How To Tell Race-Related Jokes in a ‘Post-Racial’ Society

After seven months observing comedy routines and classes, one man shares what he learned.

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Hal Bergman

Some Americans may believe we live in a color-blind society, but they’re probably not stand-up comedians. In fact, one aspiring sociologist believes that stand-up comedy is only going to get more racial. Race is still a huge issue in America, says University of California, Irvine’s Raul Pérez. But if it’s less acceptable to talk about race in public places, that increases the workload of comedians who can tackle taboos on stage.

For his new study in the journal of Discourse & Society, Pérez spent seven months in comedy classes. Based on more than 200 hours of fledgling routines and guidance from instructors, the doctoral student outlined techniques jokesters use when trying to make race funny in a “post-racism” world. “The novice comic and the professional comic alike need to invoke these strategies,” Pérez says. “Otherwise you get Michael Richards,” i.e. a reputation-wilting act that yields more empty tables than chuckles.

As an observer, Pérez doesn’t pass judgment on all the techniques he saw students learn, and he doesn’t explore all the potential dangers or merits of racial humor. For better or worse, here are some of the lessons the 30-year-old recorded before comedy school let out:

If you’re white, check yourself: Instructors, Pérez says, told white students to handle race material more carefully than non-white students. They were cautioned against opening with race-related jokes and warned that they could easily “cross the hurtline,” the place where jokes become more offensive than funny. Whatever they did had to be more sophisticated than straight-up ridicule, which was off-limits. “The hardest people for me to make funny are [white boys],” one instructor said. “They have less to work with.”

If you’re white, set the stage: White students were taught to convince the audience that they weren’t really racist when telling a race-related joke, Pérez says. Some of the strategies they used are ones comedians might invoke before any controversial gag, like making fun of themselves in an effort to insinuate that everyone is fair game. Instructors also suggested expressing empathy (“I know white people have done a lot of messed up things.”), adding disclaimers (“I don’t personally believe this.”) and putting on elaborate characters—the idea being that if the impression is good enough, the audience is less likely to balk at whatever the character is saying.

If you’re not white, don’t hold back: “The lower on the racial hierarchy,” Pérez writes, “the less elaborate the strategies.” Non-white students, including Pérez himself, were encouraged to play up racial stereotypes with abandon—especially when joking about their own demographic groups. Asian students were told that they needed to sound “more Asian.” A Latino student talking about Mexicans was told that “if you’re going to get racist, let’s go all the way.”

If you’re not white, it may be hard to avoid racial jokes: Some non-white students felt pressured to use race-related material when they didn’t want to go there, Pérez says, like a black comic who resisted doing an impression of her mother with a Southern “mammy” dialect. Fellow students suggested that Pérez make jokes about being confused with the gardener on his college campus. “You would constantly be pushed,” he says, “to build material for your routine on race.” That may be because it gets laughs: “I try not to pull the race card,  but it works,” the resistant black comic said. “I do it, and it works.”

In his study, Pérez runs through theories of how humor operates: One is that comedians can use jokes to provide catharsis for society, triggering the release of tensions and anxieties by saying things most people only think. Race-related humor fell out of favor as political correctness swept the nation in the ’90s; now, he says, people are weary of being PC and scholars have noted that racial humor is reemerging.

Pérez points to comedians like Comedy Central’s Daniel Tosh—who does a bit called “Is It Racist?” (The answer is always yes.) Just as the students were instructed to do, Tosh used a disclaimer when talking about his edgy comedy in 2011. “I’m not a misogynistic and racist person,” he told critics. “But I do find those jokes funny, so I say them.”

This is an edition of Wednesday Words, NewsFeed’s weekly feature on language. For the previous post, click here.