Man shares two lessons he learned from disrupting a racist joke in a group of white people

Racist jokes are one of the more frustrating manifestations of racism. Jokes in general are meant to be a shared experience, a connection over a mutual sense of humor, a rush of feel-good chemicals that bond us to those around us through laughter.

So when you mix jokes with racism, the result is that racism becomes something light and fun, as opposed to the horrendous bane that it really is.

The harm done with racist humor isn't just the emotional hurt they can cause. When a group of white people shares jokes at the expense of a marginalized or oppressed racial group, the power of white supremacy is actually reinforced—not only because of the "punching down" nature of such humor, but because of the group dynamics that work in favor of maintaining the status quo.

British author and motivational speaker Paul Scanlon shared a story about interrupting a racist joke at a table of white people at an event in the U.S, and the lessons he drew from it illustrate this idea beautifully. Watch:


Speaking up in a group setting where people have an unspoken sense of solidarity is difficult. Giving up social capital and being seen as a breaking a code of sorts is uncomfortable. But that that difficulty and discomfort are not excuses for staying quiet. As Scanlon points out, our silence is not benign, it's malignant. Keeping quiet while a racist joke is being told and laughed at is harmful because it allows racism to go unchecked and white supremacy to remain secure.

An important point Scanlon makes is that not only do white folks allow harm to take place when we remain silent in the face of a friend, family member, colleague, or acquaintance making a racist joke, but we are actually rewarded for saying nothing. We maintain a sense of solidarity, we gain social capital, we're seeing as agreeable and establish a sense of belonging. Those rewards are an insidious form of racism that many white people aren't even aware we participate in. And we have to decide ahead of time that we're going to give up that reward and embrace the inevitable awkwardness in order to do the right thing.

We have to decide that ending racism is more important than embarrassment. The more people who stand firm in that decision, the less awkward it will become and the sooner we can redefine what social capital and solidarity really mean.

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Anne Hebert, a marketing writer living in Austin, TX, jokes that her closest friends think that her hobby is "low-key harassment for social good". She authors a website devoted entirely to People Doing Good Things. She's hosted a yearly canned food drive with up to 150 people stopping by to donate, resulting in hundreds of pounds of donations to take to the food bank for the past decade.

"I try to share info in a positive way that gives people hope and makes them aware of solutions or things they can do to try to make the world a little better," she said.

For now, she's encouraging people through a barrage of persistent, informative, and entertaining emails with one goal in mind: getting people to VOTE. The thing about emailing people and talking about politics, according to Hebert, is to catch their attention—which is how lice got involved.

"When my kids were in elementary school, I was class parent for a year, which meant I had to send the emails to the other parents. As I've learned over the years, a good intro will trick your audience into reading the rest of the email. In fact, another parent told me that my emails always stood out, especially the one that started: 'We need volunteers for the Valentine's Party...oh, and LICE.'"

Hebert isn't working with a specific organization. She is simply trying to motivate others to find ways to plug in to help get out the vote.

Photo by Phillip Goldsberry on Unsplash

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