Today I had an article published on the Spectator website, which I reposted on Facebook, which was about jokes on race. Some people took issue with it, which I was expecting. You can read it here.
Race and humour is so complex and nuanced a subject that a 500-word piece can't really do the whole massive subject justice - and I'm not sure this blog will either. But the people who didn't like the article said a lot of things, including the following:
"Do you not see that the underlying problem is that when jokes like that one above ["Why are Asian people rubbish at football? Because every time they get a corner, they build a shop"] are told, the people who tell them aren't laughing with Asians, they are laughing AT them. Your piece will now be used by real racists to justify their own racism. "look it's alright, this paki girl said it's ok, so no-one should be offended."
Firstly, there's nothing we can do about real racists. If they've managed to grow up in our generally-extremely-tolerant British society and harbour serious prejudice against Asian and black people, they will use pretty much anything to 'justify' their racism. And I think my skin colour will preclude them from being particularly interested in my views, for what it's worth, rather than suggesting I legitimise them with a joke that is basically daft wordplay.
Secondly, this Facebook contributor suggested that it was okay for Asian and black people to tell jokes about our own race, but not for white people to tell them.
So who are these Asian and black people telling these jokes to? In the UK, more often than not, it's to white people. So the big question is: is it then okay for white people to laugh in response to these jokes? How can we ensure they're laughing WITH us rather than AT us? And if it's okay for white people to laugh at jokes about race, why is then not okay for them to tell them?
Let's take the following joke in the article: 'Did you hear about the Jamaican percussionist who played the triangle in an orchestra? He said "I just sit at the back and ting".'
Is it okay for a Jamaican comic to tell it and white people to laugh at it? If it is, why isn't it okay for white people to tell it? Because it involves a different accent and ethnicity? Because Jamaican people have experienced racism? Or because we're all being a bit too serious about something innocuous and funny? I would say the latter.
And I would also imagine that Jamaican people are about as bothered about this joke as Asian people are about corner shop jokes. We generally have other, bigger things to worry about and we can laugh these things off - or even laugh at them, as I did when I first heard the corner shop joke.
Of course, genuinely pejorative jokes are another matter entirely. Most people can tell the difference. But having a go at people who aren't racist for telling innocuous jokes about race just creates defensiveness and a culture where people get upset at 'political correctness' - and where they don't take actual racism seriously. Also, I would contend that just about everyone, whatever ethnicity they are, has at some stage told or re-told a so-called "racist" joke they found funny. They just don't want to admit to it publicly.
Comment pieces are all about debating issues, and sometimes the debates get heated. My best friend actually told me this piece made him uncomfortable, and advised me not to submit it. But I would genuinely say that airing uncomfortable stuff, talking things through and coming up with a consensus is how we make progress as a society.