White humour and people of colour

TV has become an important aspect of mother-son bonding during AM’s teenage years. We snuggle on the couch together and watch all sorts of stuff that I’d really rather not know about. Mostly it’s BBC SciFi like Dr Who, (which I do like) or assorted American crime shows (which I often don’t). Very occasionally (owing to AM”s bad case of cultural cringe), we’ll watch something Australian – usually local comedy.

One of the shows we watch a bit more often is Good News Week, a comic take on some of the more absurd headlines from around the world, live in front of a studio audience. Two celebrity panels ‘compete’ to guess the news behind the assorted skits, props, and  jumbled headlines provided as clues. It veers between outrageous bad taste, wickedly funny satire and hilarious madness … like when a visting British comedian took to the stage with an unlimted supply of shaving cream ….

Well, I’ve started to notice something else about it. A regular guest on the show is Aussie-Egyptian comedian Akmal, and what I’ve noticed is that he ends up being the butt of all the jokes. Well, he’s a comic, so he can cop that – but so are most of the panellists. Why am I getting the feeling they’re ganging up on him? In the funniest possible way of course.  And he parries it well. Did I mention he’s usually the only person of colour on the show? Including, at a glance, the audience. And why am I getting this strong sense of dej vu? Oh, I know … it’s because I’ve noticed exactly the same dynamic happening around AM and his white friends.

AM also parries it fairly well. He is very funny & will often play for laughs, so perhaps he invites & enjoys these friendly attacks. I don’t think it’s malicious – either from AM’s friends or on GNW.  I’ll concede that it’s maybe just a variation on that brand of Aussie humour where ‘good-natured’ picking on people is considered funny, and if the person being picked on doesn’t go along with it, they’re seen as a very poor sport. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that targets Akmal and AM both happen to be be brown-skinned. Maybe I’m over-reacting and it’s all good clean fun. Maybe I mis-interpreted the fleeting look on Akmal’s face that seemed kind of hurt. It’s completely possible he was just struggling to think up a clever riposte. It’s a high pressure job, live comedy.

But I think this particular dynamic probably is a kind of unaware racism. That the white people feel some kind of relief when around a black person who can laugh with them, and at himself. It’s like an affirmation that we’re okay as white people – ‘Look, we’re all friends, no racism here – Phew! Ok, we just happen to be in a majority so it really feels safe to have a go at this guy …. Oh … he’s black?’

I’m all for humour breaking down cultural barriers, but I suspect that a white person would not be quite as comfortable being the butt of friendly ribbing from a group of black people. It might start to feel a bit serious. And actually, is this kind of humour really good for anyone? Especially the bit where you have to suck it up if something hits a nerve.

Anyway, I’ve decided not to take part. Anytime this happens around AM, I vigorously defend him – in a humourous, friendly way. He hasn’t objected to me doing it.

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2 thoughts on “White humour and people of colour

  1. As an orbuni (white) in Ghana I have, at times, been the butt of race-based jokes or, more accurately, ribbing. It is certainly good-natured (at least as I interpret it) and I wouldn’t claim that I don’t joke back at them. Perhaps it will stop, in time. Perhaps they will just “forget” that I’m white, but somehow I doubt that. Back in the US, in my mostly white community, I have never failed to recognize the race of the few blacks with whom I regularly interact. That recognition is largely unconscious, but it’s close enough to my consciousness that it enters my thoughts from time to time. In Ghana I’M the minority and I can’t imagine a majority group, especially when it’s a large majority, ever failing to notice the differences evident in the minorities. I think over time, if the jokes persist, they will grow tiresome. At some point I imagine I might wonder why we can’t stop talking about the difference in skin color and just ignore it.

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