Why are race jokes funny? This is a multifaceted question, but can be explored by examining someone whose ethnic humor is well-received. Russell Peters is a widely successful Indian-Canadian comedian that frequently employs race and ethnicity related jokes in his act. Particularly, he uses various accents, ethnic stereotypes, and references to racial differences among Asians to discuss his experiences with race and force his audience to recognize racial tensions in the comfortable context of humor.
Before Peters can succeed in his race-based humor, he must solidify his standing in the Asian community in the eyes of his audience. Without this, he risks them viewing him as racist. A comedian who utilizes race and racial stereotypes in their jokes must establish their use as legitimate before the community will accept it (Chun 2004). Peters does this by reaffirming his Indian identity and making anecdotal references to his race, ethnicity, and status as a first generation Canadian. For example, in many of his acts that poke fun at Indians, he explicitly announces his identification as one himself first. He also references his parents being Indian immigrants more implicitly to assert himself as not only representative of Asians, but also of immigrant families. He even places himself into non-Asian communities such as the Black community to justify his jokes about those groups. In one such instance, he makes a joke at the expense of his Black audience members and it is not received well, so he goes on to rationalize his statement.
P: It’s good to see Black people in the audience too, that’s nice. Because it’s bright, I mean. I’m just kidding, I’m just kidding.
What, you all the sudden sensitive Black people all the sudden? “haha whoa, whoa” (imitating Black audience members)
I grew up around Black people you don’t scare me. I grew up around Jamaicans, man.
Realizing his joke is offending his Black audience, he backpedals and remarks clearly that it is a joke. He then furthers his justification by asserting his position as an insider and ensuring he does not believe in the common Black stereotypes that would cause fear. In referencing his place in a Black community, he proves himself to be part of the ingroup and grants himself license to make jokes at the expense of them in this comedic setting.
Along with relating himself to his audience, he also uses a kind of self-deprecating humor to ease into his statements about groups he does not belong to. As one might suspect, Peters makes many jokes at his own expense about Indian people and himself as an Indian Canadian. Before launching into his act about the Indian and Chinese cheapness stereotype, he says, “We are cheap, man, it’s in our blood,” referring to Indians. These jokes tend to outnumber those about other groups, likely because he uses the relatively safe jokes that he knows he has the right to make as buffers for his other jokes. It is clear that he spaces racial comments about non-Indians with those about himself and Indian people in general purposefully. The self-deprecating jokes further convince the audience that the potentially harmful jokes he is making are acceptable and humorous because people generally believe that a person putting down their own race would gain nothing from it (Chun 2004). In this way, Peters makes clear that the jokes are not meant to perpetuate racial ideas, as he would not want to reinforce Indian stereotypes, and are thus good-natured.
Once he confirms his right to this racial humor, Peters uses it to reference and perform many ethnic and pan-Asian stereotypes, often through the use of accents. In one routine he does on the different types of Asians, he sings a stereotypically Chinese tune, claiming it to be what Americans associate with Asians. This example illustrates the same idea Dick and Wirtz argue: that these racist ideas are so deeply ingrained in North American culture that it takes little to invoke them (Dick and Wirtz, 2011). Peters uses the tune to index race and then points out the absurdity that such an arbitrary tune should represent such a diverse population of people. This observation makes the audience realize their racialization of Asians and how it might be wrong.
In the same vein, Peters mentions that Americans think all Asians are Chinese and do not see Indians as Asian. This joke serves to point out the fluidity of races, because several cultures that even Americans do not associate are lumped into one category and racialized in the same way. In discussions of the development of the Asian identity among recent immigrants from Asia to America, researchers note that Chinese people became a dominant group of Asian Americans in this time and, therefore, set the standard of the Asian stereotype Peters references (Hubener and Uyechi, 2004). This idea also illustrates how, despite the changes that have occurred regarding race and ethnicity, the stereotypes still endure.
In the previous examples, Peters clearly uses racialization of Asian people to admonish the audience for their investment in such stereotypes, but in such a way that simultaneously makes them laugh and consider their own potentially racist internalized tendencies. By making a joke that is funny but also puts this problem of ethnic erasure and mass stereotyping into the open, Peters gets people thinking about race. This is how he uses jokes and his comedic platform to foster racial discourse.
Some may bring up the notion that in portraying these ideas in his routines Peters is condoning the belief in such generalizations, but it is more likely that he is trying to bring them forward to create a humorous dialogue about race and racial issues. As in the context of rap battles, the performances of race and ethnicity by Peters and emcees alike may attempt to subvert the traditionally accepted meanings and allow scrutiny of the stereotypes they are calling upon (Alim, Lee, Carris 2010). Despite this, superficially they may also be reaffirming the racializations of the referenced group by othering them and indexing these stereotypes publicly. As in the previous examples, Peters often quite openly states his stance on the topics he is discussing, but sometimes his jokes rely on the audience’s ability to interpret his reclaiming or recontextualizing of a particular idea. Due to this occasional subtlety–and perhaps his own cheap use of some ethnic humor–audience members can misconstrue his jokes as a warrant for their own discriminatory or mocking attitudes toward minority groups.
One example of such an ambiguous joke is Peters’ fictional anecdote meant to invoke the stereotypes of Indian and Chinese cheapness. In the act, he performs the parts of a Chinese shopkeeper who refuses to lower the price of his merchandise and an Indian customer who insists on getting a deal. This situation is simply presented without any of the commentary otherwise seen from Peters. While this joke may still be an attempt to bring these stereotypes into the open, one might view it as an affirmation of the stereotypes as correct. On one hand, he connects with his Chinese audience by comparing their racialization to his own and displaying the absurdity of an actual representation of such stereotypes. Despite this, he also only uses an accent for the Chinese character who represents a caricature of the group. Nevertheless, he indicates the truth the stereotypes hold more than his feelings against them, thus appearing supportive them to some viewers. This fine line between racial humor and performance supporting stereotypes and attempting to deconstruct them is difficult to address because, as Peters’ jokes illustrate, both can happen simultaneously.
Whether they uphold ethnic stereotypes or not, if his jokes were not funny then he would not have an audience to influence with them. Peters’ jokes are amusing to his audience mostly because they carry a sense of relatability with their ethnic humor. One example of this is during his longer act about growing up around Jamaicans.
P: Jamaicans are hard people to grow up around, you know why? ‘Cause when i was growing up around Jamaicans, you hang around Jamaican people long enough you feel the need to want to be Jamaican.
P: They just look so cool, everything about them is cool. When I was a kid I was like I wanted to be Jamaican so bad. I started dressing like a Jamaican, wearing a little red, yellow, and green belt, and I started talking like a Jamaican, I started listening to reggae music, I started having kids I didn’t know about. I did everything I possibly could.
Here, Peters recounts his desire to be a part of the dominant group in his community as a child. He frames this humorously with the absurdity of an Indian Canadian person trying to become Jamaican, as well as by the referencing of the stereotype of a Jamaican. Beyond the surface humor, Peters presents a relatable story of wanting to be a part of a different group to gain community or cultural status–something that many people of minority groups might identify with. Asian Americans who come from immigrant families like Peters especially would relate, as they are trying to assimilate as well as forge their own cultural identity (Shankar 2011). Particularly, Peters’ experience is reminiscent of the large population of Asian Americans who anthropologist found speak AAE despite no ties to Black communities because of the strong African American identity that they desired for themselves (Huebner and Uyechi 2004). Again, the next part of the same act may create a relatability with the audience:
P: I felt bad for my dad because he tried fitting in with my Jamaican friends when I was growing up. You don’t want a man from India trying to speak like a Jamaican at any point during his life.
P: My friends would be in the living room when my dad walks in “okay come on Marlin move your bombaclat and go home” (Indian accent)
P: My dad thought punani was a tropical fruit!
In the above example and in the few lines following it in this part of the act, Peters tells of his father’s attempt– similar to his own–to fit in with the Jamaican population around him and his failure to understand the culture he was trying to emulate. This, like his jokes in the previous section of this act, has a few layers of humor that the audience might be laughing at. The situation itself can be amusing, even if removed from race, as many comedians make use of telling of the embarrassing things they or others have said. Shallowly, the humor derives from the silliness of his father’s mix up of Jamaican terms when trying to seem cool to his son’s friends. The audience can also connect with the concept of cultural disconnect if they are immigrants or if they come from immigrant families, then the generational differences highlighted by Peters can be relatable and funny. Even those outside of a minority or immigrant family can likely identify with the feeling of their parents’ ignorance of youth culture embarrassing them. The relatability is so important in his comedy because it gives his audience both a point to latch onto, to put themselves into the scenario and experience the exaggerated absurdity he provides to make it funny, as well as giving the minority members content relatable specifically to them that they see rarely in media.
Essentially, Peters constructs his jokes with layers that allow them to be funny to anyone, but are particularly funny to those with the ability to frame and contextualize the deeper references to his racial background. As with Margaret Cho’s similar brand of humor, if this non-serious, relatable frame is not constructed for the Asian members of the audience, then the joke is hurtful and not funny (Chun 2004). Establishing the connection and relatability as he does in the act transcribed above is crucial to his jokes’ legitimacy and, equally importantly, to how his audience receives his jokes.
Russell Peters uses race and ethnicity in his stand-up comedy to appeal to minority audiences and to create discussion about race. Despite his jokes racializing these groups, they also serve as a platform for deconstructing the racial stereotypes he invokes and giving minorities a space in which they are represented, and not always as the butt of the joke. It can be difficult to decide if ethnic humor is helpful or harmful to breaking down racial hierarchies, as it can work both ways, but overall it seems that comedians like Peters succeed in generating ethnic humor perceived by his audience as both valid and amusing.
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