How would you respond to “It’s racist, but funny?”

Hi, [girl’s teacher].

I don’t know if this has come up at school yet, but [the girl] has said a few things in recent weeks that I think you need to know about. She’s just entered a phase of joke-telling. It seems like a lot of kids in the class are exchanging jokes they’ve heard, and she’s been trying them out at home.

Last week, she started one by saying, “Okay, this one is kinda racist, but it’s really funny.”

I was floored. At no time in our family have racism and humour ever been associated. Bigotry of any description is not funny, and is not among the values that we have in our home. I stopped her from telling the joke, explaining that it’s never ever funny to say mean things about anyone, and that something cannot be funny and racist at the same time. She tried to defend her actions by saying she hadn’t made it up, that she’d learned it from another student in the class.

I later overheard her start over again with her brother. It’s like she needed to get it out to have the humour of the joke validated, because she did find it funny, and wanted someone else to find it funny as well. I explained again that it was never acceptable to tell hurtful jokes about people, as individuals or as groups, and that I was frustrated and disappointed that she continued to tell a joke that she knew (even before telling me) was mean-spirited. Again, she tried to explain that it wasn’t her joke, not taking responsibility for having told it, for having found it funny, for having perpetuated the stereotypes involved in the joke and perpetuated the idea that it was okay to laugh about it. She’s not entirely getting that telling a joke about groups of people based on physical, cultural, and geographic characteristics translates into treating those people as less worthy of respect than those not named in the joke.

I think, especially given that this originated with classmates, this is something that could use discussion during a class meeting. I have chosen to intentionally not name the child [the girl] identified as the original joke-teller. Who started it is never important to me. What is important is that the class as a whole has the opportunity to talk about why “it’s racist but it’s funny” is unacceptable. Not blaming, not shaming, but giving them a chance to talk it out and have that teacher-led, peer-based time to build their understanding.

I appreciate any feedback you have on this, [teacher].




  1. m0ff said,

    December 4, 2010 at 11:49 am

    I wish when I was growing up in the school system a teacher had taken the time to explain why racism veiled within a joke isn’t funny. I come from a neighbourhood where the number of non-caucasian families could be counted on one hand. (FWIW, it’s still a predominantly white neighborhood, except now I can count the non-caucasian families on TWO hands.) I can only imagine what those families must have gone, and potentially continue to, go through.

  2. Hazel Cohen said,

    December 4, 2010 at 3:22 pm

    I’m so glad you wrote to the teacher. You’re a really good parent, and I love that you extend that to caring for your greater community.

  3. Lisa said,

    December 4, 2010 at 6:26 pm

    I’d be interested in an update with the teacher’s response, once you get one. Please share if you can.

  4. Linda said,

    December 4, 2010 at 8:21 pm

    Does it ever end ?? Prejudice and defence of it …

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