How can I address racial jokes on TV?

Michael Rich, MD, MPH

Michael Rich, MD, MPH, is Children’s Hospital Boston’s media expert and director of Children’s Center on Media and Child Health. Take a look at his blog archive or follow him on Twitter @CMCH_Boston.

Last week Dr. Rich offered advice to a mother who was worried about the suggestive nature of her daughter’s upcoming Halloween costume. This week he talks about how old a child is before he can understand sarcasm and the subtleties of racial humor found on many TV programs.

Q: My kids and I have recently discovered reruns of the TV show Everybody Hates Chris. The program depicts the racism Chris Rock felt as he was growing up in the early 80s. It is funny, but I wonder whether the blatant stereotyping and prejudices portrayed are good things for my kids, ages 13 and 11, to watch. We do discuss the show’s content, but I am not certain they can separate this type of humor from real life. Unfortunately, our community is not diverse and I don’t want them growing up with preconceived notions.

Reconsidering Racism in Portland, ME

A: The fact that you’re concerned with how your children interpret this show is a good indicator of how in tune you are with their understanding of it and how it affects them, so kudos to you!  As you demonstrate you already know, humor around racism, sexism, discrimination or hate in any form tends to be very mature, and usually dark and painful. Richard Pryor, for example, built his career by shining a bright light on our prejudices; Chris Rock is doing something similar here.

While 13 and 11 year olds are very smart in many ways, their brains are still works in progress and cannot yet understand the nuances of a show like Everybody Hates Chris. Irony is a complex and sophisticated form of humor that often requires an adult brain to fully appreciate. (See related Q&A about handling sarcastic TV shows.)  Additionally, most adults have seen the injustice and cruelty of racism, so we laugh as a means of coping and reclaiming our humanity in the face of suffering. Children, on the other hand, may not have experienced (and therefore cannot appreciate) the realities of racism (particularly in a community with little diversity). Kids may take the jokes at face value and think, “It’s funny to demean someone based on their race (or sexuality, etc.).” Or, they laugh because you are laughing, without knowing what you are laughing about.

Unfortunately, research indicates that:

One way to approach this might be to provide a counterpoint by sharing media that reveal the other side of the story, such as the excellent documentary series Eyes on the Prize.  Discuss some of the history of racism at a level appropriate for your kids, not to upset them, but to provide the reality check necessary to help them understand the complexity of humor that this subject matter requires.

Ultimately, what you do is more important than what you say to your children. Model for them an approach to media, and to life, that reflects the perspectives, attitudes and beliefs that you want them to bring to the heterogeneous world, full of people with different backgrounds, perspectives, and needs, in which they will need to live and thrive in the future.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,

The Mediatrician®