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


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.

  • Anderson, Luvell. “Racist Humor.” Philosophy Compass 10 (2015): 501–509.

    DOI: 10.1111/phc3.12240

    A brief, accessible article surveying existing definitions of racist humor and advocating a more subtle categorization of humor about race by distinguishing racial, racially insensitive, and racist humor. Criteria for distinguishing these types involve the aims of the speaker and the harm caused by the humor.

  • Cohen, Ted. Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226112329.001.0001

    One of the few philosophical books about jokes. Short and highly readable. It presents the author’s views but does little to engage with other literature on the topic. Chapter 6 concerns racist jokes.

  • Shaw, Joshua. “Philosophy of Humor.” Philosophy Compass 5 (2010): 112–126.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1747-9991.2009.00281.x

    This survey article is not focused on racist humor, but provides a useful overview of the main theories of humor that underlie work on racist jokes.

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