If you’re a young Brit, you may have recently seen a story circulating about accusations of racism in Exeter. If you’re not a young Brit or you haven’t come across it, you should take a look anyway—in a second.
Before you do, have a little think on this question: when is a joke that undermines someone else acceptable, and when does its element of derision overwhelm its comedic intent? More simply, is a racist joke ever okay? Is a sexist joke acceptable to say so long as no one is around who could be hurt by it? Is it okay to call your middle-eastern mate a ‘p*ki’ if he laughs when you do? Can white people say ‘n***er’ ironically?
I’m sure you have some sort of opinions on these ideas. This article isn’t written with the intent of persuading you one way or another. However, I found it interesting when talking to people about this incident that their reactions to the story hinged on the kinds of answers they would give to these questions, and that they often found it difficult to understand people who answered differently.
The story (which I’ll link to in a moment) cropped up on the public radar because of a label attached to it: racism. Now it’s very likely that when you read the article, you thought to yourself either, “Yeah, this pretty much confirms to me what I thought of people,” or alternatively, “I cannot believe that in this day and age students find this kind of language acceptable”.
It’s also quite likely that if you thought one of these things, you might not be aware that there are a good number of people out there—your peers, friends and family—otherwise very nice and respectable individuals, who were a little annoyed by this story. While they’re probably a bit scared to say it, they might well think that calling this ‘racism’ is alarmist.
So, there are some people who indefatigably endorse the label racism here but there are some people, who don’t consider themselves racist, who do not. And the people who don’t are actually quite numerous. They also don’t approve of racism; they think this just isn’t it.
Here’s the article.
There are some parts of the story which are pretty much textbook racist. Use of the ‘N-word’, ‘p*ki’ and references to slaves amongst other things. But I’m not convinced the words used betray any overt malice on the part of the perpetrators.
If you look at Matthew Bell’s statement, as well as apologising for his WhatsApp comments, he continues: “I would like to make it publicly known that I do not believe any of the things I have said.” Furthermore, without wanting to give too much time to the ‘I can’t be a racist because my best friend is black’ cliché, given the fact that they not only disparage their friend and fellow group-chat member’s minority status, but he himself is complicit in what’s said, we can see an element of tongue-in-cheek going on.
But more than this, there’s something most guys will recognise in these messages, albeit in a possibly less extreme form. The stuff in question is bad, but it’s not too remote from the type of banter that goes on in your average lads’ group chat.
A lot of the people reading about this case and thinking that this isn’t a matter of racism probably see this as just an example of banter gone too far. They think it’s okay that it’s shocking because that’s the point; the jokes rest on the assumption that the other members of the chat have a normal set of morals, which will be outraged by the joke’s flouting of acceptable convention. These racist jokes aren’t actually racist, many would say, because the jokes aren’t supposed to undermine anyone, but rather the types of people who would say these things seriously.
So, was the post revealing the WhatsApp messages an act of courage or betrayal? Is Arsalan Motavali a whistle-blower or snake?
Before discussion of racism can develop, we must be prepared to admit that what we are doing might be unacceptable. It’s so easy to justify racist behaviour because we’re not racist, and therefore we can’t be racist.
Richard Delgado has it that, “[f]or many minority persons, the principal instrument of their subordination […] is the prevailing mind-set by means of which members of the dominant group justify the world as it is”.
Essentially what he means is that sometimes, when something is racist, people won’t believe it’s racist because society hasn’t yet agreed that it’s unacceptable.
This idea of justifying racism is really well explained by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in a book called Americanah. She notes that Americans balk at the word “racists”, who “are all gone” according to common understanding. Adichie points out that most people find the type-cast of a racist difficult to coalesce with anyone normal.
She writes, “Somebody has to be able to say that racists are not monsters. They [can be…] regular folk” (p315). Racism is thought of as ugly and obvious, meaning the societal mind-set is not able to recognise it for what it is when it appears in subtle and nuanced ways. As a result, thinking that is actually racist is defended because it does not match the conventional understanding of racism: the dominant mind-set justifies itself.
It’s difficult to conceive that we might be being racist when we make a joke, but we need to be open to the possibility if we’re to consider ourselves truly set against racial discrimination.
Racist jokes rely on the acknowledgement of one race’s dominance over another: you have to be able to understand that sometimes some races are not considered equal. You don’t have to agree with it to find the jokes funny, sure, but you are reminded of it. The thing is, when a reminder of racism is separated from any critique, it serves to cement rather than corrode racism.
Racist jokes assist and further racial dominance by perpetuating its presence: racist jokes make racist words acceptable, and eventually the ironic intent is lost. It becomes a game of how much can be said before you get in trouble; the furthest you can push things before someone snaps. And at this point you’re not bearing in mind anyone’s feelings: you’re holding your right to a laugh as sacred, and any adverse effects as irrelevant.
Much of the time, regardless of intent, race-based jokes are still racist.
By James Duff
Delgado, Richard. Critical Race Theory: The Cutting Edge. Temple University Press, 2014. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/york-ebooks/detail.action?docID=1210896. p.71.