Joking is a social interaction strategy that people use to do a variety of things. Sure, even Freud would say that sometimes a joke is just a joke.  

Even so, sometimes a joke is used in an attempt to reduce interpersonal tension between people who are interacting with each other. Sometimes, too, a joke or a costume is used to make a social commentary. In 21st century America, interpersonal tension and social comment are both often motivated by neo-diversity anxiety. Neo-diversity is the interpersonal situation all Americans now live in; a situation where every day we all have encounters (and sometimes interactions) with people from many different groups by way of sex, bodily-condition, gender-identity, ethnicity, sexual-orientation, mental-health condition, religion and race. For some that situation brings out a neo-diversity anxiety that activates prejudice and bigotry.

Since 2008 and the election of President Barack Hussein Obama, at NC State we have had too many instances of racial or religious or gender bigotry go viral. I truly believe that most of us want to interact well with the people who come into our social circles of work or play. Although there is prejudice and bigotry in America, I do not believe we are a nation of bigots. But some Americans, some NC State students, haven’t figured out what it means to be living in the 21st century. Some actually think it means, “I can joke however I want,” until they crash into reality, sometimes with a really loud (social media) bang.  

Hoisted on their own Facebook posts, the perpetrators always claim, “We were just kidding. It was just a joke.” But here’s the thing: Nowadays, and too often, a joke is used to camouflage anti-group feelings (i.e. prejudice). Yet, the camouflage is itself a neo-diversity problem. Camouflage, you see, does not eliminate the bigotry of the “joke.” Outward, behavioral (word or deed) expression of anti-group feelings is bigotry. No matter how it is dressed, bigotry is still bigotry.  

Understand, too, that the point of that bigotry is to push group division: us versus them. Jokes about groups activate that minimal group effect—automatic categorization of people into groups with a tendency to see those groups as being in competition with each other. 

How do you think we ended up in the Triangle with the bigotry-motivated murders of our three American Muslim students? How did we end up in the United States with the murders of nine Bible-studying African-Americans in a church? How? We have been too passive in our encounters with language bigotry in our everyday lives. “It’s just a joke,” people say, and we take it as so. “Oh, they don’t really mean that; they’re just joking,” we say to ourselves and others to let it pass. 

After that mass murder in Charleston, South Carolina, friends of the now confessed, not crazy, premeditated killer of those nine people, were interviewed.  His friends said, yeah, he used to say some racial things … make some racist jokes… but nobody took him seriously … we thought it was just jokes, but now…

Look, we no longer live in an America where anyone can just say anything about anybody and go unchallenged. When Americans did live in that kind of social context, it was because our country was living under the wrong-headed belief, and with an immoral supporting social structure, that made some groups less than other groups.

Women were less than men … in the law.

Blacks were less than whites … in the law.

Homosexuals were less than heterosexuals … in the law.

Through legitimate means, America got rid of, and continues to get rid of, those laws (and customs). As a result, Americans from all kinds of groups are interacting with each other every day on equal footing supported by new legal statutes that give us equal citizenship under the law. That is why today no American from any group has to put up with being ridiculed.

Moving into the light of the real 21st century, as we move toward a more perfect union, the context of American interpersonal life is being changed in fundamental ways that demand that we respect each other. And we are not going to go back into the darkness where camouflage can work. It’s time then for those who think group-focused “joking” and ridiculing is OK to grow up. We are not going back into darkness. And that’s no joke.

Rupert W. Nacoste, Ph.D., is an alumni distinguished undergraduate professor of psychology at NC State and author of “Taking on Diversity: How We Can Move from Anxiety to Respect.”