Hiding Racism in the Racist Joke

An Everyday Analysis reader encountered the following joke in a newsletter from a society that organizes social events for international students visiting Britain:

An Englishman, a Scotsman, an Irishman, a Welshman, a Latvian, a Turk, a German, an Indian, several Americans (including a southerner, a New Englander, and a Californian), an Argentinian, a Dane, an Australian, a Slovakian, an Egyptian, a Japanese, a Moroccan, a Frenchman, a New Zealander, a Spaniard, a Russian, a Guatemalan, a Colombian, a Pakistani, a Malaysian, a Croatian, a Uzbek, a Cypriot, a Pole, a Lithuanian, a Chinese, a Sri Lankan, a Lebanese, a Cayman Islander, a Ugandan, a Vietnamese, a Korean, a Uraguayan, a Czech, an Icelander, a Mexican, a Finn, a Honduran, a Panamanian, an Andorran, an Israeli, a Venezuelan, a Fijian, a Peruvian, an Estonian, a Brazilian, a Portuguese, a Liechtensteiner, a Mongolian, a Hungarian, a Canadian, a Moldovan, a Haitian, a Norfolk Islander, a Macedonian, a Bolivian, a Cook Islander, a Tajikistani, a Samoan, an Armenian, a Aruban, an Albanian, a Greenlander, a Micronesian, a Virgin Islander, a Georgian, a Bahamanian, a Belarusian, a Cuban, a Tongan, a Cambodian, a Qatari, an Azerbaijani, a Romanian, a Chilean, a Kyrgyzstani, a Jamaican, a Filipino, a Ukrainian, a Dutchman, a Taiwanese, an Ecuadorian, a Costa Rican, a Swede, a Bulgarian, a Serb, a Swiss, a Greek, a Belgian, a Singaporean, an Italian, a Norwegian and 47-53 Africans walk into a fine restaurant.

“I’m sorry,” said the snooty maître d’, “but you can’t come in here without a Thai.”

A few kinds of traditional form of joke are in play here: ‘Englishman, Irishman, Scotsman,’ ‘X walks into a bar,’ ‘waiter waiter,’ as well as that more generalised and resilient form: the ethnic joke. The humour, such as it is, comes from the fact that it initially seems like the old-fashioned racism we might anticipate from that kind of old-fashioned joke is going to be undercut by this absurdly long series of nationalities, only for it to come in at the end all the same. If those old jokes are dependent on there being a single identifiable “other” (the Irishman to the Englishman and Scotsman for instance), then how are so many nationalities, all with their own sense of who that ‘other’ is, going to provide a foil for such a punch-line? But after all that, the joke surprises by still managing to make a cheap pun at the expense of the Thai: here arbitrarily found to be funny because they sound like “tie.”

There is probably some supplementary humour contributed by the idea of the snooty waiter looking for an excuse not to admit this suspiciously international and no-doubt noisy party, and this is what makes it seem like an appropriate joke for an international society. For one, it combines self-deprecation with self-congratulation  (“look at us, always blundering into social situations where we are at best ambivalently received and understood! But we, after all, are the right-on progressive ones”). But more importantly, it seems to reveal all racial prejudice as the gesture of the waiter “looking for an excuse.” Even in the face of a multiculturalism that has exposed all cultural values as relative, some bigots will seize on anything, however transparently silly, as a reason to stand against the cosmopolitan future. Even, indeed, to the extent of making objections directly contrary to their aims, since we cannot imagine the maître d’ being made any more happy by the addition of an actual “Thai” to the party…

But not all is at it seems. Who are the “47-53 Africans” that conclude the list of hopeful diners? The imprecise figure presumably corresponds to the ambiguous status of Africa’s six ‘island nations’ in some accounts of the continent, and this version of the joke’s wording no doubt predates South Sudan’s independence, making it the 54th African state in 2011. In the telling, this contracted to the joke’s list of nationalities is an inherent part of the comic tempo and probably gets a murmur of amusement in some circles. It allows the teller to make a self-aware gesture at the joke’s absurd length, and creates a conspiratorial sense of relief between teller and audience that neither is going to have to sit through a list of another fifty nationalities. It is also slightly absurd in itself, combining as it does the oddly precise and haphazardly vague (surely it should be 47 or 53, unless only some of the island nations count?). The question that should make us uneasy, of course, is why, when every other nationality (and indeed two African nationalities, Egyptian and Moroccan) has been specifically named, should the other African countries with all their minute cultural specificities be summarised in this hasty way? And doesn’t “47-52 Africans” have a touch of the old archetypal colonial ruler who thinks of Africa in that statistical way but considers it ungentlemanly to be too precise about having the figures to hand? The fact that the joke couldn’t be as easily told with the concluding summary “… and fifty or so Europeans,” even if this makes the same logical sense, flags up that this is, in however minor a way, undeniably racist.

The mock-racism against the Thai that establishes the joke’s levelling anti-racist credentials comes, then, immediately after a statement of actual racism concerning “Africans”. The punch-line which shows up the arbitrariness of racial prejudice by making a transparently ridiculous slur against a country with a comparatively small place in Britain’s racial stereotyping, displaces a submerged but more serious jab at a whole continent with a very significant one. In short, the joke that adopts a pose of mock-racism to expose racism’s absurdity is itself concealing within the machinery of its comic tone… its own racism.

The catachresis of this joke – the way it says more than it means to say – has some address in the age of various incarnations of mock-racism in popular comedy, ranging from Ricky Gervais to Frankie Boyle. The familiar defence that this form of comedy “doesn’t mock subjugated groups, but satirises the attitudes of those who want to mock them” is perhaps being a little too definite about where its pleasure is located. The joke that tries to subvert racism from inside racism’s own language does so only by disavowing the fact that much of the humorous response it creates remains dependent on the old racist structures of humour.  In other words, today, far from occupying a post-racial utopia in which “we can laugh about it now”: I hide my racism in a racist joke.

 

 

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