I’ve personally never been sure on how to take, and how to answer racist jokes. But this particular issue is a microcosm of a much bigger question, ie, what can we joke about? What is excessively provocative, and what isn’t?
As it pertains this issue, there are two reciprocal notions that separate a thigh-slapper from an insult: the intent of the one who utters the joke, and the perception of the joke that the entity towards whom the gag is directed, holds.
Unfortunately, both of these are completely subjective. On one hand, it is generally impossible – in comedy – to decipher or prove intent. In fact, some would argue that jokes deliberately delivered in a provocative manner can be the funniest ones. In addition, we must consider the fact that we live in a society where presumption of innocence is a fundamental principle. However, since comedic intent cannot be proven, this would imply that we be forced to take people at their word; which is particularly dangerous as, well, people lie.
Comedic cul-de-sac #1.
Moreover, how people react to gags is just as subjective. This idea is only exacerbated when you consider that most humour is based on some form of mockery, whether it be jests directed at individuals, or social criticism. This response to mockery is polarised, even when humour tackles the most sensitive of talking points. For instance, this particular phenomena even characterises racially charged humour. Check Facebook and Youtube, and you’ll see just as many “White people be like” as “Black people be like” videos. But, interestingly enough, when it comes to such gags, you’ll see far more outraged White people commenting “It’s ok to make jokes about White people, but as soon as you make jokes about Black people, it’s racist! #reverseracism” than any of my ebony brothers and sisters expressing our revulsion at jokes aimed at us.
But the fact is, reactions to quips on these types of topics still are at least somewhat divided. I am by no means saying that the amount of people who laugh is always equivalent to the amount of people who seethe; I’m saying that no cutoff can’t be found without flirting with dogmatism: is a gag morally wrong when 70% of people think it is? Or 80? “Who knows” is the idea that I’m attempting to convey. And even if such a societal consensus could be reached, a majority of people assessing a joke as being reprehensible does not imply that they are right in their assessment. Comedic cul-de-sac #2. Checkmate, mate.
Naturally, I do apologise for bringing forth so many comedic complications without the complementary solutions, but I will expose a guideline, that certainly will help you filter out some of your more controversial witticisms: if you’d get offended if the joke was directed at you, Tipp-Ex that one out of your brain. Ask yourself, before you make a racist joke, how would you feel if that joke was intended for your ethnicity. Ask yourself, before you banter about a personal tragedy, how would you feel if your own were the subject of such banter. And if the answer is what I presume it is, use that cerebral Tipp-Ex.