A Racist Joke, or a Joke about Racism?

This week, I was particularly interested in the Henry Jenkins article, which discussed Sarah Silverman and her atypical style of comedy (in terms of her jokes about race). It started out by describing how one of her jokes involved the use of a racial slur. It became very controversial. The article discussed the idea of joking relations, which are cultural rules about which people can joke about each other without backlash. We discussed this idea in class in prior weeks. Does Sarah Silverman have a “license” to make fun of other groups of people? At first, when I read that she used racial slurs, it made me angry because she doesn’t belong  to the groups she was making fun of, which is typically something that allows you to joke about a group. However, after reading further about the reasons behind this, I began to understand it more. Using language and making jokes that makes the audience uncomfortable is the exact purpose of them. When the audience feels uncomfortable, the hope is that they will recognize their own status in society, and maybe even make them recognize their use of the very words the comedians used that made them feel uncomfortable. As the article said:

“…we cannot meaningfully change how we think about race as a society by remaining within our own enclaves.”

The article also mentioned how the burden of discussing issues of race is placed almost entirely on comedians belonging to a minority group. It’s not acceptable in our society today to joke about people who aren’t like you, and that’s why Sarah Silverman’s jokes were so controversial. I believe that if a comedian can introduce a sensitive topic in a respectful and serious way, and then move into making a joke about it, then I think there can be real benefits. Ignoring differences among ourselves doesn’t make these issues go away, but if we can recognize them in a respectful, and sometimes funny way, maybe we can move forward as a society – especially in the world of comedy.

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