E. Anderson is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at University
When two people
are laughing it is certain
misfortune has befallen a third.
All humour reduces
to a bisociation
of unlike matrices.
Koestler, The Act of Creation
has been some attention paid to the topic of humour in philosophy
but very little in comparison to other subjects. Philosophers
seem to be even less concerned with cases of racist (sexist,
homophobic, transphobic etc.) humour. Given the weight of the
consequences of being charged with making a racist joke and
the possible harmful effects on the audience of racist jokes
it is a bit puzzling that more attention has not been given
to this issue.
subject of racist humor lies at the intersection of two queries:
(1) what is humor, and (2) what is racism?
First, there are a number of things that fit under the banner
humour: gags or practical jokes, witticisms, word play, puns,
impersonations and jokes -- to name a few. This essay focuses
on verbal forms of humour, especially jokes, witticisms and
word play. There are also several theories about what makes
something humorous: there are for instance, superiority, incongruity,
relief, and play theories of humour. It is reasonable to think
that the way we theorize racist humour depends on what kind
of humour we have in view; however, endorsing and defending
a particular theory of humour is outside the scope of this essay.
are also several ways of construing racism. Various theorists
characterize racism in terms of agent intentions and/or social
power or institutional explanations; discourse and disrespect.
Lawrence Blum argues that we need to broaden our vocabulary
to include other categories besides ‘racist’ and
‘non-racist.’ Blum thinks the term ‘racist’
is in danger of being overused and thus losing its ability to
shame. Later, I will suggest that Blum’s view provides
an avenue for a more nuanced view of racist humour.
the relevance of moral values to aesthetic appreciation and
evaluation, discussed primarily by philosophers of art, is significant
for any account of racist humour. Assuming that racism in a
joke counts as a moral defect, one wants to know whether this
counts in favour of or against, or is neutral with respect to,
the joke’s funniness. Berys Gaut presents a version of
comic moralism (i.e. ethicism), which claims that if a speaker
employs ethically bad attitudes in a joke-token, this diminishes
the joke’s funniness. In contrast, Ted Nannicelli argues
for a moderate version of comic immoralism in which a joke can
be funny due, in part, to its moral defect. Finally, Ted Cohen
presents what some might refer to as comic autonomism, i.e.
the view “that moral flaws do not have any impact on amusement.”
much racial humor depends on the inclusion of racial stereotypes.
I mean to distinguish racial from racist humour. The former
is a broad category that refers to humour about race while the
latter, narrower category refers to racial humour that violates
norms concerning the treatment of people based on their perceived
race. Defining ‘stereotype’ is a contentious matter.
Some definitions, such as Lawrence Blum’s, build in notions
of negative evaluation, while others remain neutral. For example,
Jerry Kang characterizes stereotypes as, “traits that
we associate with a category.” David Schneider claims
that current social cognition researchers tend to view stereotypes
as simple generalizations on a par with other mechanisms of
our ordinary cognition. Regardless of which definition is adopted,
the inclusion of stereotypes in humour raises questions about
its effects on both hearers and speakers. The literature on
stereotypes and implicit bias is relevant for this discussion.
For example, psychologists Anthony Greenwald and Mahzarin Banaji
explore an implicit operation of stereotypes while philosopher
Lawrence Blum examines moral issues connected to the use of
stereotypes. Also, social psychologists have been investigating
the effect of disparagement humour on both speakers and audiences.
everyone believes an account of racist humor can be given. Cohen
reflects upon jokes that are often viewed as problematic or
objectionable in a certain respect. An example of such a joke
is the following: “How did a passerby stop a group of
black men from committing a gang rape? He threw them a basketball.”
wonders whether his dislike of jokes like these is personal,
that is, a matter of taste that others may, but need not, share.
He writes that in order to offer a “resounding moral condemnation
of this joke, no doubt I would have to invoke some ‘moral
theory,’ and then show that an implication of the theory
is that this joke is bad . . . I think it can’t be done.”
If moral-theoretical reasons cannot be given for why a joke
is bad, then it seems to follow that our hands are tied from
saying much about humour of this sort generally.
aim is not to examine what makes a piece of humour racist but
if charging humour with being racist is a moral condemnation,
his view seems to have implications for our current discussion.
According to Cohen, one can use moral language to condemn humour
one finds racist but no theoretical justification for that claim
is available. In fact, no justification is needed. In order
to do justice to Cohen’s concern one has to give an account
of what makes racism bad.
ACT-CENTERED HARM-BASED VIEWS
Cohen is skeptical about moral-theoretical reasons for explaining
the badness of racist humour that should not stop us from trying
to give an account of when humour is racist. Michael Philips
presents a general view of racism and applies it to the case
of ethnic humour. He writes, “‘racist’ is
used in its logically primary sense when it is used of Basic
Racist Acts.” Presumably, he means that racism is, first
and foremost, characterized by actions. He describes a basic
racist act as follows:
this view, a joke can be racist regardless of the speaker’s
beliefs or other attitudes, a feature which captures something
Reed asks us to engage in a thought experiment in order to point
out a serious problem with Philips’ view. Reed describes
a situation in which all of the racists are rounded up and banished
to their own private island where they can cause no more mischief
in the world. As a result, there is no longer any reasonable
expectation of mistreatment of a person in virtue of their racial
identity. Given this, it is still coherent to describe e.g.
Mexican jokes as told by an inhabitant of this island as “racist.”
But Philips’ view does not count this as a coherent description,
which seems like the wrong result. The seeming wrongness of
this result comes from the fact that many of us care about things
other than consequences. For instance, it is wrong to show a
lack of proper regard for someone simply because they belong
to a different racial group. And it is wrong even when there
is no one around to be mistreated.
Benatar addresses two questions: (1) When is a piece of humour
racist or sexist? (2) Are jokes that embody negative racial
or gender stereotypes necessarily racist or sexist? He thinks
that an answer to the first goes a long way toward providing
one to the second. Before giving his view about what makes a
piece of racist humour racist, Benatar first discusses what
makes humour immoral. On his account, humor is immoral when
(i) it is intended to harm, or (ii) it can be reasonably expected
to harm, and (iii) the harm is wrongfully inflicted. Benatar
expands Joel Feinberg’s notion of ‘harm’ to
include things like hurts, offenses, and beliefs and other disliked
mental states. Racist beliefs are harmful because they negatively
affect people’s interest to be well regarded. Thus, Benatar
presents what can be described as a harm-based view of racist
do racist beliefs and humour connect? According to Benatar,
expressing a racist belief is a sufficient but not a necessary
condition for a joke to be racist. Additionally, jokes can be
racist when they “inculcate and spread racist views.”Thus,
the joke-teller need not have or express racist beliefs in order
for the joke to be racist.
might object that jokes can be racist even if they do not inflict
harm or are not reasonably expected to inflict harm. For instance,
we can imagine a racial joke shared among three friends about
some other racial group. Suppose the joke stays between the
three of them. Benatar claims that racist mental states are
harmful because they can damage “interests in being regarded
as beings worthy of respect,” and that the person thought
of in this negative way is “harmed in an important way.”
But is this really an interest we can rightfully claim others
have an obligation or responsibility to uphold? Being respected
by others would be a nice thing, but it isn’t clear it
is something owed to us, especially when it has no material
bearing on our lives. Whether instances like the one described
above are legitimate harms is at least an open question. It
isn’t obvious they should count.
different account can be found in Merrie Bergmann’s paper
on sexist humor. Bergmann writes, “Sexist humor is humor
in which sexist beliefs, attitudes, and/or norms either must
be held in order to perceive an incongruity or are used to add
to the fun effect of the incongruity.” Bergmann’s
view represents what Philips refers to as an agent-centered
account. According to Bergmann humour is sexist when sexist
beliefs, attitudes, and/or norms are required to perceive an
incongruity or make sense of an incongruity, or when the humour
confirms sexist stereotypes or beliefs. She is careful to point
out, however, that it isn’t merely the presence of a sexist
belief that makes a piece of humour sexist, but it is the role
the belief plays in bringing about the humour that makes it
sexist: “sexist humor presupposes sexist beliefs on the
part of the audience.” Bergmann’s account of sexist
humour can be extended to racist humour. On this extension racist
humour is humour in which racist beliefs, attitudes, and/or
norms either must be held in order to perceive an incongruity
or are used to add to the fun effect of the incongruity.
intriguing, we might wonder whether Bergmann’s view adequately
accounts for either phenomenon (racist or sexist humour). Bergmann
adopts an incongruity thesis as explanation for what makes something
humourous; namely, that we come to expect an orderly world and
that we find certain disruptions of that expectation humourous.
Yet, there are some instances of humour that do not rely on
incongruity for their humour. Think of the Saturday Night Live
skit with Amy Poehler and Tina Fey in which they basically re-enact
an interview between Katie Couric and Sarah Palin. The humour
in the skit does not rely on an incongruity but it emerges from
how accurately it reflects the real interview. Presumably, there
are also similar instances involving racial humour. Perhaps
some impersonations of racial others might fall into this category.
Given that incongruity is not required for humour, Bergmann’s
account risks leaving out purportedly racist jokes that do not
rely on incongruity for their humour.
if we accept the incongruity thesis, however, one still might
object that racist beliefs, attitudes, and/or norms must be
held in order to perceive an incongruity. If holding means endorsing,
then that claim seems too strong. Surely one can perceive an
incongruity without actually endorsing beliefs or attitudes.
And it is at least plausible that one could find something humourous
without endorsing any racist beliefs that may be necessary to
perceive an incongruity.
of course anticipates this objection and responds that “being
aware of a [racist] belief is not the same as holding it.”
She intimates that being aware of the belief is only enough
to see why some would find something funny, not enough to actually
find it funny oneself. Her claim presupposes that one enjoys
(or finds funny) humour primarily because of its content. However,
there are other aspects of, e.g. a joke that can explain why
someone finds it funny. For instance, one may find a joke telling
funny because of they way the speaker delivers it. In this case
enjoyment of the joke does not rely on believing anything at
all. It seems simply understanding the relevant background beliefs
is sufficient for finding it funny. For this reason I don’t
yet find Bergmann’s response convincing.
possibility for determining when humour is racist emerges from
an appeal to a volitional account of racism. The standard for
this type of account can be found in Jorge Garcia’s seminal
essay, “The Heart of Racism” (1996):
its central and most vicious form, [racism] is a hatred, ill
will, directed against a person or persons on account of their
assigned race. In a derivative form, one is a racist when one
either does not care at all or does not care enough (i.e. as
much as morality requires) or does not care in the right ways
about people assigned to a certain racial group, where this
disregard is based on racial classification.
Garcia’s view, something counts as racist just in case
a person acts from a vicious attitude. Using his volitional
view of racism we might characterize racist joke utterances
in the following way: ‘a racial joke is racist just in
case the speaker has a vicious attitude, attitude of ill will
towards, or an attitude of careless disregard for members of
the racial group targeted by the joke.’ A speaker tells
a racist joke against, for example, Asians if he hates them,
wishes ill of them, or doesn’t care enough to treat them
like fully human beings.
I do not think this view of racist humour will work either because
it focuses solely on speaker attitude and thereby ignores the
effects of the act on the target, which is an egregious oversight.
We can imagine, for example, someone who has just moved to the
U.S. from South Korea and finds herself trying to fit in at
her new job. She decides to try her hand at humour using the
only jokes she knows -- black jokes she’s picked up from
TV broadcasts in her home country. Suppose she lacks any attitude
of ill will or careless disregard. Are we willing to say her
joking utterances are not racist simply because she lacks a
vicious attitude? Admittedly, intuitions about this example
will vary. Garcia, I suspect, would just accept this as a consequence
of his view. But, various people have argued that we should
be able to say more, though space does not allow us to take
them up here.
constraining feature of the views introduced thus far is that
all of them adhere to the simple binary that a piece of humour
is either racist or not racist. I believe this is a mistake.
Theorizing about racial humour against the backdrop of this
assumption forces us to fit every instance of humour into one
or other of the two categories. But it is not always clear a
particular humourous incident fits neatly into either. For instance,
consider the example of the South Korean immigrant who tries
to fit in by telling black jokes she has learned from TV. Perhaps
one could argue that she is not guilty of making a racist utterance
given her understandable ignorance of the U.S. racial landscape,
but neither is her attempt at humour entirely innocent.
Blum argues that we are in need of a richer moral vocabulary
when discussing racism. If we adopt Blum’s contention,
then the categories we employ for classifying racial humour
can be expanded beyond the racist/not racist binary. In contrast
to only being racist or not racist, a piece of humour might
also be racially insensitive. Racially insensitive humour is
not innocent in the way humour that isn’t tainted along
racial lines is, and it also isn’t as morally bad as racist
humour. There is a continuum of moral badness spread over a
range of values.
might begin by distinguishing between those instances of humour
that incorporate racial stereotypes in some crucial fashion
(either by expressing stereotypes or requiring their knowledge
for a joke’s success) and those instances that do not.
Some instances of humour depend on racial stereotypes for their
humour, whether explicitly expressed by the speaker or via background
assumptions required for uptake of the punch line by the hearer.
In contrast, other instances of humour do not depend crucially
for their humour on the explicit expression or required assumption
of racial stereotypes.
‘stereotype’ is a contentious matter. Some definitions,
such as Blum’s build in notions of negative evaluation,
while others remain neutral. For example, Jerry Kang characterizes
stereotypes as “traits that we associate with a category.”
David Schneider claims that current social cognition researchers
tend to view stereotypes as simple generalizations on a par
with other mechanisms of our ordinary cognition. If this is
correct, then it raises an important question: What is so bad
about racial stereotypes, especially of the kind we are concerned
with in humour? In order for the view proposed below to work,
an account of the badness of racial stereotypes must be given.
What follows is an adumbration of a view that, with more space,
will have to fill in many more details.
alternative view I have in mind introduces a middle category
between what I’ll call merely racial and racist, namely
racially insensitive. On this view, an instance of racial stereotype
humour is merely racial just in case (i) the speaker has an
aim to subvert the stereotype associated with the target group
and (ii) the audience can reasonably be expected to recognize
this aim. A racial joke is racially insensitive if the speaker
(i) lacks an aim to subvert the associated stereotype or (ii)
has a subverting aim but cannot reasonably expect audience uptake
of that aim. And finally, racial humour is racist if either
(i) it wrongly harms the target in virtue of that person’s
membership in a particular racial group or (ii) the speaker
is motivated by a malevolent attitude or one of disregard.
how much access we have to our own motives may be a question.
To the extent that it is a question, it will be difficult for
the speaker to guarantee he or she is guided by subversive motivation.
Further, the introduction of audience expectation presupposes
sensitivity to background information against which judgments
of reasonable expectation must be made. What counts as a reasonable
expectation is not static and will vary from one sociocultural
situation to the next.
may wonder whether an aim as strong as subversion is needed
to tell a merely racial joke. Couldn’t it be that some
jokes about race do not have subversive aims and yet are still
not racist? Aren’t at least some instances of racial humour
neutral without requiring any subversive motives? I believe
this depends on the target of the humour and the socio-cultural
context in which the humour appears. For members of certain
socially marked groups, the context may be so racially charged,
or negative cultural stereotypes about the group so ingrained,
that subversion is required so as not to reinforce that negative
atmosphere or negative stereotypes. But in other cases, the
environment may not be so charged as to require subversion.
The suggestion leaves open the question of whether a subversive
aim is required for telling a merely racial joke about non-marginalized
groups. How this question is answered depends on one’s
understanding of racism. For example, a volitional account of
racism might admit of racism, and thus racist humour against
white people whereas an institutional view would not.
is much work to be done on the subject of offensive humour in
general, and on racist (sexist, homophobic etc.) humour in particular.
In addition to asking what makes humour racist, it is important
to ask how we determine the content of a piece of humour. For
example, how do we know what a particular joke (or joking utterance)
is about? Are there special interpretative methods for interpreting
humour in contrast to assertions and other types of speech acts?
One might also ask if the inclusion of racial slurs in humour
automatically makes it less funny or unfunny. There is a steadily
growing literature on slurs that addresses questions about the
nature of their offense. One could undoubtedly draw upon this
literature for an enriched discussion.
question to be explored is whether we are subject to negative
moral evaluation for finding racist or racially insensitive
humour funny. As we saw with Merrie Bergmann’s view, some
believe that finding a joke funny requires endorsing the stereotypes
it expresses. The implication is that one who finds humour that
employs racist stereotypes funny is subject to criticism. Work
being done by philosophers and psychologists might inform our
views of what happens cognitively when we understand some bit
final avenue of further research I want to mention connects
with the literature on epistemic injustice. One form of epistemic
injustice relevant for this discussion is testimonial injustice,
which is a denial of credibility to a speaker due to a hearer’s
prejudices. We can see this kind of injustice being committed
in an example given by Bergmann where she says charges of humour
as sexist are often met with responses like “feminists
are too sensitive” or “where’s your sense
of humour?” The dissenter is denied credibility as a judge
of when a joke is sexist or not. This often happens when the
one dissenting is a part of the targeted group.
of these are questions worthy of further reflection. Given the
prevalence of racial humour and the real world consequences
that result from engaging in humour, philosophers should be
keen on developing views that answer these questions.