Last year, English teacher Dr. Jonathan Kotchian taught a senior elective on satire, in which the issue of offensive jokes came up regularly. His classes unanimously deemed some jokes unacceptable, though others were far more controversial.
“Unfortunately, I don’t have a good formula or algorithm for determining if a joke is offensive because it’s so dependent on context—the speaker, the audience, and the larger cultural context,” he said.
Indeed, the overlap between jokes not meant to offend and jokes that do offend is expansive, and an area where some students struggle to navigate as targets, makers, and bystanders.
Co-Director of the Office for Identity, Culture, and Institutional Equity (ICIE) John Gentile separates certain humor into two categories: punching down and punching up. Jokes are punching down when used to marginalize, stereotype, or hurt people, he said, and punching up when used to fight back against that marginalization.
English teacher Jennifer Huang had a similar view. “Jokes can be a good way to speak truth to power, or to inform people about things that they might not otherwise find easily digestible,” Huang said. “But if it gets turned into a sense of humor that is meant to denigrate or insult, especially populations that may already be marginalized, then that’s where the laughter stops.”
Dalia Pustilnik (10) has heard many jokes that made her feel uneasy, she said. In her experience, these sorts of jokes are primarily made in “homogenous communities,” which she defines as being filled with people of similar backgrounds with similar biases. In these environments, such as her camp, Pustilnik said that her peers have an easier time using potentially harmful humor because their jokes’ subjects aren’t present.
At his old school, Alex Nagin (10) often heard humor that he found hurtful. In the locker room he would frequently hear jokes that insulted people or things by calling them gay. As a middle schooler who was still uncomfortable about and questioning his sexuality, Nagin was afraid to speak up. “It built up so much resentment, and I learned to hate everybody at that school.”
When she was six years old, Louise Kim (9) immigrated to the United States from South Korea. At her elementary school, students would make jokes positing that Kim was from North Korea and related to Kim Jong Un. Kim repeatedly tried to explain that she was from South Korea, but the one-sided banter persisted. A young child who was still adapting to the country and its language and culture, Kim said that being targeted made her feel unwelcome.
Elijah Shaham (11) said he occasionally makes jokes that other people may find offensive, but he has no malicious intent when making them. “I make these jokes only because other people find them funny and I don’t mean to hurt anyone,” he said. “These jokes are based off of false stereotypes and are not directed to anyone in particular.”
However, jokes about certain identities can have consequences. Kush Malhotra (11), who identifies as Indian American, has heard jokes about Indian stereotypes at his expense. People have referred to him as “curry boy” and other demeaning names for the sake of humor, he said.
“I do get offended by these jokes. They’re harmful and unnecessary,” he said. However, Malhotra said once he told them to stop, they did.
Shaham explained that his jokes do not perpetuate stereotypes, because humor’s objective is to make fun of those stereotypes’ absurdity. “I think the reason why people find the jokes funny is because they mock stereotypes we all find ridiculous. The jokes are made in an insincere manner, and because of that, people don’t take offense.”
If someone approached him telling him that the jokes he made offended them, Shaham said, he would stop. “But it hasn’t happened so I continue to make the jokes.”
During an assembly in 2017, Student Body President (SBP) Siddharth Tripathi ‘18 told a joke with racist undertones. Following a backlash from many students and faculty members, he sent out an apology to the school community and resigned.
Two years later, the incident remains a controversy. “[Tripathi] earned that position and meant no harm with the joke,” Max Resnick (11) said. “The way to progress as a community is to learn from our mistakes. Clearly, he was full of regret and I believe a school-wide apology showed he had learned from his error.”
Everybody makes mistakes, but it is important to fix them, learn from them, and keep them from damaging relationships, said Co-Director of the ICIE Candice Powell-Caldwell. “Think: How am I accountable? How am I sincerely apologizing? How am I learning?”
“The more you know about someone’s story, the less likely you are to draw from generalizations,” she said. “Sometimes jokes are told less out of malice and more out of ignorance.”
A frequent witnesses of potentially hurtful jokes, Pustilnik said she always tries her hardest to speak up, but it can be difficult at times. “If I’m trying to defend a group of people that I’m not a part of, it’s not really my place, so it can be hard to explain why I get so upset,” she said.
Two weeks ago, Pustilnik attended an event for Jewish teens in Manhattan. On the bus ride back, a group of teenagers Pustilnik had met at the event were dancing to, but making fun of, Indian music. Pustilnik was uncomfortable saying anything because she is neither Indian nor friends with the kids, she said. She still thought that something had to be done, she said, so she asked someone else who was closer with the group members to explain to them the fault in their actions.
However, Pustilnik often decides against lengthy conversations with somebody about her gripes with a comment they’ve made. “Sometimes just staying calm and saying ‘that’s not okay’ is easier, because people don’t listen,” she said.
Powell-Caldwell believes that in such situations, it can be helpful to pull the person aside and talk to them individually—to go from being a bystander to an “upstander.”
“Peer to peer can be a strong point of educational learning,” she said.
At her camp, when Pustilnik does explain issues with jokes that people are making, they often brush it off by saying they didn’t think it would be harmful. However, she said, if a person would make a joke in front of certain people but not others, deep down they must know that what they’re saying is wrong and as such, they should avoid it entirely.
Gentile agreed that it is important to ask oneself how a joke would impact somebody who wasn’t present before telling it. If something seems funny in a specific context, but would be damaging in others, he said, it is best left unsaid.
However, nobody is perfect, Huang said, so it can be difficult to censor everything that you say. If somebody says something hurtful, it should be their job to acknowledge and fix their mistake. “In an ideal world, even if the person misspoke, they need to have the self awareness to realize that they hurt someone, and they need to take responsibility for that,” she said.
Mass media has a large influence on comedic standards and barriers, Huang said. Sitcoms and late-night talk shows reach and impact wide audiences. “[The media] shapes our sense of what’s normal and what’s acceptable. If we normalize laughing at an offensive joke, that takes us one more step down the road toward a sense of cruelty or divisiveness.”
“Ultimately,the jokes we choose to tell are based on our own biases and our own world views,” Nagin said.The main way to avoid making or repeating mistakes in the future is to step outside of a personal bubble, form relationships, and learn from other people’s stories, Powell-Caldwell said. “Growth happens by getting to know people and their lived experiences.”