Saturday, November 11, 2006

Racist jokes

Pretty much every joke, with the exception of the ones you can tell your seven-year-old, could upset someone, and racist jokes appear to have the greatest potential.

Most 'racist' jokes rely on stereotypes for their humour; so the Irish lack intelligence, the Jews and the Scots are tight-fisted, the Italians and French cowardly. Blacks are criminals (with an extra portion in the trouser department), the Australians are sexist sheep molesters, while the US is full of dense gung-ho rednecks who have no idea that a world exists outside their own borders.

Other jokes of the genre mock the appearance of whichever race is the butt of the joke; so the broad noses & full lips of black people are singled out, as is the east Asian eye shape, the veils of Muslim women and so on.

One may cringe at such jokes, but throughout the world there remains a large number of people - in every country - prepared to laugh at this type of humour. Obviously, the targets change depending on the location of the joke teller, and local prejudices, but the jokes are essentially the same. And all of them rely on one thing: the fact that the audience understands the prejudice upon which the joke is based.

But are they offensive, or so ridiculous as to be laughable?

I tried a joke on a friend of mine, who happens to be black. It went like this:

A black woman goes to the doctor & asks for his help.
"It's my husband," she says. "Whenever we're out for a stroll, or going around the shops, he insists on running everywhere. He just refuses to slow down."
"That's easy to fix," replies the doctor, "simply wash his clothes in Ariel. That's guaranteed to stop coloureds running."

My friend's reaction was to laugh heartily at the joke; she wasn't in the least bit offended. My friend is a very confident person and proud of her West Indian heritage, and she found the joke amusing.

OK, I'll admit it wasn't that strong a joke, merely being a pun on the use of what is now deemed an unacceptable term for describing black people, but my point is, who decides what is & isn't offensive?

Is there a mass movement of blonde women against blonde jokes? Are lawyers suing comedians over being described as unprincipled money-grabbers? Are the rednecks reaching into the backs of their pick-ups, moving the beer cooler out of the way & grabbing their shotguns?

Or are we too sensitive about one type of joke? While it tends to perpetuate a stereotype, is there real harm in a racist joke? Are there acceptable targets (such as the French - who, after all, are a nationality, not a race)?

The vast majority of jokes have a butt, a target to be disparaged, but should we bother to take that belittling seriously? Are we giving more credence to the impact of such comments than they deserve, or are we merely preventing the escalation of the feelings expressed in joke form into true racial hatred?

I'm sure that in Hitler's Germany there were plenty of jokes told about the Jews before and during the war (notwithstanding the sterotype that the Germans are a humourless race), but were these one of many catalysts for the atrocities that followed, or merely reflective of the social situation of the time?

I don't profess to know the answers to any of this, except to say I believe it to be a matter for each individual's conscience. Comedians tread a fine line when they hold up a mirror to society, showing us our true selves through what we laugh at. If we laugh at 'offensive' jokes, we have to accept that that is who we are, and political correctness will do nothing except make us suppress that side of ourselves. Should we suppress it, or address it?

I can only say that, whatever the subject of a joke, if it's funny I can't promise I won't laugh at it.

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