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Racial jokes: Humorous or horrible?

Paula Deen - YoutubeEarlier this week, celebrity TV chef, Paula Deen, admitted during a deposition that she, “of course,” openly used the N-word and told racist jokes. She also said that she’d once planned to throw a slavery-themed wedding, complete with African-American employees dressed as slaves.  (Slaves?!!)  Deen said that the inspiration for the theme came from a restaurant she’d frequented, where “the whole entire waiter staff was middle-aged black men, and they had on beautiful white jackets with a black bow tie… I mean, it was really impressive. That restaurant represented a certain era in America…after the Civil War, during the Civil War, before the Civil War…It was not only black men, it was black women…I would say they were slaves.” Deen explained her jokes, saying, “It’s just what they are — they’re jokes…most jokes are about Jewish people, rednecks, black folks…I can’t determine what offends another person.”  Can’t you, Ms. Deen?

Paula Deen will, undoubtedly, answer for her statements and actions. She’s being sued by a former employee, and she has since been taken off the air.  Deen has justified her statements by saying that she was at a born in a different time, when segregation was a way of life. Apparently, she’s still stuck in that time. She really needs to wake up and smell the butter!

But this controversy does lead to some bigger questions: Are racial jokes ever ok? Are they only acceptable if you are joking about your own race? Or have we all just forgotten how to take a joke?  I’ll admit that I sometimes find really inappropriate jokes to be hilarious.  My measure of inappropriateness is whether or not I would cringe if the joke was told in my father’s presence.  If it doesn’t pass the papi test, then it’s absolutely wrong, naughty, unsuitable…and usually really funny.  I even find racial and ethnic jokes to be funny sometimes, under the right circumstances.

Some might think it’s hypocritical, but I don’t find these jokes as humorous if they’re told by someone outside of the racial/ethnic group.  It’s the equivalent of someone else making fun of my brother.  I can say whatever I want about him, because he is MINE, but if anyone else says something about him, there will be a showdown.  Jokes about our own culture or race, funny or not, are a way of promoting our ownership over who we are and membership in where we come from. When the joke comes from someone else, an outsider, it often feels mean-spirited.

While the intention of the joke-teller may be humor, the listener may reject it.  Is this the joker’s fault, or the listener’s?  Perhaps the problem isn’t the joke. Perhaps the problem is the underlined intention with which the joke is said and the underlined emotion with which it is received. Maybe if we are kinder to each other throughout life, a random joke won’t matter as much. What I do know is that I would never attend a slavery-themed anything.

By Being Latino Contributor, Lissette Díaz. Lissette Díaz is a Cuban-American writer and attorney living and practicing law in New Jersey. She can be reached at

About Adriana Villavicencio

Dr. Adriana Villavicencio is the youngest child of Ecuadorian immigrants. She has moved 29 times in her life, taking her on a journey from California to Bangalore, India, and New York City, where she recently earned a Ph.D. in Education Leadership and works as a Research Associate at New York University. An avid traveler, Adriana has collected experiences in four different continents and 16 different countries. But as a former high school English teacher, some of her fondest memories are those of her brilliant and brilliantly funny students in Brooklyn and Oakland. Adriana has contributed to several publications including the Daily News and, and is a managing editor for the Journal of Equity in Education. She earned a B.A. in English and an M.A. in English Education at Columbia University, and currently serves on the board of Columbia’s Latino Alumni Association (LAACU). She enjoys scary movies with red vines, Sauvignon Blanc, and her Maltese dog, Napoleon.

To learn more about Adriana’s education consulting company, please visit

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and should not be understood to be shared by Being Latino, Inc.

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