My perspective on this is that if someone is the butt of your joke and they are offended by your joke, then it's a fair indication that your joke is probably offensive. I don't believe that a person is under obligation to laugh at an offensive joke. Another viewpoint was that being offended gives the joke power and that being unaffected by it is the only way to disempower it and thus attain equality.
In the course of discussion this little exchage took place:
A: "I think it's very important to tell someone when a 'joke' is out of line. You shouldn't just laugh and walk away."
B: "If I'd have done that for all the anti-English jokes I endured as a child I would have had no friends at all."
And that reply did kind of hit home. Not in the "OK now I automatically think that minorities should laugh at bigoted jokes" kind of way, but in a "Hey here's a situation I can relate to" kind of way.
Note here: person B is my brother. We moved to New Zealand in 1971 and he and I, being very close in age, went to the same schools in the same parts of history. We both had very strong English (yorkshire, mostly West Riding which is probably a good thing) accents when we started school, and mine continued until I made a deliberate effort to get rid of it as a teenager*.
There are some obvious differences between being an English expat and being the kind of minority that suffers from systemic oppression - for a start, nobody knew I was different from the majority until I opened my mouth, so I was still accepted on face value with my pink skin and blondy-blonde hair, and despite the things that happened when people found out I was English, there were some basic positive assumptions made about me purely on the basis of how I looked, and a great deal of discrimination that I never experienced for the same reason. But being the butt of hurtful jokes based on a stereotype? Hell yes.
Bear in mind here that we were kids. We knew nothing of systemic oppression, nothing of history, nothing of the current political environment. We didn't even remember England - as far as we knew, we'd always lived in New Zealand and hadn't yet got our brain around the idea that there were different cultures or that folks from one might not like folks from another for reasons we couldn't yet fathom. And we didn't know we talked funny because we couldn't hear ourselves as being different.
So when we went to school and the English jibes started, it hurt. Of course it did. WTF did they mean I was automatically a whinger because of where I came from? I didn't understand! And of course that particular jibe is one that's almost impossible to argue against because if you tell people it hurts and you don't like it, you're.. WHINGING! YAY!
Other things assumed about us because of our accents: snobbery, ponciness, homosexuality (english poof was one of the favourites - this from kids who didn't really even grasp what sexuality was but knew that poof was an insult). We heard Pommy Go Home, we heard imitation of our accents as a taunt. We were always picked last at sports because it was assumed we were somehow weak and not rugged like kiwis. I remember one incident on the school bus where all the kids banded together and took my brother's bag and wouldn't give it back, passing it around among themselves until he cried in frustration, and then taunting him about being a Pommy Wuss. I lost my cool on that occasion in his defence and we both got kicked off the bus. ;-/
I think my favourite was being told we were colonial oppressors. This was a time when activism for Maori rights was very prevalent, just before the establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal, and NZ had also ended its love affair with England. Meanwhile the government was subsidising immigrants to increase the population so there was a certain amount of mistrust of foreigners, and our unique position as both outsiders and members of a nationality that had first oppressed Maori and then been thrown off by the whole country as a distant and domineering leader meant that we were fair game from all sides**.
But none of us really understood that stuff. We were five, and all we knew was that the brown kids disliked us and the white kids disliked us, and that it had something to do with us being English. Fun times.
Later, the whole 'cannon-fodder'*** thing was included in the jibes. That was awesome too, and I've still heard it the odd time as an adult.
So what does that have to do with yesterday's conversation? Well, it means that both my brother and I have experience of dealing with being the butt of bigoted jokes (as, probably, do most people if they think about it. kids are cruel). I find it interesting that our views have developed so differently. I can definitely see his point - objecting to someone's hurtful joke about you doesn't generally make you any friends. My brother learned to respond with jokes of his own, often ones that got the better of the original joker, and developed a reputation as laidback funny guy. Generally, people liked him. I could never do this. Maybe I'm a bit slow, maybe I'm more sensitive, I don't know. But I know it was always me who got in trouble at school for speaking up about things I didn't like and refusing to back down. I had less friends than him and got in more scrapes, and the kids and teachers liked him more than they liked me. This continued into high school.
My brother says that to object to a bigoted joke is to give it power and to imply that you feel there's a grain of truth in it, and that the best response is to laugh and show that it doesn't bother you because it's so ridiculous. And I can definitely see his point - evidence from our school suggests that this approach gained him equal treatment and acceptance that I did not get.
But for me, when someone says a bigoted joke that I'm the butt of, it hurts. It feels to me as if this person is ok with blatantly saying things to humiliate me in front of others, and doing that is a demonstration of a power imbalance - they can say mean things to me and expect everyone to laugh. If I laugh too, I'm giving them more power by acknowledging that their right to say mean things to me for entertainment is more important than my right to not have mean things said to me, thus making things more unequal between us. It's also invalidating my own feelings in a similar way to what I described yesterday. Evidence from our school suggests that my response of anger did not work to increase acceptance and equal treatment but instead othered me further by reinforcing the view that I was not a nice person.
I have no idea who's right. In the ideal world, people wouldn't make bigoted jokes but the reality is that people do and every day, millions of people have to figure out how to deal with them. There might be more options but I don't know what they are.
* I practiced over and over - "wun, parst, larst, wun, wun, wun, charnce.." I did this because I was sick of being rejected out of hand and wanted to be the same as everyone else so I could get past the 'we don't like you because you're English' thing and start on the same footing with my peers.
** England is still not highly respected as a country here, and there are still assumptions made about the English in mainstream culture. Don't believe me? Talk to any rugby head about the Lions.
*** The British apparently used the ANZAC soldiers as cannon-fodder at Gallipoli, and so every Anzac Day we were subjected to repetitions of the "YOUR PEOPLE (and by association you)" accusations as folks got all carried away with patriotic fervour. Wonder why I'm not a huge fan of Anzac Day?
tl;dr LET ME TELL YOU INTERNETS, IT'S SO TOUGH BEING FIVE!