I can’t count the times I’ve heard “but it’s just a joke!” as an attempt to absolve any responsibility from sharing a disparaging joke. The fact is, jokes against women and/or people of color are not just a joke, but have real life consequences to the people targeted, and to those who laugh at their expense.
A recent study examined the effects of sexist jokes on men, particularly their attitudes about our current gender dynamic, after reading a conversation including sexist jokes. Two other groups of men read the same conversation, but with neutral, non-sexist jokes or non-humorous sexist statements.
The results showed men with antagonist attitudes towards women (those agreeing to statements like “women seek to gain power by getting control over men”) report greater acceptance for the current gender dynamic (in other words, feel there’s nothing wrong with it) after reading sexist jokes than after reading a neutral joke or a sexist statement.
The same lead author published a similar study in regards to anti-muslim humor. As to be expected, participants scoring high in anti-Muslim attitudes tolerated prejudice against a Muslim person more after reading an anti-Muslim joke than after reading a neutral joke or an anti-Muslim statement.
Humor has the chance to reduce stress, boost our immune system, and connect us with our friends. However, it’s also a strong transmitter of prejudice, stronger than sexist/racist remarks, because it makes light of serious struggles.