The Rhetoric of Racist Humour: US, UK and Global Race Joking

The Rhetoric of Racist Humour: US, UK and Global Race Joking

The Rhetoric of Racist Humour: US, UK and Global Race Joking

The Rhetoric of Racist Humour: US, UK and Global Race Joking


In today's multicultural and multireligious societies, humour and comedy often become the focus of controversy over alleged racist or offensive content, as shown, for instance, by the intense debate of Sacha Baron Cohen's characters Ali G and Borat, and the Prophet Muhammad cartoons published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. Despite these intense debates, commentary on humour in the academy lacks a clear way of connecting the serious and the humorous, and a clear way of accounting for the serious impact of comic language. The absence of a developed 'serious' vocabulary with which to judge the humorous tends to encourage polarized debates, which fail to account for the paradoxes of humour. This book draws on the social theory of Zygmunt Baumann to examine the linguistic structure of humour, arguing that, as a form of language similar to metaphor, it is both unstable and unpredictable, and structurally prone to act rhetorically; that is, to be convincing. Deconstructing the dominant form of racism aimed at black people in the US, and that aimed at Asians in the UK, The Rhetoric of Racist Humour shows how racist humour expresses and supports racial stereotypes in the US and UK, while also exploring the forms of resistance presented by the humour of Black and Asian comedians to such stereotypes. An engaging exploration of modern, late modern and fluid or postmodern forms of humour, this book will be of interest to sociologists and scholars of cultural and media studies, as well as those working in the fields of race and ethnicity, humour and cultural theory.


It is usually assumed that humour is a good thing and the analysis of it is either unnecessary, or, worse than that in this day-and-age, politically correct. Unfortunately for some, this book does not take that position. It is hoped that the book is, as far as any text can be, a little humourless for the reader and it is implicitly and explicitly asserted throughout that the sober or serious study of humour is far more important for social science than is often recognised – that there are serious implications and effects created by joking and these require investigation.

With this in mind, the book examines the ways in which racist humour acts as racist rhetoric, has a communicative impact, is persuasive, and can affect impressions of truth and ambivalence. The aim of the book is to explain what racist humour does for serious racism and to provide a critique of racist humour on that basis. The exact details of what I mean by a connection between humour and rhetoric will be explained early in Chapter 1. First, it is important to say something about the case studies, drawn from US, UK and global media, that are the subject of this book.

The argument that racist humour functions as a form of rhetoric is elaborated through a number of case studies. Each focuses on a form of racialisation, or a type of racism, and a social context in which it emerges. The aim is to show the overlapping contexts that develop through the increasingly globalised potential of contemporary mass media. The case studies are outlined below in detail. In each case the focus is one that elaborates the impact of US media globally and the potential for humour to appear in other countries or regions and ascend through global media circulation. There is perhaps one case study that does not demonstrate this – culturally racist stand-up comedy in the UK – and reasons for its parochiality are offered. Overall there is no one centre or context of reading through which the case studies of humour are viewed, which allows the analysis to focus on how polysemic readings can develop.

This is a critique of racist humour. Turning to the notion of critique in humour studies, some have attempted to map the ethical limits of humour. For example, de Sousa (1987) attempts an ethical discussion of when it is wrong to laugh, and Lockyer and Pickering (2009a) map the line between the aesthetic appreciation and ethical evaluation of humour. Along these lines, this book follows Lockyer and Pickering’s interest in the ‘times when humour, or attempted humour, is not only inappropriate but also disastrous for the various social identities and relations that are drawn into it’ (Lockyer and Pickering 2009a: 1). It also seeks to understand ‘how humour at once permits, legitimates and exonerates an insult’ (2009a: 12).

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