Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Racist jokes... It's only words

Not for the first time some members of my youth group ruffled my feathers last night.

The context was a discussion on reconciliation & peace-making in NI; not just between Protestants & Catholics, but amongst all divisions in society. A couple of young people were adamant that it was ok to make "sectarian" or "Black/racist" jokes with Catholic friends and those different from races as long as they aren't offended.

Various questions were raised such as "does making any joke about Black people make you a racist or is our world too politically correct?" and "why can't I call my Catholics friends a F***ian, if it is made in jest?"

I addressed & challenged our youth to think about these attitudes raising questions such as "do you think Jesus would tell this joke?" and "would Jesus make any comments if He overhead you delivering this joke or laugh along with you?" I urged great caution & prayerful reflection in all these situations.

Interestingly, there were mixed reactions, great passion & heated debate at this point. One youth asked more probing follow up questions, worried that what she had perceived as "ok banter" may have been causing offence or dishonouring God. Another reacted very aggressively claiming that by potentially labelling him as a racist I had committed the worse crime.

By no means I am suggesting that my youth are out-and-out racists, seeking to offend or dominate people from different backgrounds. However, the questions raised in my mind are:

  • Do these "jokes" imply a superiority over another group? (a significance part of sectarianism & racism)

  • What makes a sectarian/racist "joke" funny?

  • Does familiarity with these "jokes" (even in the context of friendship & banter) open the door for other people to use these in a more sinister manner?

  • And how does this impact on our witness to the God who is inclusive & all-loving?

I'd be keen to hear your views. Especially as to whether I'm making a mountain out of a mole hill or raising a common concern.


jonathan woods said...

well usually i would not get involved but i find this a touchy matter because i think christians in general need to let loose a bit and realise a joke is a 'joke'. As a great man once said(billy connoly)the politically correct have Fu**** it for everyone". Its not that i don't understand that alot of racist jokes are untastefull. But i highly object to saying anyone who laughs at them are racisit or even if that is even implied at all. Afterall in that case that would mean im a racist and many of my c.e peers. Once again i also don't think you are a racist if you tell a joke because if you don't mean it literally and you intend it as a joke, then whats the problem? don't get all worked up and make an issue out of it. Granted there can be times when a joke isn't Appropriate, e.g telling a cancer related joke to someone who has had cancer or is close to someone who has had cancer. I also think untastefull jokes are better said with a group of friends who you know well and therefore no no risk of offending anyone.

John Hamilton said...

This bit makes me think...

"Does familiarity with these "jokes" (even in the context of friendship & banter) open the door for other people to use these in a more sinister manner?"

... and what I think is that perhaps the person in a friendship group who is the butt of the joke may not feel free to admit even to friends that he/she finds the joke uncomfortable or even distasteful.

I think political correctness certainly needs to be carefully assessed through a Christian perspective.

And I think we all feel comfortable about some areas of humour and not with others...

Andy Bill said...

As someone who's both been on the end of these types of jokes or 'banter' and who has also made them and laughed along to them; the question for me that comes up along side the very helpful points you've made dinger is that of:

What is our motivation for telling such jokes or remarks?
- hopefully thinking about this would help to get to the root of the problem around racism/ oppression overall...

I also am lead to remember what Thompson (2003) says in relation to anti-oppressive practice and racism:
"In effect, to abstain from challenging racism amounts to voting for the status quo of widespread racial oppression."

Keep on challenging for the King,


*if you want the full reference for the quote, get me on the email.

Ruth E said...

We're well known in Northern Ireland for our sarcastic humour, but even that can hurt without meaning to. I guess the same applies to racist/sectarian jokes.

I can see what Jonathon Woods is saying about political correctness however a lot of these sorts of jokes are told/said about various groups with little or no knowledge of what they are like and can cause prejudice and division without intending to.

I'm all for banter and a laugh but when it pushes people apart and tears people down instead of bringing us together, it's just not worth it

Mark said...

Go on, surely you can ask a tougher question than that?

Years ago I saw someone on TV - a comedian, I think, but I can't remember who it was - say that there's a butt to every joke: everything that we find funny will ultimately be at the expense of someone else. He argued that the cost of laughing at someone else's expense was living with the jokes that are at our own expense.

I think there's an important insight in that, but it needs thinking about.

It's easy for me to say that if I make a sectarian or racist joke, that's okay because it's only a joke and I don't mean it - but intentions are a trap. If I tell a joke that causes someone else hurt, it doesn't matter whether I meant it to or not. They're still hurt.

If I tell a joke with its humour in race, odds are I'm not qualified to say if it's offensive or not, because I'm a middle-class white guy.

Then you get into the realms of, "Well, there was no-one here to be offended by it, so that's okay." Is it? Really?

Racial and sectarian jokes are invariably based in stereotypes, so maybe taking care over them isn't about political correctness - it's about checking the assumptions you make about other people. "You're a Catholic, so..." "You're Asian, so..." "You're from Liverpool, so..." I'd love to be able to say I can make jokes and they have nothing to do with what I really think about people, but I don't have that sort of confidence in my own impartiality and sense. Does anyone?

On a tangent, is the problem with political correctness" that it tries to pretend there is no difference between anyone? Better to recognise and value God-made diversity in humanity.