When does humour stop being funny and morph into racism?By actress Lucy Sheen
I have a sense of humour. A pretty good one, sometimes it goes a little dark. Hell I loved Nighty Nighty the deeply dark and disturbing comedy by Julia Davis. I even ended up in the second series! Other times it can be very infantile. I don’t think I get overly precious about stuff. I’ve been known to take the proverbial out of myself on many occasions. Our family motto (long story for another time) is:
Si omnia cetera fallunt utique, potest tamen se derideri
If all else fails, at least we can still laugh at ourselves.
I can laugh at a good joke and groan at the Christmas-cracker ones, like everyone else.
Recently though, the way that some people’s funny bones have been digging me in the ribs, I could have been forgiven for thinking I was back in the 1970s. Bernard Manning, Love They Neighbour, The Black and White Minstrel show and Mind Your Language and me dreading school on the Monday. I didn’t have to be a psychic to know that I’d be in for a verbal battering. I’d hope that the battering would remain just that, verbal.
Every Saturday night as a young child, I would be sat down along with the rest of the family to watch The Black and White Minstrel show. Yes, you heard me correctly. Back in the 60s there were only three TV channels. Children watched what the grown ups watched. Did I understanding what was going on? Hey you’re asking a, transracially adopted, East Asian child; who for a while thought that she was actually white! So you’re asking the wrong person.
It was the same for Mind Your Language. I’d watch along with the rest of the “family” but would feel distinctly uncomfortable. I’d spend more time watching my adoptive parents out of the corner of my eye, as they laughed at the linguistic and cultural ineptness of Chung Su-Lee and Tarō Nagazumi. My adoptive parents laughed unreservedly at the images they saw on the small screen. They were laughing at, not with, people who looked just like me.
As a child I was unable to coherently express my discomfort. Even if I could have, I wouldn’t have been allowed. Children in that era were still seen and not heard. I couldn’t verbalise my dislike of that program or why. It was the exact same feeling of discomfort and dis-ease I experienced when I had to pass by the local National Front office. Something I did as little as possible.
Taking the mickey out of people is a national past-time. So is the building up of people only to knock ‘em down. The British media loves doing this and it would appear that the British public love reading about it. So when does this, at times, aggressive jocularity turn from biting humour, into racism?
Is it possible to de-construct the interlocking subtle (sometimes not so subtle) strands that interweave into that which we find, or do not find funny?
Humour is subjective, after all differing cultures find differing things funny.
In an internet study about jokes, countries such as Britain, Australia and New Zealand preferred jokes that involved word play:
What happens to a frog’s car when it breaks down?
It gets toad away.
Americans and Canadians seemed to prefer jokes based on, or that had a sense of superiority – either because a person looked stupid, or was made to look stupid by another person, such as:
Cooper, Gary (Texan, The)_01
Texan: “Where are you from?”
Harvard grad: “I come from a place where we do not end our sentences with prepositions.”
Texan: “Okay – where are you from, jackass?”
Many European countries, like France, Denmark and Belgium, enjoyed jokes that were more surreal:
An Alsatian went to a telegram office, took out a blank form and wrote:
“Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof.”
The clerk examined the paper and politely told the dog: “There are only nine words here. You could send another ‘Woof’ for the same price.”
“But,” the dog replied, “that would make no sense at all.”
Humour, nonconformist, varied and not one for following rules. So is it the case that one person’s idea of humour is another person’s insult? Or is there more to the conundrum of humour, than culture, personal taste and what is generally perceived by the society you live in as acceptable?
The definition of humour is actually very interesting.
(h)yo͞omər – noun
1. the quality of being amusing or comic, especially as expressed in literature or speech
2. a mood or state of mind
1.comply with the wishes of (someone) in order to keep them content, however unreasonable such wishes might be.
The definition of humour as a verb is the most interesting and possibly the most pertinent to my initial question. Which makes me wonder even more about the general nature and application of humour.
I have always found jokes that rely on turning a person’s race, ethnicity or colour against themselves, making it a negative, unacceptable trait in society. I don’t find that kind of humour funny. I find nothing humorous in making a person seem abnormal, less than human, devaluing a person’s humanity because the colour of their skin is a different shade. Or the shape of their eyes or lips are different. That to me is not humour, it’s a systemic attempt to maintain a racist and biased view to continue to keep a society content with itself no matter how unreasonable that might be.
There will be those that say I’m reading too much into things. A joke is just a joke, it doesn’t mean anything. But that sounds suspiciously like the verbal prefacing that comes before a racist comment.
If I hear the term Chink, Coolie* or Oriental** I find it offensive. Yes it does depend upon context. In an academic or historical work examining Colonial or the Imperialist world, I get it. As a joke or in a comedy skit nine times out of ten I find it offensive. To me as a British East Asian, it offends me every bit as much as the n-word offends a black person. The word Chink, the term Oriental, these are not words or terms of endearment. It isn’t like saying, “me old china.” Where there would be a double and possible humours meaning as it’s Cockney rhyming slang for mate. No, these words are used to cause insult, to belittle, to demean, to racially slur. These words are meant to be derogatory, to demean, and devalue people like me because I look different. Because my ancestors were treated and viewed in a very specific manner in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And because, even now in the 21st century, people who like me, we are still considered alien, outsiders, those that are “other.” You only have to think back to the recent BBC- Jeremy Clarkson debacle a recent example of such supposed “humour.”
British East Asians numerically are not as great as their Black British and Asian (South Asian) British counterparts. In my humble opinion, Black and South Asian British are not consistently and routinely excluded from the general debates and concerns that surround British Asian Minority Ethnics. We are, as far as I can see, the only ethnic minority where it is still, in some people’s minds ok to pass racist comments in the guise of comedy or art. I think that we are the only minority in the UK where socially and publicly you can get away with broadcasting material that is offensive. Whether that’s racist jokes or Yellowface in stage productions. Why, because British East Asians don’t complain. We are our own worst enemies. I still see (more often than I should) on national television people passing offensive and racist comments based on my ethnicity. Yet these incidents are “laughed” of as having been meant in an affectionate manner. Let me tell you there is nothing affectionate about Chink jokes, or being referred to as a Chink, Coolie or Oriental. There is absolutely no reason for any theatre productions, Film, TV or radio programme to be practising Yellowface or Yellowvoice.
Yellowface is far more than a Caucasian putting on yellow make up or taping back their eyes to make themselves look more like an East Asian. It is a systemic, institutionalised and structural bias against East Asians and against engaging professional East Asian artist to play roles that are East Asian. It is the depiction of East Asian roles by Caucasian producers, directors, writers and other gatekeepers; those who control the representation of East Asians in the British media and popular British culture, those who make the casting decisions that propagate the continuance of racist East Asian stereotypes and caricatures.
That is not to say that other ethnic minorities have not suffered – or that people have not tried Blacking up or Brownface.
The stark difference is, there have been attempts to do this on a British stage. There have been and there were protests. Questions have been and would have been asked in the House of Commons. There would be, there has been wide-spread condemnation of such archaic artistic practices. But when it comes to the British East Asians - NADA.
And it has happened in the recent past and those of us who have complained were told, go away.
We were told that Yellowface just wasn’t the same as blacking up.
We’ve recently been told by TV Producer that the use of the word SLOPE, although it was understood to be offensive to East Asians; because it wasn’t thought to be widely used or known in the UK, they’d still use it. Why? Because using it here, in the UK, they could fool themselves into thinking its usage was “witty” a clever play on words and therefore non offensive. I also think that the general perception of East Asians in the UK is, they won’t complain. There are too few of us to matter. So they can get away with it, like they always have. Shock horror, I have news for everyone out there that thinks like that, NOT ANY MORE.
So, excuse me if I’m sceptical about the basic ins and outs of humour which is reliant on the use, as far as I can see, of racist stereotypes and caricatures. I personally do not speak (to any small degree of proficiency) Mandarin or Cantonese. I am not small, petite, servile or quiet. I do not work in a Chinese takeaway or restaurant, I am not a maths guru or proficient in computer programming language. Though I used to practice martial arts. I do not speak English with an accent that would make me the butt of a bad joke. I can pronounce all the consonants found in the English language. I am loud and outspoken, when I need to be. All of which I do in the Queen’s glorious English.
As soon as you purposefully target another human being for not being like the culturally dominant; as soon as you imply that people who are not superficially akin to the dominant race in your society, who don’t share the common vocal or physical characteristic, or that people who are different from the majority in your society are somehow less than human and have a lower value in your society - for me that’s not humour.
That’s abuse, that’s racism, that’s setting up behaviours which I consider unacceptable, that society then passes on to the following generations.
If you can substitute another word for Chink or Oriental and the joke still gets a laugh, then my question is, why are you choosing to use those words in the first place?
Read the whole piece with illustrations at Lucy Sheen's website.