A lot of times, white people call things or people racist as a joke or a generic insult. For instance:
- In response to someone expressing a preference for white shoes over black shoes
- In response to someone saying something that offends them for some unrelated reason
- In response to expressing connection to a particular ethnicity
- In response to mentioning that white people are white and it matters
It’s not ok to do this because:
- Jokes like that work by assuming that calling someone or something racist is inherently absurd
- Which rests on the assumption that there is never a *real* need to call someone or something racist, because it rests on the assumption that real racism is over except for a few fringe groups with no power
- But racism is still a problem, and it still does tremendous harm to people of color
Using “racist” as a joke or generic insult sends the message that you refuse to acknowledge that racism is still a problem. It sends the message that you have contempt for people who point out racism. Don’t do that.
When you have power over someone, it’s important to acknowledge it. If you don’t acknowledge that you have power, it’s hard to examine your use of it. If you’re not paying attention to how you’re using your power, you will come to abuse it, and you won’t notice.
Sometimes, when people are uncomfortable having power over others, they deal with this by telling jokes about it. These jokes are about either denying that they have power, or denying that they’d ever be capable of abusing it. For instance:
- Jokes about how people who they have power over are really in charge (eg: “Sometimes I say my secretary is *my* boss”, “I’m the teacher, but the kids are really running the show”.
- Jokes about how they could abuse power. (“Next thing you know, I’ll be having you interns fetch my dry cleaning and babysitting my kids.”)
- Jokes about how people could overthrow them. (“I see you three gossiping. Plotting a revolt?”)
- Jokes about being an oppressive boss (“I’m such a big mean ogre.”)
- Pretend unreasonable orders (“We all have to work until midnight… haha just kidding, go enjoy your family”)
These jokes are especially bad when they’re told by a powerful person to someone they outrank. They’re basically the humor equivilent of saying, “You’d better tell me that I don’t actually have power over you and that I never misuse it.”
Getting people to tell you that you’re a good person doesn’t help you to treat others well. Acknowledging your power, thinking about how you use it, and soliciting and listening to actual feedback does.