What’s Funny about Racism?
Is racism funny? This question may seem outrageous. In fact, I can hardly believe I’m asking it because no one with even the slightest amount of sociological insight would ever entertain such a thought. Let’s face it: There is nothing funny or amusing about racism or any other form of oppression such as sexism, homophobia, or ableism.
And yet, this question is one that I’ve been wondering about after seeing some racially-tinged skits that were clearly intended to be funny. The first one I saw was on Saturday Night Live (SNL). The skit depicted a fake talk show with three so-called technology experts discussing the flaws of the new iPhone 5 and three Chinese workers (played by non-Chinese SNL comedians) who were supposedly from the factory that built the iPhone.
My sense is that the skit was intended to poke fun at iPhone users for leveling ridiculously trivial complaints about the new Apple device. The skit even contains a biting dig at America’s overreliance on China for the production of material goods in contrast to our nation’s inability to produce anything of export value to the world’s most populous country. From a sociological perspective, the skit actually illustrates Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism whereby our infatuation with the product supersedes our concern for those who endured deplorable working conditions to make it.
When I first saw this video I was amused by the sarcastic remarks made toward the iPhone critics. But at the same time, I was troubled by the caricatured portrayal of the Chinese workers. I found their depiction to be somewhere along the continuum of racially biased and insensitive to outright racist. Sociologists have offered varying definitions of racism but one underlying principle is the notion that prejudiced beliefs are used to perpetuate the power and advantage of the dominant group (i.e. whites).
In the SNL skit, the iPhone critics clearly enjoy the power and advantage of being part of the advanced, intelligent, and savvy group—despite their depiction as petty and insensitive. Equally unmistakable is that the Chinese workers are purposefully represented as the backward, primitive, and impoverished subordinate group.
As I thought more about the racial dimensions of this skit I couldn’t help but wonder if SNL would ever have a group of white comedians portray Blacks or Latinos in such stereotypical and caricatured ways? Imagine the immediate backlash if SNL had three of their white comedians imitate African workers from a diamond mine in Namibia. Don’t you think there would be an uproar if these comedians spoke in a heavy African accent and lamented about stereotypical lifestyle problems? Can you even fathom the reaction if they performed the skit in blackface? I couldn’t imagine this happening; that is, until I read about a similar thing that happened.
A few weeks ago at Waverly High School in upstate New York a group of three white male students (two of whom were in blackface) performed a comedic skit at a homecoming rally that depicted the 2009 domestic assault incident involving singers Chris Brown and Rihanna. The students were vying for the position of “Mr. Waverly” which is awarded to the one who garners the most audience applause.
In attendance at the Waverly High homecoming rally were students, teachers, administrators, and parents. No one felt compelled to interrupt the skit or comment on its inappropriateness. In fact, according to a CNN report the skit was approved by school officials. Apparently, the general sentiment was that this routine, much like the SNL skit, was no big deal as it was only intended as humor to amuse and entertain. Once again, racism (and in this case domestic violence too) was seen as a viable form of entertainment.
The acceptance of using racism as a comedic style is an example of what sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva terms color-blind racism. Color-blind racism is particularly insidious because most whites are oblivious to it. They think their actions, or in these examples jokes, are benign; no harm was intended so no harm was done. As Bonilla-Silva points out, the problem with this line of reasoning is that white individuals are using these “powerful explanations—which ultimately become justifications—for contemporary racial inequality that exculpate them from any responsibility for the status of people of color.”
I was talking about these skits with Todd Schoepflin (a former Everyday Sociology contributor) who remarked to me that people often say we live in a race-obsessed society but the truth is that we live in a race dysfunctional society. We don’t understand race, we don’t want to talk about race, and we don’t acknowledge the deep structural and historical dimensions that allow racism to still exist today. When racism becomes a source of humor and entertainment our collective dysfunction in understanding race is glaringly obvious.
Officials at Waverly High School have suggested that they could use the skit as a teachable moment. I hope so. There certainly seems to be a lot that students, teachers, administrators, and parents can learn from this incident. In fact, there is something that all of us must learn from the skits at Waverly High and SNL.
First, we clearly need to understand why these skits are so problematic. This will take a lot of education, listening, and reflection—particularly on the part of white people. Next, we need to be able to Speak Up! and take a stand, both individually and collectively, against such bigotry. When we see or hear racially insensitive comments, jokes, actions, or behaviors, we can’t stand by idly and silently. We need to act against racism or else it will never be eradicated. So the next time you see a skit or comedy routine that passes racism off as humor you might respond as if you were answering the question of this blog: Nothing is funny about racism.