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Laughing Too Hard: Humor Hiding Racism


Bon Qui Qui

The role of humor in the race conversation has been on my mind lately, namely because humor often becomes a covert way of masking deeply laden societal sentiments. Under the shroud of humor, shows like Family Guy or even the above clip gains license to propagate stereotypes, racist tropes, and ultimately becomes a catharsis for people’s internalized prejudices by enabling them to, as this New Yorker article suggests, “…express negative attitudes in a socially acceptable manner.” But what I find even more curious, is that we seem to think humor exists in a sort of “free-for-all” vacuum that is meant to be consequence free. How many times have we made an offensive comment to a loved one and then retreated into the “…I was just joking…” chorus? Or if you peruse the comments section of videos such as the one above, you might come across the “…don’t take it offensively, lighten up, it’s just a joke…” statement.

So my question is…when did our jokes become divorced from reality?

Let’s be clear. From even before Mark Twain’s biting satire of the late 19th century to Jon Stewart’s the Daily Show, humor has always been one of society’s most poignant weapons. Now, I’m no humorolgist, but I would argue that we laugh at things because they reflect some truth to us. Our laughter is “conditioned,” as the lovable Dr. Seuss would say—what we laugh at is constructed and shaped by social norms, feelings, and anxieties. So I think I shudder a little bit when people try to dismiss racist jokes with this idea that it was “just a joke.” In fact, that it could be turned into something humorous might be even more of a reflection of how salient it is to our psychologies.

Now don’t get me wrong. I laugh. I laugh hard. I laugh even when I’m not supposed to. But I won’t be the one to pretend that my laughter is divorced from my real feelings. If humor can be both weapon and catharsis, I’m all for it. And humor often becomes a sort of neutral ground where real social commentary can be made. But we should be careful to remember that the little lyric from Avenue Q’s Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist: “Ethnic jokes may be uncouth/ but you laugh because they’re / based on truth,” might unfortunately be illuminative of our inner feelings.   

There’s a reason why Dave Chappelle stopped doing his show after seeing a white man laugh too hard at a particular sketch. Or why there was such controversy around the Jeremy Lin gaffes. Humor reflects just as much of our prejudices as other modes of public discourse in our society. We should remember that. Laugh. But be sure to interrogate why you’re laughing.


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