In the final installment of our four part series exploring hidden prejudice in the workplace we look at how humour can be used by seemingly tolerant individuals to accept intolerant behaviour.
I once worked with some guys who loved to tell racist jokes about South Asian people. After a joke or two and a chuckle with the people sitting around, they would proceed to rant about how the country was being taken over by p@$%!’s . I was junior; I wasn’t going to be there for long and I needed the job so I used to keep my head down. The response to my silence was often “it’s different with you guys though”. It did make me think “What are they saying about me when I’m not there?”
Have you ever been in a situation when jokes were being made at the expense of others and then wondered what may be said about you in your absence?
There must be an entire body of offensive jokes about black people that I never hear about!
These situations are interesting because not everyone participates in the same way. Some people will claim not to share the discriminatory views but they support it by laughing along.
Dr Koen Van Laer and Dr Maddy Janssens found that a subtle form of discrimination occurred when ethnic majority individuals who appear tolerant overlook and even approve the intolerant behaviour of other ethnic majority colleagues. Their tolerance is superficial; it’s a mask that helps to reproduce the discriminatory attitudes in the workplace because of their failure to react.
It’s Just a Joke
Jokes are always made at the expense of someone but there is a difference between laughing with someone and laughing at someone. Some jokes might not be a symptom of racism but they may be a symptom of exclusion. Jokes are a potent means of subtle discrimination that can easily be justified by claiming: “it’s just a joke”. This was supported in the study: jokes allow people to discriminate in a safe way and naturalise the views expressed as an exaggeration instead of prejudice.
The problem is that this subtle endorsement of discriminatory attitudes allows these negative behaviours to thrive because they are not openly forbidden, in fact the behaviour becomes naturalised and established as a norm. This is a double threat because it increases the possibility for similar situations to occur in the future and it makes it more difficult for any resistance to this behaviour to emerge.
The lack of a reaction to discrimination in the workplace can be as damaging as the discrimination itself.
When the discriminatory behaviours become naturalised, it exposes the superficial tolerance of the majority
The Issue with Tolerance
The word tolerance is used in this study, but it is a loaded word. Despite its positive implications, it suggests a relationship of power where there is someone who needs to be tolerated (an inferior) and someone who has the power to decide who or what is tolerated (a superior). The power of the ethnic majority is visible when they tolerate behaviour that is intolerant to minority ethnic professionals.
In practice this form of discrimination is so ambiguous and subtle that it can be overlooked because apparently tolerant and open ethnic majority individuals laugh it off as something that is acceptable.
Have you been in a situation like this where you wanted to say something but didn’t?
How do you manage jokes like this?