Talking Cultural Diversity

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

When Humor isn\’t Funny

By Jean Mavrelis - 10.08.2009

Humor can build team camaraderie or destroy it. Many white men have reported in our sessions that today’s politically correct environment has forced them to lose their sense of humor.  It is true that white men bond by teasing – but when that teasing is cross cultural or cross gender, it is a slippery slope.  John McCain learned this the hard way when he joked about an ape raping a woman

Stereotyping of ethnic groups is particularly offensive, whether masked as humor or not, especially when coming from outsiders, regardless of the motive behind them. Some ethnic groups are hit harder by humor than others. Asians will often “feel the pain and not show it”.  One Asian woman told me that a white male colleague said, “You’re not like other Asians”.  She went home and brooded for months about whether that was an insult or not, and if not, what did it mean?  A Chinese man was teased/reprimanded by his boss, as were two Anglo colleagues, about “leaving the coffee room a mess” as they sat eating lunch.  The Chinese employee sat there in shock and pain.  Three months later during his performance review he blurted out, “It wasn’t me who dirtied the coffee area”.  His white male boss didn’t remember the incident.  A Mexican American police officer was “affectionately” nicknamed “beaner” by his colleagues.  He hated it, but didn’t dare say so for fear he would be seen by his white male associates as overly sensitive.

I would like to hear from readers about a time when someone acted like they were joking, but that humor took a great personal toll. I’m especially interested in times when the humor was across lines of ethnicity or gender. Maybe we can all learn from this kind of conversation.

3 Responses so far

I stumbled upon your site by googling “diversity blog” for a Diversity class that I am taking at Northeastern University. I have found many of your postings quite interesting. Regarding “Social Etiquette at Work”, I realize that you were interested to hear responses about inappropriate comments across ethnic and gender lines, and when “funny isn’t funny.” I have one relative to sexual orientation. I am a gay woman and my manager is aware of this. I think we have a good relationship. We were walking to our cars one evening and I happened to have my pick-up truck with me rather than my summer sportscar. She said, “Ah, of course you have a pick-up truck. Do you have a softball bag in there too?” I laughed along with her for a moment. When I was driving home, I was struggling with whether she was just trying to be funny because we do have a good relationship, or whether she meant it to be hurtful disguised as a joke. Just an example…

Thanks for the example! It seems that when a member of the dominant culture feels they have a good relationship going with someone who is not of the dominant culture, they sometimes think they will move the relationship forward by joking. Humor is complicated. Mainstream folks, like others, joke for many reasons, among them: to show the relationship has moved to a more familiar level,to release tension about something uncomfortable, to stereotype or demean. For those dominant group folks who joke to get closer, you don’t have to lose your sense of humor, there are a million things to joke about: your pets, your kids, your team, just stay away from trying to build relationship by joking about how your friend is “different” from you.

In response to K. Collete’s comment, I too happen to be gay. On top of that, I am also an ethnic minority. Among my LGBT friends, we do joke about stereotypes within our community and can appreciate the ridiculousness of them as we know how untrue they are. How is it that we as members of the LGBT community can laugh at stereotypes about us? I believe that it all matters on who is delivering the comment. As insiders, we know what the stereotypes versus the true norms of our community are. The question to consider is when an outsider to any group makes a comment about a community they are not a part of- is the comment truly humorous or is it intentional hurt guised in humor?

In my opinion, the comment made by your boss was an attempt to create familiarity and closeness albeit through a stereotype. It was a way of her to show, “I know about lesbians.” Unfortunately she didn’t quite consider the impact of her intent. Recollect your past interactions and dialogues about your personal life and see if you can find any hostile behavior on her part. That would probably be a better indicator of the intent of her comment.

Something to consider in a scenario like this is to use it as a learning/teaching opportunity. Here is an example that I can recall from my own personal experience. A relative of mine told me that she is afraid of African-American people. I asked her why. She told me that it was because they are usually bigger in stature and their dark skin scares her. So I had to think quick and I told her, “Well, maybe their scared of you too.” She looked at me and said, “Why?” I said, “Well, maybe its because your short, light skinned and Asian.” She then realized the ridiculousness of her comment based on stereotypes.

As hard as it can be when a comment is so personal as your example shows, don’t take ownership of other people’s lack of awareness. Instead, use it as an opportunity to dialogue. It can be as simple as saying in a non-threatening tone, “Excuse me, what did you just say?” That simple question alone will usually leave the speaker wishing they could grab the words they just spoke and put them back into their mouths where they should have never come out of in the first place.

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