Philosophy Racist Jokes
by
Claire Horisk
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 April 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0369

Introduction

Racist jokes are usefully understood as one kind of offensive joke, with the broader category including sexist and ethnic jokes along with jokes about sexual orientation, disability, nationality, profession, and other human traits. Many of the books and articles cited here discuss jokes belonging to the broader category rather than racist jokes alone. The philosophical literature specifically about racist jokes is small and underdeveloped compared to the quickly growing literatures about other kinds of racist language, such as hate speech and racial slurs. Similarly, there is relatively little philosophical literature about jokes in general, with the central works belonging mostly to the subfield of aesthetics. The existing philosophical literature about racist jokes focuses largely, although not entirely, on ethical and aesthetic questions. For example, there is existing work about whether it is wrong to be amused by a racist joke, whether it is possible for a racist joke to be funny, and whether it is necessary to have racist beliefs to find a racist joke funny. But much fruitful philosophical work about racist jokes could be done in other subfields, including philosophy of language, feminist philosophy, philosophy of race, philosophy of mind, political philosophy, and philosophy of law. For example, we might ask about the role of jokes in establishing and maintaining social hierarchies, the ways in which the funniness of jokes affects our cognitive processes, and whether joking intent diminishes the blameworthiness of someone who expresses an offensive proposition.

General Overviews

Anderson 2015 is the best place to start for anyone interested in the topic of racial jokes. Cohen 1999 is notable for being one of a small number of philosophical books on jokes, is very readable, and is widely cited, but is not specifically focused on racist jokes. Much of the literature on racist jokes assumes familiarity with philosophical theories of jokes more generally; Shaw 2010 provides a summary of the main views.

Reference Works

Attardo 2014 provides a useful reference for scholarly work on jokes in a broad range of disciplines. It is not focused on philosophical issues.

  • Attardo, Salvatore, ed. Encyclopedia of Humor Studies. 2 vols. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2014.

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    A comprehensive, and expensive, two-volume work with entries from many disciplines, including history, social psychology, and communication. It is edited by the former editor in chief of HUMOR: International Journal of Humor Research (see Journals).

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Journals

HUMOR publishes little philosophical work but is a valuable resource for recent work in other disciplines.

Racist Jokes and Morality

Mills 1987 and Bicknell 2007 are the most accessible sources for undergraduates, with Mills providing some useful background and Bicknell providing a virtue-theoretic account of the morality of joke telling. Philips 1984 develops a consequentialist view about racist jokes. LaFollette and Shanks 1993 gives a novel account of how joking works and argues that it is racist beliefs accompanying racist jokes that make racist jokes wrong. The first half of Benatar 1999 expounds on how racist beliefs may be harmful in themselves, thus differing from Philips’s consequentialist account. Unlike LaFollette and Shanks, Benatar argues that racist jokes are not always wrong. Anderson 2011 weighs the joker’s intentions in addition to the consequences of the joke. An accessible paper, Patridge 2018 argues that racist jokes can be wrong when they cause no harm, are not accompanied by racist beliefs, and are not told with racist intentions. Thus, Patridge’s account differs from the accounts provided by Philips, LaFollette and Shanks, Benatar, and Anderson. Readers who are particularly interested in the morality of racist joking should also consult Bergmann 1986 (cited under Racist Jokes and Racist Beliefs) and Cohen 1999 (cited under General Overviews).

Aesthetics of Racist Jokes

The central aesthetic issue about racist jokes in the literature to date is whether and how the wrongness of racist jokes affects their funniness. D’Arms and Jacobson 2000 holds that there is no relationship between the wrongness of a joke and its funniness; readers with little philosophical background may find this paper challenging. Contrary to d’Arms and Jacobson 2000, Gaut 1988, Smuts 2009, and Woodcock 2015 argue that the wrongness of a joke has an effect on its funniness. Gaut 1988 and Smuts 2009 argue for varieties of comic moralism, holding that moral flaws in a joke (or in the telling of a joke), including racism, can make the joke less funny. On the other hand, Woodcock 2015 supports comic immoralism; the author replies to Smuts 2009, arguing that moral flaws, including racism, can sometimes make a joke more funny. Rodriguez 2014 considers the case of ironic racist jokes.

Racist Jokes and Racist Beliefs

A number of philosophers have written about the relationship between racist beliefs and racist jokes, primarily as a way of investigating the relationship between racism and racist jokes. Bergmann 1986 and LaFollette and Shanks 1993 argue for a tight relationship between enjoying racist jokes and having racist beliefs. In contrast, Benatar 1999 and Lengbeyer 2005 argue that one need not hold racist beliefs to enjoy racist jokes. For further work on the relationship between racist jokes and racist beliefs, see Patridge 2018 (cited under Racist Jokes and Morality).

  • Benatar, David. “Prejudice in Jest: When Racial and Gender Humor Harms.” Public Affairs Quarterly 13 (1999): 191–203.

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    On Benatar’s view, one need not endorse racist beliefs to find racist jokes funny. Awareness of racist stereotypes is sufficient.

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  • Bergmann, Merrie. “How Many Feminists Does It Take to Make a Joke? Sexist Humor and What’s Wrong with It.” Hypatia 1 (1986): 63–82.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1527-2001.1986.tb00522.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Adopts an incongruity theory of humor to define sexist humor, giving an account of the relationship between sexist humor and sexist beliefs. Argues that sexist humor is objectively offensive, independently of a joker’s intentions and of an audience’s feelings of offense, because it relies on sexist beliefs and because sexist beliefs cause pain by causing harm to women.

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  • LaFollette, Hugh, and Niall Shanks. “Belief and the Basis of Humor.” American Philosophical Quarterly 30 (1993): 329–339.

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    This article proposes a theory on which humor involves oscillating between different but related sets of beliefs. What makes racist jokes morally offensive is that they are humorous only to people who possess racist sets of beliefs. It is the underlying beliefs, not the jokes themselves, that are morally objectionable.

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  • Lengbeyer, Lawrence. “Humor, Context, and Divided Cognition.” Social Theory & Practice 31 (2005): 309–336.

    DOI: 10.5840/soctheorpract200531316Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This paper argues that while enjoying sexist humor may require temporary acceptance of sexist ideas, it does not require sustained endorsement of sexist ideas in other contexts. Regrettably, the paper presents harmful myths about rape as fact; the reader should beware of the claims the author makes in this section of the paper.

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Philosophy of Language and Racist Jokes

Of the very few published pieces concerning racist jokes and philosophy of language, Anderson 2011 is the most accessible, bringing to bear contemporary pragmatics, particularly the work of Robert Stalnaker, on racist jokes. Attardo 1993 considers Gricean pragmatics and racist jokes, but is recommended only for enthusiasts about this issue.

  • Anderson, Luvell. “Communicating Offense: The Sordid Life of Language Use.” PhD diss., State University of New Jersey, 2011.

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    Chapter 4 of this pioneering dissertation examines racist jokes, including a discussion that considers the contribution of racist jokes to the common ground and the interplay between stereotypes and racist jokes.

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  • Attardo, Salvatore. “Violation of Conversational Maxims and Cooperation: The Case of Jokes.” Journal of Pragmatics 19 (1993): 537–558.

    DOI: 10.1016/0378-2166(93)90111-2Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A somewhat technical article in linguistics, recommended only for readers who wish to work on the pragmatics of jokes. It argues that jokes do not obey Grice’s Cooperative Principle and thus do not carry conversational implicatures. Section 5 has a brief discussion of racist jokes.

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