THE BLOG
12/27/2013 03:31 pm ET Updated Feb 26, 2014

Funny, Ignorant or Racist?

Imagine you are watching the auditions of a prime time talent show. A heavy-built Indian man with glasses appears on the stage. Judge X snickers and says:

"Before you sing, please serve me some chicken curry and pilau rice. But try not to eat it first."

The contestant gives a magnificent, Susan Boyle-esque performance. A look of astonishment creeps upon Judge X's face before he says:

"Well I didn't expect that. I thought when the guy opened his mouth 'bud-bud, ding-ding' would come out."

Is this being racist or just: "Having a sense of humor?"

The next contestant arrives.

This time a tall Afro-Caribbean man in a suit walks onto the stage with a violin-shaped box. Judge X says:

"Well I hope you don't have marijuana in that box."

After his beautiful rendition, Judge Y tears up and says:

"I really didn't expect that. I thought he was going to mug me or something."

Is this being racist or just: "Having a sense of humor?"

Last month, on Holland's Got Talent, a Chinese contestant called Xiao Wang performed a classic opera tune from Verdi's Rigoletto to a standing ovation. But with the excuse of humor, he was subjected to racial taunting in front of millions of viewers.

Before his performance, the judge Gordon Heuckeroth asked him:

"Which number are you singing, number 39 with rice?"

After Wang's touching performance, Heuckeroth mocked his Chinese accent by saying "Supplies!" instead of "Surprise!" He continued:

"Honestly, this is the best Chinese I've had in weeks. And it's not a takeaway."

Thousands of ethnic minorities face racist bullying in their workplaces everyday. Racial bullying in the playground is easy to spot; it comes in the form of getting beaten up or jeers about your name. But grown-up racial bullying often takes the form of jokes and verbal innuendos.

One of my Indian friends was teased mercilessly over his Indian accent. He would politely laugh it off, but it would hurt inside. Another, older Malaysian lady had to listen to people making sick noises whenever she ate seaweed snacks. In order to prove they had a "sense of humor," these people accepted jeering and being the butt of jokes.

But it's not just workplace banter which serves as a home for racist humor. Just this week at a party, a man looked at me and joked with his children that in Indonesia and China, many people like to chop off the legs of children and fix wheels on the back of them.

I'm all for humor and teasing people in jest. I don't mind joking about my own race or laughing at the peculiarities about my Chinese culture. After all, Asian culture has plenty of fodder for good jokes. However, there is a fine line between teasing your good friend and creeping into the realm of publicly humiliating someone.

Having power over someone can be addictive, and racist jokes are a good way of asserting your authority over another race. Most racist jokes have the underlying nature of reinforcing negative stereotypes; they make other races look stupid. One of the tell tale signs if a joke is racist, is when the majority of the racial group find the joke offensive. Of course, you can't go around doing surveys every time you tell a joke. But if someone says your joke about their race is not funny, chances are it ain't. I do think most ethnic minorities have a special radar to detect when jokes are a bit "off." You smile, your face goes red and there is a bitter taste in your mouth. You just know in your heart when a joke is not right. Later, when you repeat the joke to friends of the same race they know it too.

What is the litmus test of whether the joke is racist or not?

When someone is told that their joke has gone too far, do they:

(a) Say you are being sensitive and they don't mean anything by it
(b) Accuse you of having a crappy sense of humor
(c) Ignore you and carry on
(d) Apologize and refrain from repeating the joke

Only (d) is acceptable.

I believe it is the intention of the person that determines whether they are a friend or foe, racist or ignorant. An ignorant person will apologize and listen when you tell them why they are being insulting. They may not agree or understand your culture, or where you are coming from. But at least they will respect you enough to stop saying something that upsets you. On the other hand, a racist bully will carry on with the jokes. They will laugh at you, rather than with you; they will not care one bit what you or other races think. After all, for them, being funny supersedes any hurt feelings.

Judge Heukeroth has not apologized for his statements. Shortly after the incident he told Netherlands Public Broadcasting (NPO) television: "I don't feel the need to [apologize]."

So, is he funny, ignorant or racist?