Talking Cultural Diversity

a discussion board for cultural and diversity issues by Thomas Kochman and Jean Mavrelis

\”I shouldn\’t have laughed!\”

By Jean Mavrelis - 06.29.2009

Can we create a workplace that is safe for humor, where there is the ability to learn from our stupid jokes, and apologize for our ignorance?

WIS10 TV in Columbia, S.C., reported a Facebook post by an aide to state Attorney General Henry McMaster that described an escape by a gorilla on Friday from the zoo in Columbia. DePass, once a state Senate candidate, responded to the post with these words: \”I\’m sure it\’s just one of Michelle\’s ancestors – probably harmless.\” On this one, you really have to be clueless to not “get” that it is racist no matter who it comes from.

However, when you\’re not sure a joke is racist or sexist, you can apply the litmus test: would an insider of the group the joke is about think it was funny, or derogatory, as applied to their group. Ask yourself this question when you\’re not sure if you should be appalled or laugh when someone tells a joke at work and you\’re not sure how to react.

The golden rule doesn’t apply here.  If a joke is made about a group in power, members of that group are not threatened by that joke the way minorities and white women might be, so members of the dominant group may view others as “thin skinned” or “not able to laugh at themselves.” Notice how many commercials make fools of white men – they are an acceptable target. Clearly, you can’t do unto others as you would have done unto yourself, although even white men are getting sensitive about being the brunt of jokes. (Tom Kochman is tired of so many white men who are mocked in commercials looking like they’re Jewish.)

Use that litmus test on these jokes which have been circulating the web:


The first joke seems like the idea of a white person who hired the black employees who went along with it.  Or, it could be southern white humor poking fun at northern white people whom they view as too politically correct.

The second joke I began watching as a spoof on MTV hip hop, but then I realized it was portraying African Americans as dumb and dirty.  Once again I had to be disgusted with myself for initially laughing at the opening image.  I really did feel ashamed for not getting the racism immediately.  White men in our sessions have reported on occasion that they are so afraid of making a career ending politically incorrect joke or laughing at something racist or sexist, that they avoid all humor altogether.  Well, for some people, that may be for the best. But for the majority of us, humor can provide a learning opportunity.  If something is offensive to you, tell the offending party why.  And those of us who didn’t get it initially can learn, apologize, and say thank you for opening our hearts and minds.

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