Anatomy of a Racist Joke


The whole kerfuffle that began on twitter and ended up inspiring articles everywhere when the hash tag #cancelcolbert trended got me to thinking about the place racist jokes, ironic and otherwise, have assumed in our supposedly post-racial society.

Now, I’m not on the #cancelcolbert bandwagon. Given his obvious good intentions (yes, there should be no place in our culture for a football franchise that uses a racist, anti-Indian epithet as their brand name), I would much rather educate Colbert than cancel him. I also think that humor can play a positive role in the struggle to end racism and other ills, especially when it is deployed by those most directly and negatively affected by them.

There’s a difference between the parodies of racism and racists of, say, Dave Chapelle or Hari Kondabolu, and that of the legion of white entertainers who play with ironic racism. It’s a double-standard, I know, but then, racism imposes a double standard that can’t be eradicated without first being acknowledged.

All that to one side, though, I do think Colbert’s popularity, given the central role that ironic racism plays in his comedy, is an indication of something worth thinking about.

In an email conversation with a friend of mine (who happens to be a Colbert fan) about Colbert’s response to #cancelcolbert, I found myself writing a rougher version of this,

I think the reason racist jokes continue to be funny to us is because we live in a society that trivializes racism while also being rife with racial tension…an act of cultural jujitsu that rests on the assumption that institutional and structural racism have been relegated to the dust bin of history, leaving behind nothing but the residue of that past in the form of quaintly old fashioned racist attitudes among soon to be extinct Neanderthals.

If there were broad agreement that institutional and structural racism still exists, we would find it much harder to laugh at racist jokes because the dire consequences of racism would be apparent to us.

But, while we often ignore or trivialize racism in small and big ways (as indicated by a report produced by Race Forward critiquing the way race is addressed in news media) a lot of whites are nonetheless very sensitive to being cast as racists, especially when that accusation is made by people of color.

Anxiety about being stereotyped has a big impact on us. It made white guys golf scores go down when they were told a golfing challenge was a test for natural athletic ability, but go up when they were told the challenge was a means of testing their problem-solving ability in one study (among many cited by Claude Steele in his excellent book, Whistling Vivaldi and Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us).
And that anxiety may be a big part of the reason many liberal whites laugh so heartily at racist jokes presented as parodies of racism and racists. They go to Wes Anderson movies and laugh at the Asian caricatures he seems so fond of, and giggle at scenes of kids playing cowboys and Indians as flags that they aren’t racist. They get “it,” whatever that is. But, they also get to laugh at racist caricatures, which is bank when it comes to humor, right? I mean, we’ve been “entertaining” audiences with these caricatures throughout the whole of American history for a reason.
The whole idea that it is anti-racist to make racist jokes while in character as a racist white guy pretends that racists are just ridiculous, marginal relics of the past. But are they?
Moreover, that style of comedy suffers as a form of effective parody mainly because it’s all an inside joke. That inside group may end up being pretty small relative to the majority of white people in some studies who believe that white is the new black. If those studies of white attitudes about race are any indication, Stephen Colbert’s more enlightened attitude makes him an outlier, and his parodies of racists may be driving racism even as they attempt to marginalize it.

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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

One reply on “Anatomy of a Racist Joke”

Those racists “jokes” are definitely part of the practice of racism. There is a lot of information and culture (white culture — which is racism) passed down and passed around through those “jokes” as to how they are supposed to function and think as racists.

“…soon to be extinct Neanderthals.” I like that one. The rougher version must be really good.

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