Racism and Comedy

Who doesn’t enjoy a good laugh? Well, apparently not everyone if a sensitive subject matter is involved. Lately there has been plenty of discussion over racist jokes and satire as media personas such as Stephen Colbert and Jeremy Clarkson have been accused of inappropriate humour and/or racism. This raises a question whether racist humour ought to be tolerated and if the people telling or enjoying such jokes are, in fact, racist.

Let us be clear that racism is in no way acceptable or sensible. Nowadays the people are so heterogeneous that it is often difficult to label people under a singular race. We are (most of the time) naturally inclined to choose partners who differ from us with their genetic heritage in order to create healthier offspring. We stir the soup of genetics and create individuals who are ultimately only united or separated by nationalities and cultures.

Being as similar to each other as we are, we often have a need to differentiate ourselves from the others. Thus we’ve created stereotypes ranging from loud, temperamental Italians to disciplined, highly educated Japanese. These caricatures often point out cultural and sometimes physiological differences, which frequently don’t apply to every single Italian or Japanese but which may, in some cases, help a foreigner or a native to understand the culture better.

Consequently, there are also some negative and possibly outdated stereotypes. Although Jews haven’t been limited to the profession of money lending for years, they are still often portrayed as greedy. Similarly anyone of African descent may be considered poor or criminal, although some of the most successful people are black, to name a couple Barack Obama or Oprah.

It is also common in some cultures to ridicule other neighbouring cultures. For example, Norwegians often make fun of the Swedes being stupid because of the centuries old rivalry existing between the two countries and likewise Swedes have their laughs as well. Numerous of cultures contribute to these stereotypes by adding false attributes for people of foreign countries they for some (possibly historical) reason do not like.

The negative stereotypes are usually the ones we make most fun of. The reason behind it is that we usually tend to enjoy offensive jokes remarkably more. John Cleese explained (in a clip you may watch here) that people react to taboo subjects with anxiety, and if the viewer doesn’t feel too anxious on the subject, the comedy might even be liberating and therefore more entertaining. Naturally this doesn’t apply to everybody but this does explain why so many people enjoy racist jokes and why some (including comedic television programs) take the risk of telling them for the great public.

But why are the racist jokes being highlighted? After all there exists other subjects that could be defined more or less taboo: sexual jokes, sexist jokes, fat jokes… Even blonde jokes ridicule their subject in saying that blondes are stupid and of easy virtue. It feels weird that while ethnic jokes are completely inexcusable, the other discriminating jokes get a free pass. For me it would appear that the reason behind this is that these other groups haven’t been as recently blatantly discriminated as some ethnic groups. Consequently, a Maori joke would be seen as far more acceptable in comparison to a black joke.

What if we are actually just delaying the inevitable? After all, there will eventually be a day when we will allow ourselves to laugh about the (sometimes painful) past. We use humour to get over traumatic events; it relieves us from stress and helps us to create relationships, hence uniting people together. It seals the healing process. Undoubtedly, this will also be the case with racism. But there are so many wounds that are yet to be healed.

Racist humour is a double-edged sword; not only does it ridicule a race, but also the person making the joke. In other words, we don’t only make fun of someone’s heritage but also of ourselves for having been so cruel. As a consequence, we may anger two, if not more, groups of people if they aren’t ready to laugh about the matter. Therefore, the joker must always be careful not to offend any of his hearers.

It may seem like a safe bet to only make fun of your own race or nationality but the chances are you will find yourself to be very unfunny if your hearers aren’t familiar with the weird characteristics and history of the Finnish people. Thus I would rather suggest to share and to enjoy the jokes of your choosing without the fear of it automatically making you a racist, sexist or a zoophile.

Update (24.4.2015): I recently noticed that the philosopher Slavoj Žižek has talked on the same topic and in many ways, I agree with him. If you’re interested, to check out this video on Youtube.


2 thoughts on “Racism and Comedy

  1. Hello Idle European,

    You posted a comment under my silly review of the robot movie. Out of curiosity, I had to come over and see what you were writing about. I must say that your English is very good! I shouldn’t be surprised; I have met several Norwegians who were traveling here in the U.S. and their intelligence and skill with our language was inspiring (but also intimidating).

    Anyway, I like what you had to say about racism and humor. I happen to revere our First Amendment, which guarantees free speech and expression. Unfortunately, people at both ends of the ideological spectrum both twist it for their own gain and drain it of all its magic and purpose. It is a frustrating time to be an American. I have faith that we will pull through, though. We always do.

    I also consider myself to be a student of comedy. I wanted to be a standup comedian when I was younger, and even performed a bit in high school. Over the years, I have discovered that jokes about race and culture can be harmless among friends, hurtful when taken out of context, devastating in the hands of a hack—or wielded like a laser by a professional comedian. I fear for the day when the pros like Colbert, Jeffrey Ross, and Dave Chappelle aren’t allowed to say whatever they want. We all need our court jesters.

    Anyway, keep writing! You are good at it.

    Hilsen (did I say that right?)


    1. Cheers! I’m not Norwegian but Finnish but I believe it’s an easy mistake to make. It’s not like I remember all the States by heart. Your Norwegian is therefore probably as good as mine.
      It’s been a while since I wrote this article. Racial jokes are one of those things that can really swell out of proportion if they’re being brought under media scrutiny. The same thing applies to feminism and the threats (which many seem to confuse with criticism) they are receiving that apparently have been signed by all men. It’s simply frustrating that you are apparently not allowed to say anything anymore simply because someone might get upset. And that makes me upset.

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