To Laugh or Not to Laugh at Racist Jokes I Jin Jang and Carlos Cordero-Pedrosa
Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice, 28:474–481 Copyright C© Taylor & Francis Group, LLC ISSN 1040-2659 print; 1469-9982 online DOI: 10.1080/10402659.2016.1237116
To Laugh or Not to Laugh at Racist Jokes I Jin Jang and Carlos Cordero-Pedrosa
In times of Brexit, the French ban on the burkini, and the refugee crisis, the return of openly expressing racism in many parts of Europe increasingly pairs political correctness in a false dichotomy with freedom of speech. In this light, humor seems a suitable vehicle to sustain racist discourse in an acceptable way, and it is even presented as a critique of racism itself. Racist jokes are employed with the purpose of parodying and exposing racism to challenge political correctness. In this context, it is not clear if certain racist jokes are reinforcing or subverting racism. Laughing at the jokes, then, becomes an increasingly difficult choice. This essay departs from the authors’ shared per- sonal experiences with racist jokes presented as a parody of racism. Using two at times different, yet converging perspectives—of a Korean female and a Spanish male—we try to bring those perspectives into our reflection on the workings of racism, dynamics of power, and limitations and possibilities for solidarity. We attempt to analyze our episodes from different angles in order to present some of the manifold implications that racist jokes can reveal and hide. We start by discussing a situation in which we were watching a Spanish sitcom in a familial setting and the dilemma that arises when racism takes the shape of humor.
After lunch, a ritual begins. In Spain people usually have lunch betweentwo and four in the afternoon. Carlos’ family was not an exception. After the meal was finished, the family would take yogurt for dessert, and retire into an adjacent sitting room where they would gather to relax. Sitting or lying on a sofa to let the food go down, there is nothing better than to watch a light comedy on a drowsy late afternoon. The TV is on, showing a rerun of a popular Spanish comedy called La Que Se Avecina (What’s Yet to Come). The quotidian routine of watching the show together after lunch is almost sacred, and it is only polite for the guest to join this ritual. Between laughing, they glance at I Jin to see if she understands the humor and to explain the background stories of the characters for her to be able to follow.
La Que Se Avecina has been aired for eight years in Spain with immense success. Set in an upscale suburban housing development around Madrid, the sitcom revolves around the lives of the neighboring residents who are
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gradually learning to “live worse” in the wake of the economic crisis in Spain. Gossiping, scheming, backstabbing, and plotting unlawful acts with or against one another are common devices chosen by the farcically stereotyped neighbors in their desperate and hysterical attempt to keep up the appearance of a good life. The show’s most popular and beloved character is Antonio, who, ironically, embodies the quintessence of misanthropy manifested as sex- ism, racism, and homophobia. A sort of Spanish Archie Bunker, only in its extremely obnoxious and offensive version, Antonio’s character purports to make a satirical parody of the racist Spanish society.
A wide array of the Orientalist repertoire toward Latin America isdeployed as background in which Antonio can do his parody: constant reference to jungle, the indigenous ways of life, lack of civilized behaviors, and exotic spiritual practices. Added are other stereotypes of Latin Americans in Spain: drug dealing, gangs, promiscuity, and hyper-sexualized women. Antonio’s relation with his employee Rosario, an undocumented migrant worker from Colombia, portrays the most constant and overt expressions of racism. Rosario is directly referred to as “the immigrant.” Rosario’s perspec- tive is rarely presented except that he obeys his exploitative employer repeat- ing “sí, jefe Antonio,” and shows gratitude for being able to live the “Spanish dream.” One scene shows sexual intercourse between Antonio in a costume of a Spanish conquistador, evoking Hernán Cortés, and Manolita, a Colom- bian woman, dressed up as an indigenous person, fulfilling Antonio’s sexual fantasy.
The target of Antonio’s racism is not limited to the people from Latin America. The Roma are said to be irascible and vengeful. Muslims are either terrorists or rich Arabic sheiks. Black women appear as sex workers. The Chinese are portrayed as threatening business rivals. As the show claims to be a satire of Spanish society, it is the extremely exaggerated representations of stereotypes that give the sitcom its humorous vein. The absurdity works to elicit laughter in the audience and somehow dilute offensiveness.
Nevertheless, that is when the moment of the poignant dilemma arises, to laugh or not to laugh. Seated amid her host family, being entertained by the show, the guest feels obliged to join in the laugh to be included; also to be polite. But where is the laughing point? At times, their bursts of laughter seem to imply that such overt racism is a thing of the past, and educated, lib- eral white Europeans would never agree with what is being said by the show’s maverick Antonio. This may be one of the reasons that Antonio, despite the character’s crudely offensive demeanors, enjoys such popularity, reaching even younger and more progressive-minded audience. Considering the supe- riority theory of humor, the viewer’s laughter then entertains a certain notion of moral superiority of having reached universal liberal ideals as opposed to the outdated values that the racist character is obviously holding on to. The
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portrayal of fictional characters uttering racist comments or jokes in popu- lar TV shows, movies, and stand-up comedies is claimed to be harmlessly humorous because it is supposedly those racist characters that the audience actually laughs at, not at racism or at the target of racism.
This moral superiority, which is premised on the conception of racism based on the individual moral grounds, then, renders the racist clearly absurd. The laughter sometimes results from the shock. The incongruity theory of humor posits that people are amused by the perception of incongruity, the gap between what is considered commonsensical and the absurd or contradictory. Racism, when considered to be social deviation, individual moral failing, or anachronistic, becomes a source of abnormal contradictions that are not con- gruous with the ideals of a society. Consider, however, Frantz Fanon’s stance that in a racist culture, being racist is not an abnormal thing. In such a soci- ety, no one is exempt from “racist rationality” as racism is a normative fea- ture. The rigor of systemic racism renders everyday expressions of racism as superfluous. According to Lewis Gordon, racist rationality not only sustains and normalizes racism, but also renders it invisible to the dominant group of a racist society. Placing racism on the racist individuals, and reducing it to personal prejudices of such individuals themselves constitutes an intrinsic element of a systemically racist society.
Antonio’s overt expression of racism is then not abnormal, but redun- dant. It is hardly shocking for people of color living with everyday racism in Spain. The source of incongruity may not be his racism despite the non-racist social conducts or even aspirations, but his utter disregard for being politically correct despite the constraints of political correctness. No wonder there is a peculiar phenomenon of his character being almost received as a delegate of social affairs: “(using a mechanism of comedy) I am exposing truth concealed by political correctness.” When Antonio appears and makes a scene with his “I-don’t-give-a-damn-about-political-correctness” attitude, it has not only a shocking effect, but a perversely liberating sense of calling what it is, what it is. We will come back to this theme later.
For Antonio to assume the role of anti-racist messenger, it is important toset him up as a popular and beloved character. Raul Perez examines how rhetorical performance strategies are taught to white stand-up comedians to make racist jokes successful—that is, funny and acceptable—without appear- ing racist. Self-deprecation or negative self-presentation is one of the strate- gies that allow the joker to create a safe space before telling racist jokes to the audience. This corresponds to how La Que Se Avecina’s production team cre- ated Antonio’s character to evoke pity. As misanthropic, homophobic, racist, and misogynic as he is, escalating episodes depict how he is supposed to fail at life in his pathetic attempts to succeed. In an interview, Jordi Sánchez, the actor playing Antonio, comments that he was instructed to portray Antonio
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as an obnoxious and, at the same time, a “lovely” character, a person full of traumas, who, in the end, just feels alone. Compared to this careful building up of Antonio’s character, the production team’s representation of people of color is surprisingly one-dimensional. These characters make appearances as mere stereotypes without interiority, playing the background against which Antonio can express his racism.
Some viewers, discomforted by such representation and other racist and sexist elements of the show, expressed their concerns on various online forums. Interestingly, their questions and comments were most frequently met with the reproach that they should learn to appreciate a parody (and also to lighten up). This shows a strange logic behind whether to laugh or not. One has to laugh at an attempt of parody (whether it is successful at parodying is another matter of discussion) because its status as a parody already implies a critique of what it intends to parody. For I Jin, that also means to join in the laughter to show that she knows well enough not to be offended by the racist moment she has just seen on TV. But what is it that she is supposed to know? It is that the show producers, writers, actors, and the audience—the Spanish people—all know racism is bad. That knowing puts oneself in what Sara Ahmed calls the mode of declaration: to admit to being bad means being good. That is why Sánchez says in the interview, “somos racistas”: we, the Spanish people, are racists. In this case, simply by saying that we are racists, we transcend the very thing (racism) we just admitted to being. Thus, declar- ing that something is racist, or that racism is bad, itself, exempts oneself from racism. The show is exempt from being racist, because it has already declared its knowing.
As humor is an intrinsic part of social interaction and integral to socialrelationships, the dilemma in the family sitting room is a recurring theme for I Jin. Coming from South Korea and living in Spain, where most East Asians are taken as Chinese (chino), joking, teasing, and social banter often involve cultural or phenotypical differences. Frequent joking material includes the shape of eyes (although epicanthic folds by some Asians are also shared by some Europeans), martial arts, rice and chopsticks, or Chinese sounding gibberish. Comparison to Mulan, Pocahontas, or Lucy Liu can be, least of all, amusing. Often the choice she makes is to laugh along. Not many would like to be considered to have “no sense of humor” in many contem- porary societies where a sense of humor works as great social capital, and is even valued as a virtue. In this milieu, the social dimension of humor is often disregarded in favor of individualist approach on humor, and the asymmetry of power relations within humor is unquestioned, celebrating humor for its own sake.
The racialized living in a white-dominated society only know too well how they are seen by the dominant discourse. When such discourse adopts the
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form of humor, how to respond to it becomes complicated not only with polit- ical and ethical but also emotional implications. They might laugh along, but their laughing is not really laughing, more often than not, forced by concealed weapon in laughter by those in positions of power. When women, people of color, or other oppressed groups refuse to join in the humor that targets them as the receiving end, they are often called “hypersensitive,” and accused of not being able to “take jokes.” Furthermore, calling a joke out as racist itself is considered to be an offensive and false accusation toward the joker. When people of color call out that the joke they have just heard is racist, they are often met with strong protest to the word “racist.” That accusation is, accord- ing to Sara Ahmed, an injury to whiteness. The injured then launches the defense (“I was just joking”) and the attack (“You are too serious”). No mat- ter how much explanation is provided, it is difficult for the injured to get over the injury. So why go through the battle? Instead, why not just laugh?
The following is another one of our shared experiences of racist humor. In this case, unfortunately, Carlos attempted to make a racial joke about I Jin’s niece, which for her was not a laughing matter. Instead of laughing it off, she felt frozen by his choice of the word “yellow” because of the association it brought with it—the memories, personal and collective, of the dehumanizing humiliation of racism. She chose her response, that of anger, to his joke, and called it racist. Then it was his time to flip off with the word “racist.”
“It’s just a joke,” Carlos kept repeating. He was convinced that, in the end, itwas just a joke. Although her argument for the joke being racist sounded reasonable, he nevertheless froze at her use of the word “racist.” From then on, the rest of her argument turned into a buzz. It felt as an accusation, under which his defense mechanism instantly activated. “It’s just a joke,” he kept repeating. He barked that his comment was ironic, that what he was actually intending was to twist colorblindness and political correctness by using the racial slur. He defended that he had good intentions, that he considered him- self non-racist, even anti-racist, and denied that it was a racist joke. Then he pointed his finger at the accuser and called her over-sensitive.
The disclaimer “it’s just a joke” (or “it’s just a parody”) functions as a shield that provides distance and detachment. Gary Alan Fine and Christine Wood argue that the aesthetic format of the joke allows the joker to distance himself from the implications of the joke, and if taken further, to distance the meaning of the joke from what joking means. Thus, the joker evades respon- sibility for the impact of the joke on others. Like Carlos shrugged off, “it’s just a joke, it’s not what I really believe, or what I really am.” Then one can say racist or sexist jokes without being racist or sexist.
The “it’s just a joke” disclaimer is a double-edged sword. At the failure of the first, it immediately turns into an attack on the received: “you have no sense of humor.” To oppose humor against seriousness is a recurrent strategy
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when racist jokes are not received as expected. If we look at the concept of seriousness from an existentialist perspective, it refers to a way of conceiving values as ready-made, absolute, and independent from human intervention. For Simone de Beauvoir, in his flight from responsibility, the serious man denies one’s and others’ subjectivity in the constitution of meanings. Ironi- cally, the joker who accuses of seriousness is being existentially serious by meaning “jokes are what they are.” The joker makes no distinction between what a joke stands for and the meanings through which human beings con- stitute them. In other words, his/her desire to bestow certain symbolic values to jokes is obscured and the desire itself becomes an inherent element of the joke.
The allegedly subversive element of racist jokes is an argument often usedby left thinkers, as exemplified below with the case of Slavoj Žižek. They argue that racist jokes provide a vehicle to challenge the alleged limitations imposed on free speech. Carlos thought that using the word “yellow” may be subversive of the dominance of colorblindness. The Slovenian philosopher argues that racist jokes, when delivered with a critical purpose and for the sake of solidarity, can oppose political correctness, which he considers as hege- monic. Žižek sees political correctness as not effective against racism, rather for him, it is just a paternalistic way of repressing and controlling racist dis- course, fostered by liberal multiculturalism. Thus, racist jokes defy the moral restrictions imposed by the hegemony of political correctness. For Žižek, the fear of being accused of racism is a heavy burden put on the shoulders by political correctness that impedes critical thinking. Accordingly, racist humor can be critical and liberating.
In her response to Žižek, Sara Ahmed points out that the problem lies in the fantasy created around the view of political correctness as being hege- monic. Believing in the illusion that racist discourse is prohibited has the opposite effect: it masks, dilutes, and ends up reinforcing racism. The spell of the hegemony of liberal multiculturalism, Ahmed continues, produces the mirage of an ideal where racism is prohibited; following the fantasy of the transcendence of racism, most people want to be regarded as non-racists or anti-racists; this allows them to identify and point at certain forms of racism, always somewhere else, what results in the covering over of other experi- ences of racism. The prohibition of racism turns racists into a minority, hence racism is presented as counterhegemonic, and free speech is the form of rebellion against the restrictions supposedly imposed by political correctness. Lifting these restrictions by means of racist speech reinforces the illusion of such restrictions, which in turn feeds racism through counter-appeals to free speech.
Considering racist jokes as having liberating and progressive potentials situates Žižek’s discourse not so much different from the right-wing argu-
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ments. As pointed out by scholars, there is a close relationship between racism and the idea of progress. Indeed, racism functions and advances through the self-understanding of institutions and movements as being progressive. Denying racism and justifying it as progress (as “the European colonization brought progress and development to the world”) is part of the structure of systemic racism. Ideas of progress have been used to legitimize the colonial enterprises and to cover over their legacy, in which racism plays a central role.
The following account may offer a broader picture of the dynamicsof how “progressive” racist jokes work, and how racism and racist stories are covered over and relegated to the background. A conversation between a left activist and scriptwriter and a film director appeared in the press. It contained a series of racist jokes about Jews and the Holo- caust. The conversation on Twitter went unnoticed for four years until the scriptwriter, Guillermo Zapata, was elected for a seat in Madrid’s town hall as a member of a progressive party. After the publication, right-wing press and parties called for his resignation. The issue, and specially the newly elected politician, became the center of political and media atten- tion. Zapata issued a series of public statements in which he apologized, declared himself as non-racist, condemned any form of racism, and argued that the information that appeared had been decontextualized, for those jokes were part of a broader conversation about the limits of humor on the Inter- net, since, he argued, black humor could have a cathartic effect despite its cruelty.
In both cases, Zapata’s and Carlos’ “defense” was to declare themselves as being non-racists. The issue is not whether Zapata is a racist or not. That the public debate revolved around this question reveals how, in this case, the vehement denunciation by the conservative media and parties of Zapata as the embodiment of racism functions to place themselves as non-racist. Racism is located in Zapata by the ones who “conserve” racism through their policies, which determine, among others, who lives and who dies at the doors of hos- pitals or at the shores of Spanish coasts. Distinguishing between good and bad whites is also a form of evasion and concealment from the systemic char- acter of racism. Being racist functions like the bucket that is passed around in a closed circle, an ever-expanding loop of whiteness where no one wants to be racist, and accusing others of being racists is used as a weapon. Mean- while the structure remains invisible (to some) and denied, and so the stories of racism go, silenced.
Going back to the TV room, laughing, in the end, at Antonio’s rhetoricseems to be laughing into complicity with the insidious and invidious dominant elements carefully layered among different discourses that conceal, expose, distort, and disavow the existence of systemic racism. That’s when
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the poignant dilemma occurs: to laugh or not to laugh. Fanon said he could no longer laugh, as he understood the weight of legends, stories, history, and historicity that overdetermines the person of color. It may not be so easy to laugh when one carries all those with oneself.
Ahmed, Sara. 2004. “Declarations of Whiteness: The Non-Performativity of Anti-Racism.” Borderlands: e-journal 3(3). Available at <http://www.borderlands.net.au/vol3no2_ 2004/ahmed_declarations.htm>, last accessed July 17, 2016.
Ahmed, Sara. 2008. “‘Liberal Multiculturalism is the Hegemony—Its an Empirical Fact’—A Response to Slavoj Žižek.” General Issue (0). Available at <http://www. darkmatter101.org/site/category/issues/0-general-issue/ >, last accessed September 3, 2016
Ahmed, Sara. 2016. “Progressive Racism.” Available at <https://feministkilljoys.com/2016/ 05/30/progressive-racism/ >, last accessed September 3, 2016.
Fanon, Frantz. 1964. Pour la Revolution Africaine. Écrits Politiques. Paris: La Découverte. Fanon, Frantz. 1967. Black Skin, White Skin. New York: Grove Press. Gordon, Lewis R. 2015. What Fanon Said. A Philosophical Introduction to his Life and Thought. New York: Fordham University Press.
Gordon, Lewis R. 1999. Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism. New York: Humanity Books.
I Jin Jang is a Ph.D. student of Peace, Conflict and Development Studies at Jaume I University, Spain. Her research interests include philosophy for peace with regard to colonialism and racism, African and Africana philosophy. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Carlos Cordero-Pedrosa is a Ph.D. student in Peace Conflict and Development Studies at Jaume I Univer- sity, Spain. His research interests include racism and colonialism. E-mail: email@example.com
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