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.
This scenario came to mind when I read about black preschoolers facing higher suspension rates than white preschoolers. Black children make up 18% of the preschoolers, yet represent about half of the students suspended more than once. Boys usually face higher suspension rates than girls, except for black girls, facing higher rates than all other girls and most boys. Actually, when comparing black girls versus black boys and white girls versus white boys, the difference by gender is lower for black girls, meaning they are more likely to be suspended compared to black boys than white girls are to white boys. The intersectionality of race and gender makes black girls even more susceptible to suspension. To bring this all back into perspective, we’re talking about preschoolers ranging from 3-5 years of age. On NPR,
“Here’s what the education data show: kids who are suspended or expelled from school are more likely to drop out, and those dropouts are more likely to end up with criminal records. In many places, school discipline pushes kids directly into the juvenile justice system.”
Obviously, my comic is an over-simplification of the issue, but the point is the race of a child may affect the evaluation of something as innocuous as a drawing. Colorlines reports on a study suggesting “imaginative and expressive pretend-play” elicits different associations from teachers, depending on the race of the student.
It’s disheartening that children as young as 3 years of age are already viewed through the lens that’ll define their actions in the dominant sphere. The story is as old as time, though. People of color, particularly girls/women, don’t fit the dominant definition of behavior and are punished by being robbed of an education and placed on the fast track for poverty and criminality.
This reminds of the incident with athlete Richard Sherman over MLK weekend. He was called a thug (and other racial slurs) when he spoke passionately and aggressively after a game. Would an aggressive white athlete be called a thug? I doubt it. Too often the word we use to describe one person would be completely different if only race/gender were changed.