Racial/Ethnic Teasing in Adolescence and Emerging Adulthood
“It’s just a joke!” Or is it? Find out more about the research on racial/ethnic teasing among teenagers.
By Sara Douglass
If you are like me, you’ve used humor to help an awkward situation pass, made a joke to lighten the mood, or teased a friend in a lighthearted way. But how far does the power of humor reach? What if that humor is used in the context of race and ethnicity? For some adolescents (whose names have been changed), these experiences come to mind easily:
Yeah I play around with [my friend], like ‘Stop being a lazy Mexican and get on the drums’. It’s just like that. – Jose, age 16
[My friends] will tease me and be like ‘Oh, you’re just the Colombian drug smuggler.’ – Emma, age 17
We were playing Taboo and picking teams, separating into teams, and Alyssa’s like ‘oh I’ve got the Asians! Okay, okay I’m gonna win!’ (laughter)…It’s not malicious. – Jennifer, age 17
As these quotes illustrate, race and ethnicity continue to be a commonly used form of social categorization in the United States today. Racism and discrimination occur in more nuanced and subtle ways than previously believed through microaggressions. In these brief, commonplace, and potentially ambiguous experiences, racial and ethnic minorities are targeted by slights, insults, or invalidations that are often perceived as not “major” enough to confront, and could be brushed aside by the offender if confronted (Sue et al., 2007). My research suggests that one particularly damaging form of microaggression for adolescents and emerging adults originates from peers and occurs within a framework of “teasing” or “joking” – that is, racial/ethnic teasing. Specifically, my research has examined the qualitative form and function of racial/ethnic teasing, the daily frequency of such experiences, and the individual and interpersonal factors related to their occurrence.
In this article, I highlight some of the major take-home points that have arisen from this course of research, which has been supported in part by the Society for Research on Adolescence through the Innovative Small Grants program. I define racial/ethnic teasing as a social interaction surrounding one’s racial or ethnic identity in which explicit or implicit prejudices are delivered under the guise of humor. I developed this definition from a qualitative study conducted in diverse urban high schools in which adolescents were asked about how they interacted with their friends and peers around their race or ethnicity. In these interviews:
- 100% of participants rebuked the idea that their friends discriminated against them per se, and instead offered instances of supposedly humorous yet extremely derogatory interactions regarding their race/ethnicity.
- The interactions qualified as discrimination from an objective content analysis by researchers, yet were presented by participants in antithesis to discrimination by citing the source (e.g., friends), as well as the humorous or non-serious nature.
- The reported racial/ethnic teasing experiences were diverse; participants gave examples of times they were teased by friends (e.g., were a target), times they teased their friends (e.g., were a perpetrator), times they were third parties to a teasing interaction (e.g., bystanders who experienced it vicariously), and times they made fun of themselves in front of other people (e.g., made a self-directed comment).
Because they are brief interactions layered in supposed humor, racial/ethnic teasing clearly falls under a microaggression framework of racial and ethnic discrimination. However, racial/ethnic teasing has added complexity given that a) it frequently occurs between friends and close peers and b) there are many different roles that individuals play in the interactions. In addition, there is a paucity of research on how individuals experience racial/ethnic teasing. Using a three-week daily diary study, I explored daily experiences of racial/ethnic teasing with a sample of adolescents and emerging adults by asking them to report when and how they experienced racial/ethnic teasing, as well as how they were feeling about themselves and their relationships on that day. With this study, I asked two central questions regarding the frequency of these experiences:
1. How frequently did adolescents and emerging adults experience racial/ethnic teasing?
Results indicated that over 21 days:
- Adolescents experienced, on average, 3.5 racial/ethnic teasing interactions.
- Emerging adults experienced, on average, 1.8 racial/ethnic teasing interactions.
Adolescents experienced nearly twice as many racial/ethnic teasing interactions as emerging adults, indicating that these experiences may be more salient during this younger developmental period, when social cognition and identity development are particularly active. However, this did not shed light on how exactly individuals were experiencing racial/ethnic teasing; that is, to what extent were they in target, perpetrator, vicarious, and self-directed roles? This led to the next major question:
2. What roles were they playing in these experiences and could individuals be categorized based on these roles?
Results indicated that:
- Participants reported all possible roles across days, including target, perpetrator, vicarious, and self-directed roles.
- The majority of variability (i.e., nearly 90%) in these roles across days was accounted for within individuals – that is, individuals could not be uniquely categorized based on the type of role they played over time.
It appears that the roles individuals play in racial/ethnic teasing interactions are dynamic and involve considerable fluidity within an individual across days. One person may be the target one day, a perpetrator a few days later, and make a self-directed comment the following week. The dynamic and fluid nature of racial/ethnic teasing is consistent with previous research in domains such as bullying in which “aggressive victims” end up being both victims and perpetrators (Unnever, 2005).
However, many questions remain about what these experiences mean for adolescents and emerging adults. Why do they choose to engage in racial/ethnic teasing? What does it mean for them when they do? Evidence from racial/ethnic discrimination and general teasing perspectives suggests that racial/ethnic teasing may be negative to the extent that it reflects biased and aggressive beliefs, and that it may have an adverse effect on individuals in terms of their self-evaluations and psychological well-being. At the same time, other perspectives suggest that racial/ethnic teasing may be positive to the extent that it allows individuals to index and increase intimacy and that it may have a beneficial effect on individuals in terms of their social identity and interpersonal relationships. Further adding to this complexity, the degree to which either of these perspectives holds true may depend on the role an individual plays in a given interaction. Therefore, I used the same diary study mentioned above to ask two central questions regarding the function and meaning of racial/ethnic teasing. First:
3. What stable individual and interpersonal factors may make an individual more likely to be involved in any of the roles of racial/ethnic teasing?
Results indicated that:
- a. Aspects of racial/ethnic identity, including centrality and public regard, were associated with different rates of target and vicarious roles.
- b. Racial/ethnic identity tended to be unrelated to perpetrator and self-directed roles.
These results suggest that there may be individual differences in how racial/ethnic teasing is perceived in social settings, but do not indicate individual differences in the likelihood of actively engaging in them. Further, none of the interpersonal factors such as relationship quality and intimacy that were considered made a difference; based on the within-person variability in these roles, this suggests that interpersonal considerations may not impact when these behaviors occur. Alternatively, this research may not have captured those aspects of the relationship that do in fact matter. The second major question considered:
4. How do daily racial/ethnic teasing roles impact daily individual and interpersonal factors?
Results indicated that:
- All roles were associated with increased social anxiety.
- Perpetrator and self-directed roles were associated with increased stereotype endorsement.
- Perpetrator and self-directed roles were associated with increased relationship quality and intimacy.
Thus, I believe racial/ethnic teasing behaviors are associated with both negative individual outcomes and positive interpersonal outcomes. That is, there is at least partial evidence that while the individual suffers, the relationship can benefit in the face of such interactions. One critical caveat here, however, is that the interpersonal benefits are only conferred when individuals have agency in the interaction (e.g., when they are the perpetrator or are making a self-directed comment), and those same roles are associated with negative individual outcomes.
So what does this research mean for the teens we heard from at the beginning of this article? For Jose, “playful” comments may actually be related to some underlying belief about their truth, though he will also feel closer to his friend. Odds are, Jose won’t always be the perpetrator. At some point, he may choose to make fun of himself, have very similar psychological and social experiences as when he was the perpetrator. In a few days, he may be the target of such an experience, like Emma, who is likely to feel more anxious about interacting with her friends after being teased, and won’t feel any closer to them when it happens. Or, he may listen to other people making a joke, and like Jennifer will feel more anxious after listening to others make jokes where she isn’t even the target. In any interaction, one of the individuals involved is going to suffer – there can’t be a perpetrator without a target, and there will always be a vicarious witness to a self-directed comment.
Overall, this research sheds light on a particularly intriguing form of interpersonal microaggression that appears to be highly relevant to the lives of adolescents and emerging adults: racial/ethnic teasing. There are many questions that remain to comprehensively understand what racial/ethnic teasing means for adolescents. Are there different individual and interpersonal meanings when the behaviors occur across racial/ethnic lines versus within racial/ethnic groups? Does the frequency and perhaps even meaning change based on the diversity of individuals’ contexts (i.e., peer network, school, neighborhood)? Yet this preliminary evidence suggests that parents, educators, interventionists, and others should aim to minimize racial/ethnic teasing in all its many forms, and that such attempts need to be targeted universally.
Sara Douglass completed her doctorate in Applied Developmental Psychology at Fordham University, and is beginning a postdoctoral fellowship at Arizona State University in the fall. She studies racial and ethnic identity with a particular focus on how context such as peer interactions and schools influence daily experiences and longitudinal development. She enjoys running, biking, and rowing, and is an avid Patriots fan. Please contact Sara with questions or comments regarding this article at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C. M., Torino, G. C., Bucceri, J. M., Holder, A. M. B., Nadal, K. L., & Esquilin, M. (2007). Racial microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical practice. American Psychologist, 63(4), 277-279.
Unnever, J. D. (2005). Bullies, aggressive victims, and victims: Are they distinct groups? Aggressive Behavior, 31(2), 153-171.