A joke to ease you in

Two black guys are walking down the street. They’re both pretty fed up. They’ve been in the country for a couple of months, but when they try to get jobs, accommodation or women, they’re told to do one. Anyway, they’re down to their last $50 note, when they walk past a plastic surgeon with a big poster in the window. It says:

“WE CAN MAKE YOU WHITE! ONLY $25!”

They talk about it, and then decide to go for it. One guy says, “tell you what, you go in and get it done, and when you come out you can give me the change.”

So the first guy goes in, and a few moments later, there’s a flash of blinding light and loud screaming, and 10 minutes later he emerges, completely Caucasian. His friend is amazed.

“That’s incredible,” he says. “Now give me $25.”

His friend looks him up and down for a moment, and says, “why don’t you just get a job, nigger?”
That’s a personal favourite of mine, and we will be coming back later to take a look at the meaning of this joke. I don’t think it’s particularly offensive, but if you do, you should probably turn back now. They get worse.

Introduction

Jokes tell us more about our society than any other media. A laugh comes from some deep, hidden part of our subconscious that bypasses our waking selves, and what we laugh at is a really good indicator of who we are, what we’re afraid of and, in the case of racist jokes, who we hate.

Racism is a tough issue to deal with. We can declare ourselves non-racist, but the lines are already there, drawn in our mind from an early age. It’s not just white people either: I’ve listened to Moroccans declaring their hatred for the Chinese who have “taken over”. I’ve even had a conversation with a Chinese person complaining about the amount of Nigerians living in England. Ex-colonies hate the ex-colonists and vice-versa, and skin colour is invisible to almost nobody. Ironically, racism is the one thing that all races have in common: that terrible feeling that people from different cultures are other.

Considering those two points, it should follow that racist jokes are a good way to gauge our honest, internal feelings. We’re going to try that here, by looking at four different levels of racism. Let’s start with the highest, and a truly horrible joke.

Level 1: Full-throated, pointy hood-wearing, Sieg Heil-ing racism

I’ve only heard one joke in my life that made me fear for my own safety. It was a customer in my bar, a skinny, nervous Englishman. It’s in the eyes: flicking everywhere, looking for potential threats. I really believed that he was capable of murder.

I was being diplomatic and trying to keep him onside when his phone beeped. He read the message, laughed, and then showed it to me. It read:
Two Pakis were stabbed in a McDonald’s last night. I’m lovin’ it.
He showed it to me and I laughed. I’m not a racist, but I’m not stupid either. He could have shown me a blank screen and I would have laughed.

It’s appalling. It’s probably the single most offensive “joke” I’ve ever heard. But I’m curious about comedy though and I spent the next few days deconstructing it. The mechanics are pretty simple: you take an extreme situation and use it to subvert the McDonald’s slogan (“I’m Lovin’ It”). It’s a simple bait’n’switch gag.

So I tried to come up with a version that I would be comfortable with (I’m like a comedy Navy SEALI never leave a joke behind). After about two weeks, I had this:
Have you heard? George Bush choked to death on a Big Mac. I’m lovin’ it.
If you’re not laughing, that’s probably because it’s not funny.

Every joke has a core mechanism that makes it funny. The mechanism is atomic, so if you try to deconstruct the mechanism, the joke immediately stops being funny. But when you identify the mechanism, you can build around it any story you like. I was determined to rework it so that I got something that was funny and retained this mechanism.

After about another month, I realised that the mechanism of this joke is really simple. To strip it down to its core elements would work like this:
Two Pakis are walking down the street and they both DIE! HA!
In other words, it’s funny if you think that a dead Paki (or any other group) is funny. It’s funnier still if you find murder funnier than death from natural causes.

As an experiment, I tried telling this joke to a few people. I was amazed and disgusted at quite how many laughed. The joke must have connected with something them that found the image of dead Pakistanis (or dead Africans or dead Saudis or whatever) funny. I’ve never had that feeling, which is why, as well as being appalled, I just plain didn’t get it.

Level 2: Insidious racism

Most people reading this are probably quite liberal and found the joke as appalling as I did. But you may not be as liberal as you think you are.

Many joke-tellers (bad ones) will finish a joke by asking if you got it. That’s actually quite an interesting concept: in order to fully understand a joke you have to understand both its core mechanic and any cultural references. For example, most non-native English speakers will not get puns, because they don’t have a natural feeling for the language. Now, have a look at the following jokes. Don’t worry if they’re funny, just ask yourself if you get them:
What do you call a black man in a suit?
The defendant

What do you call a Jew who shares with his friends?
Jesus

What do you call an intelligent blonde?
A Labrador
(In the world of jokes, blondes count as a race. They just do.)

You can tell those jokes in most places, and you’ll probably get a laugh. Certainly few people will say “I don’t understand”. You probably didn’t, and it’s worth asking why.

It’s because racist views of certain groups are commonplace. You may not believe that all black people are criminals, but you’re familiar with the concept. Same with Jews and greed, and blondes and stupidity.

If you don’t believe me, try reading the jokes again, but this time replace black, Jew and blonde with Italian, carpenter and dwarf. Without those racial stereotypes, the jokes become meaningless.

That’s maybe the most useful gauge of our inherent racism. We say we’re not racist, but we still carry certain prejudices with us. Telling jokes is the best way to shine a light on that. Maybe.

Level 3: Us Vs Them

Can racist jokes ever be positive?

It seems unlikely, but the possibility may exist. The previous jokes certainly aren’t positive, as they only help foster stereotypes. They can’t be turned around: a white man in a suit simply isn’t funny.

But some racist jokes aren’t about stereotypes. They simply recognise that there is tension between certain groups. One of the oldest, simplest forms of this is the old joke:
What’s the difference between a German and a bucket of shit?
The bucket
Okay, it’s not funny, but the point is that you can substitute Frenchman for any other group (French, Muslim, lesbian, Wikipedian) and it’s equally unfunny. Let’s try a better example:
How do you know ET is a German?
Because he fucking looks like one.
That’s one of my favourite jokes. There’s a trick to telling it: you have to give the setup in a sweet, joking voice, then deliver the punch line with real venom. Again you can replace Germans with any other group of people, and it will still get a laugh, even from the victims.

Surely though this is just as racist as the previous jokes? Maybe. But maybe not. The mechanism of the joke isn’t based on a racial stereotype that’s particular to a specific group. It can easily be turned back on the teller. And that’s important.

Forget the analytical approach to racist jokes. Let’s talk about real life. For example, I am Irish, of Catholic descent. I occasionally find myself with Northen Irish people of Protestant descent. It can be quite tricky. I know a few Level 2 jokes that would probably cause them to shoot me. They know a few that would piss me off. But there are some that we can tell pretty easily, and will rarely cause a row. Take this example:
Gerry Adams is having a wander around his constituency, and he finds a little girl playing in the street with a pile of dogshit. “What’s that you’re doing there?” he asks.

“I’m making a Protestant,” she replies.

He continues walking, and he finds another little girl playing with dogshit. Again he asks what she’s doing.

“I’m making a Protestant,” she replies.

He’s feeling a little brave, so he wanders across the road to the Orange side of town, and is surprised to find another wee girl playing with a pile of dogshit, so he asks what she’s doing.

“I’m making a Protestant, Mr. Adams.”

He’s shocked at this. “But aren’t you a Protestant, wee girl?”

“Yeah,” she says, “ but I don’t have enough shit to make a Catholic.”
I laugh at that joke a lot more than the thick, potato-eating Paddy jokes, because I know I can change Protestant to Catholic and Gerry Adams to Ian Paisley and suddenly it’s my joke. It’s theoretically offensive, but in practice it’s a way of saying: I kick with my left foot, you kick with your right, but can’t we both just have fun and get on with our lives.

Maybe that’s the key to tackling racism. People are different, united only in their mistrust of those they see as other. Rather than pretend that we’re all that we all have beige skin, we should acknowledge this, laugh at it, and move on.

Otherwise you get stuff like:

Level 4: “Don’t mention the war!”

There’s a curious brand of racism which can be called “positive racism” or “anti-racism”. My mother does this all the time, forever saying things like “aren’t the blacks great dancers!” or “don’t the blacks have lovely teeth!”. (I try to stop her from saying things like this outside the house, but she doesn't see where the problem lies).

There is a more insidious form amongst people who consider themselves socialists, anti-globalisationists and non-racists, which takes the following form: “people in Africa / Asia / South America / Australia were so much happier with their natural, tribal lives before we tried to introduce civilisation to them.” (Seriously, take a second to think about how enormously racist that statement actually is).

So. Two black guys are standing outside a plastic surgeon who’s offering to make them white for $25. I can’t believe the amount of times that I’ve been called a racist for telling this joke. What elements of the joke are actually racist?
1) The two main characters are black
2) They think their lives would be easier if they were white
3) It uses the word “nigger”
First of all, is being black something to be ashamed of? If not, why can’t we mention it?. Secondly the idea of black people feeling they are treated unfairly in a white country: well believe it or not, this still occasionally happens. Finally, the word “nigger”. Who uses that words, besides a certain brand of rapper? Racists, that’s who.

The mechanism of this joke - the thing that makes this joke funny - is the stupid, absurd, arbitrary nature of racism. Our two guys occupy an alternative world where race is not something that you’re born with, but something that you can buy for $25. And still people in this alternative are racists!

This joke is only racist to people who believe that the mere mention of race is wrong, as if race simply didn’t exist. But we can’t do that. It does exist, and it is still having a massive effect on our world. The fact is that while it’s now unacceptable to denounce other races in public, if you label these races as “illegal aliens” or “asylum seekers”, it’s okay. Staying silent isn’t helping. Racism festers under the skin of our society, and talking openly about it is the only way to lance the boil.

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EDIT:
Surprisingly, the most common response to this writeup is from some people who find jokes which involve random, surreal mashups of words to be hilarious, and think that this undermines some of my points. Let's get something clear, if you find a joke like this funny:
What do you call a moon-banana without a hat?
Jacques Cousteau!
then I can hardly be held responsible.

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