Jokes can be dangerous things

I recommend to new teachers that jokes are very tricky things in a classroom and should be used with caution. Jokes based on stereotypes of race and ethnicity and nationality are especially problematic to pull off without causing offense and should be avoided in the classroom, especially if the stereotype is a negative one. One informal rule is that in other settings, one can often get away with telling such jokes against one’s own group but not against that of other groups.

If I were an advisor to any politician I would tell them to steer clear of such jokes altogether. This seems to me to be so obvious that it baffles me when seasoned politicians like Hillary Clinton and New York City mayor Bill de Blasio decided to take part in a skit that included a joke based on a stereotype that black people are chronically late for things. The joke did not even have the mitigating quality of being funny.

Oddly enough that stereotype has long been the norm in Sri Lanka and people often excuse their late arrivals with the ‘Sri Lankan time’ gag. But while I feel comfortable talking about Sri Lankan time because I belong to that group, I would never use it for any other group.

Maybe de Blasio felt that he had some partial immunity because his wife is black but as he has now discovered, that kind of immunity is not transferable and he has had to explain himself by suggesting that the audience was humorless, while Clinton has thrown him under the bus.

I recall the time that actor Ted Danson spoke at a roast in honor of fellow actor Whoopi Goldberg . He arrived in blackface and used the n-word more than a dozen times in his monologue, and even ate watermelon. The only explanation that I can think for him giving such a cringe-inducing performance that horrified the audience was that since at the time he was Whoopi Goldberg’s lover and she had apparently encouraged his performance, he felt that gave him immunity. Big mistake.


  1. Some Old Programmer says

    I suspect that this a common in-joke. I can personally attest to GST--Gay Standard Time. But, as is the case with all in-jokes, I would be very cautious about using it if I weren’t a member of the group, or outside of a group of friends.

  2. raym says

    Gay Standard Time
    OK… now you’re going to have to explain it. Two days, two new phrases! Who could ask for more?

  3. sonofrojblake says

    a stereotype that black people are chronically late for things

    That’s a stereotype? Where? 46 years (so far) in the UK and it’s not one I’ve ever even heard of.

    (Comparison: I know, thanks to the internet, that in the US there’s a stereotype that black people like fried chicken. And that’s literally the only reason I know that stereotype exists. It just isn’t a thing in the UK. But “chronic lateness”? I’ve never even heard that one.)

  4. Bronan says

    I live in the UK, and have a (black) friend who is from the Caribbean.

    He LOVED the fried chicken. I mean, every time I went to his place he would have chicken wings frying, and he made this awesome batter that he had clearly perfected over a lifetime, which he would flavour in various different ways depending on the weather, the beer in the fridge, or whatever. Man, I would trust him to make my chicken choices better than my own mother.

    The stereotype fit him perfectly, and since I lived in a predominantly white town and was unexposed to “black culture” at the time, when I heard about the US stereotype it sunk into my brain with zero resistance.

    Then I moved to the city. I can now confirm that the vast majority of black people I have encountered do not “love” fried chicken. They do not all take great care developing batter. Some take great care making cakes or brewing beer. Its almost as if they are just like white folks!

    That’s it.

  5. Some Old Programmer says

    raym @2, I’m going back to the 1990s when I was a young(er) gay man. When a group of friends made plans to meet up at a larger party or bar, usually we would straggle in over the course of an hour or so. If anyone was particularly tardy, they might simply say with a laugh that they were running on GST. There was very little social cost to running late; indeed some may have used it to cultivate an image of being a “dizzy queen”. I suspect it’s common for a minority group to develop in-group markers and language like this.

  6. Matt G says

    It can be a fine line between jokes which make fun of a particular demographic group, and jokes which make fun of *stereotypes* of particular demographic groups. In this case, it is the bigot who is being mocked. The American version of The Office did this very well.

  7. mnb0 says

    Zaans kwartiertje.
    Quarter of an hour from Zaandam -- make an appointment at 8:00 and someone from Zaandam will arrive at 8:15.

  8. says

    *shrugs* I run on Cat Time. The ladies and gents of the Court run on Drag Time. Courts of law run on Judicial Time (talk about slow!)

    Joking about these things is probably better done among close friends, though.

  9. sonofrojblake says

    “Never ever use humour at work” is my preferred policy, and it’s not (or should not) be difficult to follow. It should be even easier in the USA, which I’ve found to be one of the most humourless places I’ve ever visited for work. In my limited experience, everyone is all business, all the time -- which is great. Fewer distractions means the job gets done more efficiently, and that’s all you’re there to do.

    A few years back I did a course which was intended to teach USAians, Japanese and UKians about each other to help them work together. The tendency of Brits to joke about everything, including at work, was held up as a specific and noticeable cultural difference that others would need to take account of. I would say it’s easily the most irritating thing about my home country.

    Leave the jokes for home or the pub, and assume everyone with whom you work is listening to your every word waiting for you to say something that will let them fire you. It’s just safer that way.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *