, hurtful scar. This guy's a fairly successful professional comedian and even he made a mistake -- if you're some random Joe telling jokes at a water cooler, what chance do you have?

Thirdly, most professional comedians who make a living out of race jokes are generally speaking, members of a minority, and hence are able to better judge what affect those stereotypes have on their audiences. I know one African American comedian has pulled a routine that he is well known for because he felt it was getting the wrong kind of laughs.

All this being said, I know a lot of minority comedians do go for the cheap easy stereotype laughs. It's very tempting -- I'm sure the African American community has the equivalent of the Asian American comedians whose entire routines are based around: "Ho ho, my parents are strict and overbearing! And they have accents! Like this! FLIED LICE!" And people will laugh, sure, but they'll be laughing at you. And your act will have only a limited appeal, because let's face it, any Asian person can tell those jokes. It's a lot harder to come up with comedy that's uniquely your own. This may be a question of taste, though. If you like hack race comedy, hey, be my guest.

Basically, to sum up -- yeah, there are a lot of comedians who do racial comedy, but that doesn't mean it's a good idea for you to do racial comedy, even if you do the exact same jokes (and please don't, because stealing jokes is a horrible thing to do). And even those comedians make mistakes. And some of those comedians suck. And some of those comedians steal jokes _and_ suck. *shiftyeyes*
posted by Comrade_robot at 6:42 AM on April 30, 2008

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