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I have a friend who is a research scientist of Mexican descent. Before a work meeting, as he was wiping off the whiteboards to begin a presentation, he joked "This is the part that my people are best at!"

What's an appropriate reaction when someone makes a racial joke about their own heritage?

closed as primarily opinion-based by Ælis, Rand al'Thor, ElizB, avazula, Suimon Jan 7 at 7:01

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    Most likely laughing gently ? That's mere self-mockery. I think there's no need to overthink about that. – Kaël Sep 1 '17 at 15:04
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    I wouldn't call it 'self-mockery', I'd call it using irony to mock a negative racial stereotype – Slow loris Sep 1 '17 at 15:51
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    @Slowloris Exactly my thought. Without going into the deep analysis of meta jokes, the intent of comments like these generally involve the mocking of people who hold these opinions. Even more so here, given the joker is a research scientist. It's a humorous way to say "I'm a scientist, but because of my race, some people still stereotype me". – Laconic Droid Sep 1 '17 at 15:55
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    Comedians often distinguish between "punching down" and "punching up" in the context of jokes across racial/ethnic/gender/other lines. Punching up is usually okay, punching down rarely is, punching at yourself/your group is almost always safe. It's appropriate to laugh at an intended joke you find funny by someone punching up or at themself/their group; you should avoid doing so when someone punches down. – Bryan Krause Sep 1 '17 at 22:31
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    @BryanKrause "Punching up" is still unpalatable as it's still bigotry, if a bit lessened by being targeted "upward". And I think that that'd be unfair to the speaker in this case; he wasn't being bigoted in any sense - whether up, down, or against himself - but rather mocking bigotry itself. – Nat Sep 2 '17 at 0:43
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If you find it funny, laugh. If you don't, it would be polite to smile.

I think it could be helpful to understand something about why a joke like this is funny, at least to a certain audience. When minorities make jokes targeted at their own minority group, it is typically done as a way to express frustration towards negative stereotypes about that group, NOT as a way to make fun of the group itself. In this particular case, I would say that the researcher is using irony, defined as:

the expression of one's meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect

He doesn't literally mean "Mexicans commonly have jobs cleaning stuff, isn't that funny?" He means something more along the lines of "I am a Mexican research scientist giving a talk, but people who look like me (and probably me, specifically) are often stereotyped as having menial jobs, isn't that annoying / messed up?" By using irony he is expressing that sentiment with a wink for the people in the audience who both get where he's coming from and appreciate irony.

addendum: As should be clear from my answer, I disagree with the notion that such jokes are "self-mockery" or "self-deprecation". Self-deprecating humor is essentially highlighting actual or perceived flaws, and they themselves are truly the butt of the joke. That is most certainly NOT what the research scientist is doing. His aim is for people to laugh at stereotypes about Mexicans, not at him because he's Mexican.

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    Do you have a reference for your idea that self-deprecation involves a third party mean person who was going to make that joke anyways? I am not aware of any such requirement. – stannius Sep 1 '17 at 17:55
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    "Self-deprecating humor is essentially putting oneself down to get a laugh before a mean person can make the same joke and steal the laugh for themselves." Not necessarily. Sometimes it's just a joke. I make self-deprecating jokes around friends who I wouldn't expect to be mean to me all the time. I really think you're reading too much into this. – eyeballfrog Sep 1 '17 at 19:52
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    The reasons people use humor in different contexts are certainly subjective. That said, it may be a valid observation in terms of what motivates a large class of self-deprecating joke. – Darren Sep 1 '17 at 20:28
  • I agree with Darren. It is certainly a large motivator that should be considered. Arguing that Slow Loris' explanation is reading too much into it, is in itself, reading too much into it. IMO – user3316 Sep 1 '17 at 22:42
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    I'm editing my post to clarify, but I didn't mean my comment about self deprecating humor literally. I was trying to highlight the fact that self deprecating jokes (e.g., fat jokes, dumb jokes, etc) are making fun of things that a mean person COULD make fun of, not that there is literally a mean person present who the joke-maker is trying to beat to the punch. The point I was making is just that self deprecating jokes highlight actual (or perceived) flaws, and the person making the joke is truly the butt of the joke. – Slow loris Sep 2 '17 at 2:07
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Laughing...?

Racist jokes are hideous only because there are actually people with racist views, who tell these jokes to mock minorities.

However, jokes are meant to make people laugh.

Since you ruled out racism as the reason why he told that joke, I assume you can safely laugh from the joke your colleague made if you found it funny, as I assume it was his intention.

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    Or if you don't find the joke funny, just smile. – mhwombat Sep 1 '17 at 15:29
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I tell jokes about part of my background, and against myself, which includes a minority.

I do so because I don't believe anything should be sacrosanct against humour, and I like to walk my own talk. Also because if I can't, what does that say about who can?

As regards racism, I'm sensitive to others feelings, or try to be. That's their choice, as mine is my choice. I don't do it with people who don't know me well, and may take offense or misinterpret, and I think that's part of the key: someone who treads a line needs to be able to read those they tell it to.

If ever asked to justify it, I'd say that I think of it partly as reclaiming. But the truth is much simpler - it makes me laugh.

How do I like the reaction? Laugh and join in. Seriously. Repartee too, if you like. The more extreme the better. Use the forbidden words. Just don't take it or stereotypes seriously and see it as it is - underdogs in a position of being able to ridicule and gain amusement from a stereotype, as opposed to dying or suffering from it as my ancestors would have. And don't do it round people who will take offence or think you may be serious.

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If you find it funny, laugh. If not, smile, or ignore it.

I think it's a self-deprecating joke. Not the kind where it targets a different race or culture.

If I'm an Indian and I make a quick funny remark about us Indians' accent when speaking in English, it's only a joke. Nobody is being targeted. If it makes you uncomfortable, you can just ignore that you heard it, or put on a decent smile. Else, you can join in the moment, relax a bit, laugh. ;)

On the other hand, if it's a native English speaker making jokes about Indians' accent, it may not go over well with everyone around.

An exception to this is if there's a brick wall behind and it's a standup comedian performing. People usually attend the show for unrestricted and uncensored comedy. And whoever is offended by such jokes can just not go there.

It should be noted that there's a difference between laughing with the people or at the people. If I'm joking about how clumsy I am and we're all laughing together, I'm okay with it. But if someone else is making fun of me, calling me a clutz, and laughing at me, then it's not fun for me. Good stand-up comedians know how to navigate through this considering the context and the mood of the audience.

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    I think the last paragraph is an oversimplification. A person can make jokes about minorities that they don't belong to in a tasteful or distasteful way. It all depends if they are laughing with those people or at those people, and it requires context and nuance to know the difference. – Slow loris Sep 1 '17 at 15:49
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    @Slowloris Of course. I'm borrowing that. Hope you're okay with it. – NVZ Sep 1 '17 at 15:51
  • One more point... I really don't think this is an example of "self-deprecating" humor. That implies that being Mexican (or any other racial minority) is a thing to deprecate oneself for, which it isn't. I think the OP's specific example is better classified as "irony" (because he's a successful scientist giving a talk) being used to draw attention to a negative stereotype about Mexicans that obviously doesn't apply to him. – Slow loris Sep 1 '17 at 15:56
  • @Slowloris Interesting perspective. Maybe, post an answer? – NVZ Sep 1 '17 at 15:57
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    @Slowloris I think people here are meaning "self-deprecating humor" to include ironic or sarcastic self-deprecation, which is often the intent of such jokes. The joke isn't that Mexicans should be disparaged, it's that Mexicans are disparaged by stereotypes: that's exactly the intent of a lot of self-deprecating humor. – Bryan Krause Sep 1 '17 at 22:35
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If you're quick-witted enough, responding with a joke is one way of signalling that you got the other person's joke. You could pretend to misunderstand his point for humorous effect:

You have people to clean the whiteboards? We have to make do with graduate students!

Or you could lampshade the situation:

Isn't it great how you can get away with telling offensive jokes as long as it's about your own heritage? I just wish that people would believe me when I say I have French, Polish, Chinese, South African, Texan, and German grandparents!

If you really know this friend well then you could use his joke as a lead into an insult:

If that's what you do best, I'd hate to see you with something you do badly!

Or

I'm deeply honoured to be the only person present for the high point of the presentation.

  • Welcome, Peter! We really want to encourage answers that support themselves. The big way to do this is to explain why your answer will work and (if possible) support your answer by explaining any personal experience you have in this situation. So, in this case, explain what each of these options does. If you've used them, let us know what the result was. We're certainly a subjective site but we still require answers to be more than simply "try this answer I pulled out of thin air". Thanks! – Catija Sep 1 '17 at 22:50
  • I like those options as ways to divert or spin the humor against the assumption/context that the joke was around ethnicity, rather than job function. One other one I came up with was, 'Huh, I thought that was an applied scientist function / Yup, good thing we have applied scientists to do this kind of work'. – user117529 Sep 3 '17 at 11:59
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To me, your dilemma is a bit unclear. The answers may differ depending how close friends you are with him.

If it is in a workplace setting, and you're not too close friends, that is you mainly interact in the lab, I wouldn't overthink it. Just make a reply in the same spirit, while offering your help, saying something funny about yourself too. The joke doesn't have to be about your ethicity or religion if those make you uncomfortable. Just grab another rag saying "I'll help you, my partner always makes me to do the cleaning, I've gotten really good at it." You get the idea. Or just smile and ignore it altogether.

On the other hand, if he is a close friend, you probably may want to know better what he thinks about issues of prejudice in general and against Mexicans in particular. It could be that those issues troubling him and he is curious about your opinion and he would like to discuss them with you. Friends talk about all kinds of sensitive stuff and they should be more open and comfortable with each other than with mere acquaintances or colleagues. You can later mention the subject outside of the lab, while having a beer/coffee with him.

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