Why racist ‘jokes’ are no laughing matter

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Racist jokes can get you into trouble, and maybe even a lawsuit. Just ask celebrity chef Paula Deen.

According to published reports, Deen, in a videotaped deposition, has admitted to using the n-word and wanting to use black waiters dressed up as slaves for a wedding party she was planning.

“I mean, it was really impressive. That restaurant represented a certain era in America…after the Civil War, during the Civil War, before the Civil War…It was not only black men, it was black women…I would say they were slaves,” Deen reportedly said.

Deen was deposed in connection with a lawsuit filed by Lisa Jackson, the former general manager of the Savannah, Georgia restaurant owned by Deen and her brother Bubba Hiers.  In addition to claiming use of the n-word, Jackson alleged sexual harassment, assault and infliction of distress by Hiers.  Hiers also reportedly admitted using the racial epithet.

NBC News: Deen and Hiers deny wrongdoing, according to court records

The role of nouveau racism

Now, we must remember that these are just allegations.  But if they are true, they raise the issue of the role of nouveau racism, a new type of hipster racism that hides itself in comedy.  The person invoking the racial stereotype or derogatory term supposedly does so purely for shock value.  In other words, “I’m not racist, so I can be as racist as I want to be and say whatever I want to say.  You should laugh at what I just said because it was funny and cool.”

The problem with the nouveau racism trend is that it places the burden on the victim of the racism.  So, when a fellow golfer Sergio Garcia says Tiger Woods eats fried chicken, or a politician calls President Obama “lazy,” it leaves enough room for interpretation that the speaker can deny he or she is a racist.  And suddenly the onus is on the offended target, who suddenly is viewed as thin-skinned, overly sensitive and someone who cannot take a joke told in good humor.

However, this casual form of racism backfires when no one laughs, and all the audience hears is offensive and hurtful language.  For example, comedian Michael Richards—Kramer from the sitcom Seinfeld—repeatedly yelled the n-word at hecklers during an L.A. comedy club skit in 2006.  At one point during the tirade he even said, “Fifty years ago we’d have you upside down with a f**king fork up your ass.”  Not funny, not even close.

Richards apologized and said he is not a racist and reacted in anger.  Nevertheless he has paid the price and has not recovered from that incident.  Richards learned a valuable lesson in the process.  “I think I worked selfishly, and not selflessly,” Richards said. “It’s not about me, it’s about them (the audience). That’s the lesson I learned seven years ago when I blew it in the comedy club and lost my temper because somebody interrupted my act and said some things that hurt me and I lashed out in anger. I should have been working selflessly at that time.”

Racial humor is back in style

Meanwhile, halfway across the world, a 13-year old girl was escorted from a stadium during an Australian rules football game for calling Adam Goodes—an Aboriginal player for the Sydney Swans— an ape.  To his credit, Goodes pointed the girl out to security, who then showed her the door.  Apparently, it was not the first time he had been called an ape or a monkey.  The incident reminded Goodes of being bullied by whites as a high school student.  As for the young spectator, who claimed no racist intent, the timing could not have been worse.  After all, the football match was supposed to be a celebration of indigenous athletes.  The president of the opposing team made things worse when he apologized for the incident, then suggested that Goodes should be promoting the musical King Kong.

However, in the age of political correctness, the pendulum can swing in the opposite direction.  People can take things too seriously.  Although we have a black president, America is not a post-racial, colorblind society.  It is unrealistic to assume we cannot speak about race, even in jest.  As we celebrate our differences, sometimes we have to laugh about it.  Racial humor is back in style, but jokesters should proceed with caution.

Comedians who are from racial and ethnic minority groups have been known to employ self-deprecating humor and use racial stereotypes in their material.  Often, according to Raúl Pérez of the University of California at Irvine, these comics often find themselves unable to avoid discussions of race in their material, and are encouraged to go for the stereotypes unabated.

Pérez, who conducted research on stand-up comedians, said that white comedians develop strategies to navigate the line where jokes become hurtful and racially offensive, as in the case of Michael Richards’ comedic meltdown.  For example, white comics should not begin with racially-tinged jokes, yet when they proceed, the joke should be more advanced than mere mockery.  For a white comedian, making fun of oneself can pave the way for an acceptable racial joke.

Leave comedy to the professionals

So what is the takeaway?  If you make a race-related joke, you’d better be funny or else.  Don’t step over the racial humor line separating funny from racist.  If you’re not a comedian, then leave comedy to a certified professional.  And if you claim to be a comedian and no one is laughing, consider finding a new line of work.

“It’s just what they are — they’re jokes…most jokes are about Jewish people, rednecks, black folks…I can’t determine what offends another person,” Paula Deen said.  That’s right Paula, and we’re sure some of your best friends are black, too.  No joke.

Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove