Week 10: Race and Humour


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As a special topic, this week will look at the fine line between racism and ‘humour’. British film and television has long been a site for views of the other. Originally, these were represented by white actors and comedians whose interpretations of ethnic minority life were often perceived as insulting and patronising. More recently, British filmmakers, actors and comedians have introduced a new genre to the British cultural sphere, one that takes a playful look at minority ethnic communities from their own perspective. It has been suggested that these representation are non-racist because they come from those potentially affected by racism themselves. In light of the recent furore surrounding the Borat film by Sascha Baron Cohen and other examples, this session asks what counts as humour and what is merely racist. We will be examining this question through the use of clips from different films and television shows as well as classic jokes. We will be relying mainly on clips of various films and TV shows to be shown in the lecture.

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  • Hobbes’s explanation of why we laugh at others goes to the heart of the issue of the connection between racism and humour. Humour is often an outlet for making ourselves feel better in comparison with others who we deem inferior to ourselves. But masked behind this sense of superiority is the knowledge that the things we laugh at in others can just as readily be found in ourselves. Such is the power of humour - it can be turned against almost anyone in almost any direction. Therefore, it is a serious question to ask whether humour can ever really be offensive. Is it not that everything that is said in jest is merely that? We shall see how humour has been used to overturn stereotypes and challenge the supremacy that white society assumes over others. In this sense humour is layered and complex - and potentially a powerful tool.
  • But, what IS humour? Is everything that has been understood by some people to be humorous actually so? Do we have to draw a line between what can be defined as humorous and what is simply bad taste? Is the question of what is funny always personal and subjective, or has it been harnessed to more overarching and systemic racist projects? In their book, ‘Beyond a Joke’ Sharon Lockyer and Michael Pickering examine the frontiers of humour. As they say, taking offence at a joke can be taken badly. No one wants to be seen as not having a sense of humour. But, there are jokes that offend us. So “how do we negotiate the perilous terrain between humour and offensiveness, or free speech and cultural respect, in a pluralist society? They argue that this is an important question because humour exists in all arenas of public culture and infiltrates every area of social life and interaction. It is seen as a good thing to be able to see the ‘funny side’ of things. For example, last year when Prince Harry donned a Nazi uniform for a fancy dress party, some commentators claimed that anyone who took offence needed to ‘get a life’. But, it is clear that the boundary between irony and bad taste had been crossed and Harry was severely reprimanded. The joke, so it seemed, was on him! The question of what we can laugh about is often summed up by reference to freedom of speech and frustration about the ‘politically correct brigade’. The comedian, Rowan Atkinson, has claimed that ‘there should be no subjects about which you can’t tell jokes’ and that ‘the right to offend is far more important than the right to offend.” But this implies that everyone is capable of making their own minds up about the appropriateness of a joke and dismissing a joke as being ‘just a joke’ and therefore not to be seen on the same level as something that is said in seriousness. However, this approach puts humour into another realm - separate to the rest of discourse. It therefore doesn’t take into account the fact that humour is often used alongside “serious” discourse with the intent of causing hurt.
  • Aggressive humour is not confined to humour with racist undertones, but racist humour is often intentionally aggressive. As Freud argued, we like to think that what we find funny is witty and clever, but in fact humour often appeals to our darker side. Hence the widespread appeal of offensive or even “sick” jokes. There are two points to be made about the nature of aggressive racist humour: 1.Racist jokes are seen by some as being outside the realm of humour - they are not big, and they are not clever and they certainly aren’t funny. But as Michael Billig argues, just putting racist jokes outside the confines of humour is problematic because such jokes ARE humorous for some people (and, following Freud, some find them funny even though they don’t want to admit it!). The same joke can be told in a racist and a non-racist way, begging the question, is the joke generically funny. In ethnic jokes, such as Englishman, Irishman and Scotsman jokes, the target of the joke is often replaced depending on who does the telling. Is the joke less racist if an Irish person tells it making the English person the butt of the joke? The context - in which historically Irish people have been discriminated by the English - would assume the answer is yes. But what if there is an English person who is alone in a village in Ireland where everyone else is Irish? 2. The degree to which we can judge a racist joke to be humorous is made more complex by our understanding of who racists are. As Billig says, we often have an impression of racists as being humourless individuals. But this idea is grounded in a psychological view of bigots as having a deficient personality in comparison to the rest of us. This narrow view doesn’t take account of the fact that racist discourse is often purposefully ironic and/or humorous. Racists and fascists mock liberalism’s standards. They pander to the libertarian in all of us that wants to preserve a realm in which anything can be said or done - especially if it’s, as is claimed, just a joke. As Jean-Paul Sartre argued in his portrait of the Antisemite, racists do not necessarily believe all the outlandish claims they make about the ethnic minority groups they target. They use humour to make the statement: “look at us, unlike you liberals, we can have a laugh, even at ourselves.” The unspoken assumption is that it is minorities who are deficient because they just can’t take a joke! Let’s look now at some of the characteristics of aggressive - openly racist - humour. We will be paying attention to the historical contexts in which this kind of humour - laughing at racialised others - developed and thinking about whether this type of humour is still around, and if not, why not?
  • The comedians. What used to be funny has undoubtedly changed over the years. The Comedians was a show on British TV which was hugely popular. It was often openly abusive of minorities, using parody to degrade them The tradition was carried on by Bernard Manning until his death earlier this year, but also by comedians such as Jim Davidson. There is certainly an audience that continues to defend this kind of humour. But even free speech campaigners may admit that the jokes being told are simply no longer funny because of changes in the type of society we now commonly envision with the increased diversity of the population.
  • The importance of stereotype: According to G.W. Allport: “ Some stereotypes are totally unsupported by facts; others develop from a sharpening and over-generalization of facts.” But all stereotypes function by creating a lasting image that is held as a standard against which all behaviour is judged regardless of whether it is actually descriptive of a group’s real behaviour. Paying attention to a small detail about a group of people and zooming in on it, maginfying it out of all proportions, can lead to that groups becoming a scapegoat for all society’s problems. The scapegoating of Jews under nazism as being responsible for Germany’s problems in the 1920s and 1930s focused on the stereotype of all Jews being obsessed with money, but also - in sharp contrast - of all Jews as communists intent on fomenting revolution. Question: What is being shown in the caricature here? Who is being portrayed? In what context? And what stereotype is being evoked? Caricature: Aggressive, racist humour makes use of caricatures in order to draw attention to the features of racialised others. Caricatures exaggerate the physical and/or personality-based features of the racial other in order to make her appear unappealing, frightening or just plain ridiculous. Whereas, the purpose of caricatures has often been “humorous”, they have also been used as propaganda within systems of discrimination such as the Nazi “final solution” against the Jews, colonialism, slavery and segregation in the US. The Nazi image of the Jew as a rat or a cockroach was intended to imply that they were everywhere and in need of extremination! In the next slides some common caricatures…
  • “ The Jewish spirit undermines the healthy powers of the German people.”
  • This image of Irish immigrants was rife in the US in the 19th century. Similar images were seen in the UK which colonised Ireland until 1922.
  • The cartoon of the prophet Mohammed with his head as a bomb outraged Muslims the world over. The publication of the cartoons was portrayed as an issue of free speech for those who supported the Danish newspaper that originally published them. It is clear that they were drawn and published with the express intention to provoke and potentially wound. Does this make them humorous, or is the fact that some people found them funny a by-product of their - quite serious - intention?
  • In the States, Sarah Silverman plays with values of political correctness, openly using racially charged language and stereotypes about ethnic minorities. But is Silverman aggressively racist like the old style British comedians, or is she laughing at ‘being racist’? She says, her character herself is “ignorant and arrogant”, but this does not reflect her personal beliefs. Does she carry it off?
  • Images of black people in the segregated US and in colonising countries were also used to advertise products. Here is a picture used to advertise a restaurant called the Coon Chicken Inn. Both the caricature of a black man in blackface and the name of the Inn are derogatory. Nevertheless these images were common until late into the 20th century. Black faces - often with smiling and naïve expressions - were used to advertise everything from drinks to shoe polish.
  • Minstrel shows date back to before the American Civil War but became popular beyond the United States. Before the civil war, minstrelsy mainly involved white people in what was known as blackface - white people blackened up to look like caricatures of blacks. The shows that involved singing dancing and skits were hugely popular. After the civil war both blacks and whites were involved in minstrel shows. But black people too donned blackface - black makeup (made of blackened cork), white paint around the eyes and huge red lips - to become exaggerated versions of themselves. According to Boskin and Dorinson, blackface and minstrelsy performed different functions for whites and for blacks. Whites Minstrel shows portrayed blacks and whites wanted to see them - as lazy and stupid, yet often loveable people. In particular, characters like Sambo represented the jolly servile “negro boy” - ever young and innocent in the eyes of his masters. Women were portrayed by “mammy” - a fat, laughing woman, always happy to serve. The purpose of minstrelsy for whites was to the portrayal of the anti-self. The caricatures represented everything that whites were NOT, this providing reassurance of white supremacy. 2. Blacks: Boskin and Dorinson: It wasn’t possible for black people to openly laugh at white people who were in power. When black people became involved in minstrelsy, they were not forced to do so. Many blacks became famous and rich on this basis. Also, often it was a way of expressing the pain of servitude and domination through humour turned inwards - apparently against black people, but actually laughing at whites. By openly parodying themselves, blacks in blackface were in fact sending up the image of themselves that white people had - in a sense saying “we know your game”. Using humour in this way was a coping mechanism and a means of collectively surviving the hardships of a racist society.
  • Show Black & White Minstrel Show clip
  • Does Ali G. merely give whites what they want to see of black culture, make them laugh about a stereotype they find funny anyway, in the same way as blackface artists pandered to white sense of humour. They knew that it was the only way to make a career.
  • (Richard Pryor) Shoe on the other foot: Are white people uncomfortable? Is it his aim to make them feel like black people felt before?
  • 2. (Goodness Gracious me) 1st type of self-deprecation: Is this for the community itself - can outsiders understand? What is the difference between laughing at people from within your community or laughing at a whole community from the outside?
  • 3. (Little Miss Jocelyn). Self deprecation 2 Goodness Gracious me targets the Asian community and doesn’t really mind if non-Asians don’t get the joke. Being able to have humour oriented towards the community makes a statement about the fact that Asians have gained a certain status, at least within the confined space of parts of the media. However, here it is unclear whether the joke is for black people caricatured in the skit or for others. Like Sarah Silverman, does the character of Little Miss Jocelyn manage in her aim of pointing out racist sterotypes, or does she participate in perpetuating them herself?
  • 4. (Asian US-Americans) The humourist as a licensed spokesperson: Can point out to society what is wrong with itself through the legitimate lens of humour - this would not otherwise be permitted.
  • 6. (Subverting race and sexuality) Here Vidur Kapur is subverting both racial stereotypes about immigrants and Indians, but also sexual stereotypes, showing how the two are interlinked.
  • 5. (Inder Manocha) Beating them at their own game. In this clip Inder Manocha participates in the same critique of PC that white comics traditionally participate in by laughing at the ridiculous excesses of multiculturalism. This takes ethnic minority comedy to a new level - not just parodying one’s own community - proving that we can laugh at ourselves, it goes out to prove that we can laugh at everyone else too. It is an assertion of full citizenship - we have the same rights as anyone else which includes laughing at you. The final question is whether this is possible anywhere but in the realm of comedy?
  • 5. (Inder Manocha) Beating them at their own game. In this clip Inder Manocha participates in the same critique of PC that white comics traditionally participate in by laughing at the ridiculous excesses of multiculturalism. This takes ethnic minority comedy to a new level - not just parodying one’s own community - proving that we can laugh at ourselves, it goes out to prove that we can laugh at everyone else too. It is an assertion of full citizenship - we have the same rights as anyone else which includes laughing at you. The final question is whether this is possible anywhere but in the realm of comedy?
  • Week 10: Race and Humour

    1. 1. Race &HumourRace:Conflict & ChangeWeek 9
    2. 2. Today we willask…•When - if ever - is humour offensive?•What is aggressive humour and who is allowed to tell it?•How has what we find funny changed over time and why?•Can humour be used to overturn stereotypes and Priest: When will you give up challenge power? those silly dietary laws?•Can laughter overcome racism? Rabbi: At your wedding father.
    3. 3. What is humour? “The passion of laughter is nothing else but a sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmities of others, or with our own formerly.” Thomas Hobbes
    4. 4. Beyond a Joke?“How do we negotiatethe perilous terrainbetween humour andoffensiveness, or freespeech and culturalrespect, in a pluralistsociety?” Lockyer & Pickering
    5. 5. Aggressive humour
    6. 6. Characteristics ofaggressive humour3. Conflictual4. Uses satire, sarcasm, parody…
    7. 7. Characteristics ofaggressive humour 3 3. Stereotypical and caricatural
    8. 8. Stereotypes &caricature “Humour based on stereotype, the nastiest cut, can emasculate, enfeeble, and turn victims into scapegoats.” Boskin & Dorinson
    9. 9. AntisemiticPropaganda
    10. 10. Simianisation
    11. 11. TheCartoonControversy
    12. 12. Consequences ofaggressive humour
    13. 13. Blackface
    14. 14. Show Time: Blackface &MinstrelsyWhites:• Blacks as lazy, stupid yet loveable.• As the anti-self.Blacks:• Humour of accommodation• Self-caricature and survival
    15. 15. The Black & White Minstrel Show BBC 1957 - 1978
    16. 16. Ali G: the new blackface?• Who is Ali G?• Is this racist stereotyping?• … or self- deprecation?• Is Ali G self-serving?• Does common oppression override particular experience?
    17. 17. Reclaiminghumour• The shoe on the other foot.• 2 forms of self- deprecation.• The humourist as licensed spokesperson.• Beating them at their own game?
    18. 18. 1. Richard Pryor
    19. 19. 2. Goodness Gracious Me
    20. 20. 3. Little Miss Jocelyn
    21. 21. 4 Asian US- Americans
    22. 22. 5. Subverting race & sexuality
    23. 23. 6. Inder Manocha
    24. 24. Thank you. I hope you enjoyed the courseHave a good break and a happy new year!