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It’s No Laughing Matter: When 'Jokes' And Racism Unite

Updated: Oct 31, 2020

By Oli Omotajo

Image via safesaceradio

“Shut up or I’ll lynch you.” Mimicking African American Vernacular English. “Tommy Hil(n)iger.”

Rowan Atkinson wrote that ‘You should only apologize for a bad joke’. In a wider context, this was in defense of Boris Johnson’s comment on ‘letterbox’ Niqab wearers. And perhaps he’s right about apologizing. But the joke wasn’t being criticized for being bad. The reason it had gained so much attention was because of its apathetic and, arguably, racist comments. Which seemed even more worrying looking at past articles, referring to other minorities as ‘piccaninnies’, ‘blubbing blondes’, and ‘tank topped bumboys’. And so, this leads to the questions — can we joke about race? Why are some jokes about race ‘bad’?

To define the issue at hand, racism is prejudice that acts on a systematic scale, affecting everything from education, healthcare, income, and even incarceration rates among different races. It is detrimental, especially to those targeted by it, inducing PTSD and higher stress that can even become intergenerational.

There are two types of jokes when it comes to handling the topic. These can be divided into racist jokes and jokes about racism. Both, if we look at philosopher Roger Scruton, devalue the subject. This example explains why we may laugh when someone mocks a former state of ourselves, yet feel hurt when they address the present self. We don’t like being devalued, because we feel lesser as a person.

But the important part is what the subject is about. Racist jokes make the person affected by racism the subject, and belittles them under the disguise of a ‘joke’. This type of humor is referred to as ‘Disparagement Humor’, in which someone can bring out their hatred or prejudice in a manner that they perceive as socially acceptable. Most of these jokes express this hatred, but are wrapped up so the racism is hidden behind a large bow called ‘just a joke’.

Jokes about racism devalues the system of racism. If we examine this form of humor in an existentialist way, it relieves the pain that has been caused for people who have been affected. For example, jokes about 9/11 by Generation Z is arguably a way to process inherited trauma from a devastating situation. It isn’t new. Bill Ellis explores this idea of processing tragic events through his paper as a form of closure. This is back in 1986, and looks at the events of the Challenger. Unfortunately for racism, it has been around for centuries, and despite constant amazing efforts to change the world, racism may never end.

Racist humor often uses heavy political or historical weight to enforce a sense of superiority. Look at the joke from @jew_jokes from twitter:

Q) What is the difference between a park bench and a black man

A) A park bench can support a family of four!

The punchline, at face value, is funny to a few. People vaguely understand the concept of the joke — in the UK, the largest proportion of single parent households are Black or Caribbean, making 18.9%. The idea of a Black single parent household is clear to many of us through media figures. Look at Barack Obama, whose fatherless childhood he brings up in his Father’s day speech in 2010, or Kanye and Jay Z. In the US, it’s a largely false narrative, as 64% of black fathers are present for their children. But the assumption is there.

However, the broken black nuclear family stems from consistent systematic divisions, namely incarceration rates, wage divisions, and stretching even further back to slavery. The joke serves as a means to remind or assert the idea that since the black man cannot support his family, he must be lesser in his abilities, compared to the father in the white nuclear family, or other ethnicities.

The joke is built in a way that perfectly correlates with Disparagement, as earlier discussed. The subject of the setup—‘black man’—tells us the focus of the joke. If we use Roger Scruton’s assessment of humor, then the purpose of the joke is clearly to undermine men and their roles in a black family. We can also go further and notice the absence of the word ‘father’ for the subject term. This detachment from family roles is exactly like Toni Morrison’s own argument against slavery, or discrimination in Beloved, where she refers to the Mother in the story, ‘Sethe’ as a ‘Ni***r woman’, to trap her in the role as a product, or livestock, that she lived through as a slave. It isolates us as an audience, consequently creating an apathetic nature to the pun.

Image via Racism comes from a century old history of power dynamics and (often violent) means of oppression. Many of the items in Jim Crow museum show this culture of demeaning people based on ethnicity: From the ‘coon chicken’ fast food chain, to Golliwogs, to Aunt Jemima. Therefore, most of these jokes aim to reinforce ideas of superiority that thrived from the past.

And so we go to our next point: Racist Jokes tend to de-humanize or objectify someone, so that the audience (or the teller) feels apathetic towards the group being targeted.

This idea shines through in the context of Minstrel Shows. Having been popular in the 19th century, it enforced negative stereotypes and played a character of the ‘inferior black person’ to a largely white male audience. The idea was that a white person would ‘dress up’ and play a character of a black man or woman, usually an exaggerated or stereotypical idea. Take Jim Crow and Mammy, for example. Blackface however is clearly de-humanizing, because the person is no longer human due to their ethnicity. Blackface strips away the complex, vibrant patterns of being black, and forces it into a prop for other people’s entertainment. It still has traces in what people perceive to be funny, such as mimicking AAVE (African American Vernacular English), which was done to emphasize the stupidity of a character, but in modern context, has been hidden because of association with ‘meme’ culture.

All the while, it skimmed over the horrific de-humanization of slavery through violence and oppression, giving a ‘pro slavery’ message through playing on the idea of inferiority. Although most people have progressed past the need to defend such a harmful notion, shows such as the infamous BBC’s ‘The Black and White Minstrel Show’ have made their appearances in entertainment. But regardless of intention, the action itself is tinged in racial hostility and shows the audience that there is no consequence to mocking, or spitting down on people lower than them in their social hierarchy. But that consequence is still there. It is just deflected onto the target of the joke, thanks to the system in place that keeps their power relations over everyone else.

Image via Nostalgia Central: The Black and White Minstrel show ran on the BBC from 1958 to 1978, despite a petition in 1968 signed by both black and white people who requested the show be taken off television.

But where do we draw the line? Dark humor always has a boundary, where not everyone feels comfortable at the jokes being made, or the topic in general. When inciting laughter, there is always three elements:

  1. The Announcer. What are the intentions of the joke that you’re telling? Is it to incite laughter through storytelling, like Daniel Sloss? Or is it to set a perspective on a political issue, like The Heute Show? Or is the offense an ironic alter ego, to emphasize the overall message of your show, like Bo Burnham? All these aspects change the intention of your joke. For example, a woman making a joke of ‘going back to the kitchen’ is more of a self detrimental humor, while acknowledging the downsides of her gender role. However, a man making the same joke would be more likely making it with antagonistic intentions, or in order to enforce his own views and have them validated by his peers.

  2. The Audience. Who is the joke targeted for? When a joke has its limits, or borders on insensitivity, how will the audience take it? Will they understand the negative impacts of the joke, or will they use it to validate their own discriminatory opinions? For example, the study linked above showed that men would report themselves as more likely to commit an act of sexual assault when the sexist joke was told by a woman, rather than a man. When the joke has a member of the targeted minority behind it, it can actually normalize or make the discrimination mentioned seem more acceptable to an audience.

  3. The Address. What is the joke about? Does it play on a theme? Does the theory of Superiority apply to it? Is it the center of your message, or does it contribute to a larger message or moral that you’re attempting to bring to the audience?

The next joke that we are going to unpack is from a supremacist website called N****

Q) How do you get a n****r out of a tree?

A) Cut the rope.

The ‘cut the rope’ punchline links back to lynchings in America—which occur to this day, with cases such as Althea Bernstein and Ahmaud Arbery. The issue is something of huge suffering and violence, and by using the N-word, the writer emphasizes a racial hostility. Some people would say that on the contrary, it makes fun of the situation. That it’s dark humor to tackle a dark history. But the fact that it had been written around the time of the civil rights movement strongly suggests that the intention was a ‘backlash’ or to undermine the fast growing support to dismantle systems such as segregation through disparagement.

As a result, considering the announcer and the address, it is very clear to see that the intended audiences are those who feel threatened by coexisting with other cultures or ethnicities peacefully. Or, some people who laugh out of shock of the punchline—since the topic is considered ‘out of bounds’ and inappropriate to joke about (which in this manner, it very much is). So, we can conclude that this joke plays on an open wound in the black community in order to assert a sense of superiority. This shows through the use of the N-word, and using this interview with James Baldwin, we can evidently gather that N****r emphasizes that power dynamic that the pun plays upon.

In contrast, a joke addressing racism would look at the issue itself, and not the victim. Take Dulce Sloan’s ‘White Women Talking About Feminism’ skit. She makes fun of the ‘struggle contest’, and people's ignorance of her experience as a Black woman, by ‘breaking... oppression down’ into a rota. Her joke isn’t making fun of white feminists, or black men, as some could argue through her comment: “I talk to a lot of white women, cause you know...they be around”. The indifference she displays in the first half of her sketch mimics the lack of enthusiasm or behavior of some women at intersectional feminism. It simply makes fun of the apathy and discrimination between movements that occurs especially in race and gender. This humor is an example of satire—where, to quote Terry Pratchett, is ‘meant to ridicule power’. She ridicules the system that traps black women, such as herself, into a world of ‘Misogynoir’, and at people for enforcing it without realizing.

Some jokes have the right intention and set out to address a topic in a humorous way, but the audience uses it to validate their own harmful opinions and normalize their otherwise unacceptable phrases. For example, former singer Joji had the career as an alter ego, FlithyFrank. In his description, George Miller writes:

“Filthy Frank is the embodiment of everything a person should not be. He is anti-PC, anti-social, and anti-couth. He behaves and reacts excessively to everything expressly to highlight the ridiculousness of racism, misogyny, legalism, injustice, ignorance and other social blights. He also sets an example to show how easy it is in the social media for any zany material to gain traction/followings by simply sharing un-savory opinions and joking about topics many find offensive.There is no denying that the show is terribly offensive, but this terrible offensiveness is a deliberate and unapologetic parody of the whole social media machine and a reflection of the human microcosm that that social media is. OR MAYBE I'M JUST F*****G RETARDED.”

Already from the beginning, George Miller emphasizes that the character is a parody, to mock the concepts of discrimination. His shock humor and excessive behavior further sets out to prove this; for example, his use of swearing emphasizes his aggressive behavior as a bigot, and he has episodes where he takes his videos in public to juxtapose with reality and once again show the viewer that FilthyFrank is not acceptable behavior.

Another aspect of the audience is its demographic. In the words of comedian Gina Yashere:

“If you feel uncomfortable doing that material in a room full of those people, then you’re s**t is racist.”

Note the room is ‘full of those people’. Not just one of ‘those people’ in a group where the majority can laugh at their expense, like the case of Mr. Kizzie. His participation in the photo recreating a lynching ‘for laughs’ was an example of compliance for validation from white peers. Furthermore, one person’s opinion does not account for the entirety of an ethnic group. As a result, using the excuse of ‘my friend is a minority, and they found it funny’ does not mean the joke is inoffensive or loses its malicious intent of the writer.

Photo source - BBC. Gina Yashere, British comedian, explains the defense of racist humor and ‘dark’ humor by people in the podcast People’s Party.

In conclusion, jokes about race can be told. But since humor can be weaponized, as shown with lynchings and Minstrel shows, it is better to think about a joke before you say it.

Are you dehumanizing someone for the joke? Is it directly about someone’s race or ethnicity? Will your audience feel validated in any prejudice? And most importantly, if someone tells you why the joke is wrong, or harmful, and you feel inclined to defend it, why? It seems to some people too much to ask, but at the end of the day, real comedy allows us all to connect together in good humor.

So, in response to Rowan Atkinson’s letter, a joke shouldn’t need an apology for being ‘bad’. It needs an apology when it divides us, or takes the power of the ones already hurting. Doing that, to reference Terry Pratchett, would be bullying. And there's nothing as unfunny as a bully.

Written by writer Oli Omotajo

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