Tools and Strategies

When ‘Just Joking’ Is No Joke: How to Respond When Students’ ‘Jokes’ are Biased or Offensive

Group of high school students sitting in the hallway laughing


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There are many benefits of humor. A good joke can ease tension in a stressful situation. Humor can connect people and bring them together. Jokes can bring levity to a situation that begs for lightheartedness. Being funny can signal to others who you are.  Humor can even open a conversation that previously felt closed or off-limits. 

However, jokes and humor, when they target social identity groups, can do the opposite. They can make people feel unsafe, disconnected, excluded and marginalized. Unfortunately, this happens all too often in schools and classrooms. 

Many teachers have been in this situation. You’re in the middle of teaching and a student makes a biased comment. Maybe they didn’t know it was offensive so they try to clean it up by exclaiming, “Just joking!” A few students chuckle but most remain quiet or shrug. As the teacher, you’re not sure what to do. Another common situation: during passing time in between classes, you see a group of students standing by their lockers making jokes about a racial group. It happens to be their own racial group and is a “private” conversation, but everyone around them hears it. You’re not sure what to do in the moment.   

As a teacher or school staff member, what should you do when students joke about someone’s identity or make an offensive or biased joke? How should you respond when students don’t initially frame the comment as a joke, but then when that comment is called offensive, the student says they were “just joking.”  

When this happens, you may be unprepared to address it in the moment. You know it's important and your responsibility to address it because you want to protect and prioritize the targeted student, and if you say nothing, that silence communicates acceptance of the behavior to your students and others around you.  

If you prepare in advance, you’ll be able to respond and not only address the comment effectively, you can make it a teachable moment. This is a three-step process: 

  • Take a moment or a pause. 

  • Diagnose and determine what is happening.

  • Respond and engage. 

1. Take a moment or a pause.

Take a moment to think about how you want to address the comment or behavior. You may also want to quickly check in with how you’re feeling about hearing this comment and make sure you are responding to convey care and communication. Consider the following: 

  • Should you respond privately or publicly? This will, in part, be determined by whether harm has been caused to student(s) in your class and whether you need to prioritize their safety, well-being and protection.  

  • What is your goal with the interaction? If your primary goal is to express discontent and convey that the offensive comment is unacceptable, that may require a quick response and then move on. However, if your goal is to restore trust and safety to the classroom climate, encourage students to use words that are more focused on belonging and connecting, or if you want to impact the behavior of the student making the offensive comment and educate others in the class, a longer conversation is needed. 

  • How much time do you have? Determine your goal and then consider your strategy.  Your goal may be to (1) interrupt the biased comment, (2) express why the comment is biased or offensive, (3) educate and begin to help heal or (4) all of the above. Depending on how much time you have, you may decide to interrupt the biased comment and also find an appropriate time to address it more thoroughly in class.  

2. Diagnose and determine what is happening.

There are various scenarios in which students either (1) make a joke about something or (2) say something and when they don’t get the response they hoped for, say “just joking” afterwards. Here are a few examples: 

  • They make a “joke” about someone’s identity and they don’t realize it’s biased or offensive. When the bias is pointed out to them, they say “just joking” as a defense or to cover up that they didn't know. 

  • They wanted a laugh and didn’t think about the consequences. 

  • They didn’t mean to cause harm and when they realized they did, they wrote it off as a joke. This is an example of why it’s important to prioritize impact over intent.  

  • They meant it as good humor to connect with someone or a group of people. 

  • They are joking “among friends” about their own identity group and didn’t know others were overhearing and didn’t realize the impact that can have those outside their identity group.  

  • They intended to put down or embarrass the person to whom they directed the so-called joke. 

You may not always know what’s going on beneath the surface. Trying to determine that by asking questions can help figure out the best path forward. Also, if you don’t know what is happening, you could ask the student for clarification (see below). 

3. Respond and engage.

First, prioritize the student(s) that is harmed by the interaction, and check in with them to see how they are doing.  

To open communication, create a teachable moment for the class, and provide an opportunity for learning and healing, you can respond in one of the following ways:  

  • What to say: Whether you decide to talk to the student privately or address the comment publicly, speak from your point of view. Use I-statements to express how you feel about hearing these kinds of comments, “That comment made me feel upset (or scared or worried),” “That comment felt offensive to (name of group),” “I feel uncomfortable (or distressed or unsafe) when I hear words like that,” “I am not okay with that kind of humor in language in my classroom (or school),” or “I feel a responsibility to address that comment, which felt harmful.” You can also share how the comment causes harm to you, others around you, or your school community. Because students may not know their comment is offensive, this is also an opportunity to share that information. 

  • What to ask: Often it is helpful to ask questions to help the person making the comment reflect on what they said and why. Be mindful not to ask these questions in an interrogative way or as a way to call students out—which may shut down the student and close communication. Instead, ask in a way to help the student genuinely self-reflect. Ask questions like, “What made you say that?” “In what ways do you see this as a joke?” “What does the joke mean?” "What was your goal in saying this?” “Did you intend to cause harm with this joke?” “Were you trying to connect with others by making a joke?” “How do you think this joke makes others feel?” “What effect do you think joking about this has on individuals or our school community?” “How do you think others may be impacted by this joke?” You can start with one question and see where that goes before asking another. 

  • How to engage: To engage not only the person making the comment but the whole class, try one of these strategies to make it a teachable moment for all. You can decide to learn more about the origins of the word/phrase and how it’s offensive or a slur. You can read or watch narratives about people in the targeted identity group to learn more. You can grapple with why people may use slurs or “jokes” about their own identity group and at the same time, can cause harm to the community in general because others not in that identity group may think they can also use it. You can create some classroom guidelines about what’s okay and not okay to joke about.  

What about addressing small groups of students who are making jokes “among friends” when others outside the group can clearly hear the jokes? You can elicit/explain to them that while they may be okay with the joke, it inadvertently conveys that it’s okay to make those jokes. As a result, students outside the group may think it gives them permission to do so—which is something the group making the joke may want to consider. 

By engaging students in reflection and discussion about harmful jokes, you are building community and encouraging students to focus on the impact of their words and not cause harm to others.