Racist Humour and Discourses of Social Class
Before the central rhetorical themes preformed by culturally racist humour are discussed something should be said about the perceived habitus conditions of the comedians involved in its articulation. It is impossible to describe the habitus of any humour audience in textual research of this kind. However, the comedians themselves and the content of the material can be approximately located in relation to discourses of class and race habitus.
The comedians examined in this chapter - Jim Bowen, Frank Carson, Jim Davidson, Jethro, Jimmy Jones, Bernard Manning, Mike Reid and Freddie Starr - are all male and either from a working-class background or have come to prominence via the workingmen’s club circuit in the UK. This is a circuit of clubs in the UK that comedians often perform at early on in their careers. It is especially associated with the rise of comedians in the 1970s and 1980s and involves playing to working class audiences in the main. These audiences are caricatured as offering a good deal of heckling and brash criticism. Davidson’s material is analysed more than any other because he is the most commercially successful, and has produced far more material. Some, including Bowen, Davidson, Manning and Jones, reached the peak of their popularity in the 1970s and 1980s.
While some theorists argue that it is irrelevant to ask whether racist theories emerge from what might be described as the ‘elites’ or the ‘masses’ (see Balibar 1991: 18-19), it does appear that a very specific sorio-strnctural group is involved in the production of this humour. There are possible explanations for this that have wider sociological implications, as Miles writes: ‘we have only limited evidence of the nature and extent of racist ideologies amongst the working class’ (1989: 80).
Miles’s thesis on the racialisation of minority groups in the labour market can be mobilised here. Miles explains how employers ‘believe not only that the labour market consisted of a number of different ‘races’ but also that these ‘races’ had different characteristics which influenced their employability’ (1989: 80). So, when he argues that ‘[s]ince the 1950s, the British labour market has been racialised ...’ (1989: 126), we can assume that the white working classes will have specific relationships to these racialisations, which are connected to the maintenance or improvement of employment position in the labour market. Maintaining a position in the labour market can involve excluding or inferiorising the ‘other’, who is seen as a threat to ordered/current/continuing employability. This is achieved through proteophobia and stereotyping, and is seen as a process of anxiety negotiation for which racist humour is especially useful.
The discourse that working-class people feel increasingly stereotyped, marginalised, stigmatised and de-valued, both economically and culturally is an expression of this, and this is displayed in humour. Rattansi (2007) outlines the sentiment: ‘complaints that whites have become second-class citizens in their own countries have a wide resonance’ (2007: 167). These sentiments do not exist in abstraction from the material conditions of the working classes, who are affected by a number of global economic and social changes in recent decades:
The increasing powers of supra-national entities such as the European Union, the forces of economic globalization which have involved the outsourcing of jobs to India and China, and the threat of a resurgent, militant global Islam are creating conditions in which broad cultural and political coalitions are being united by varying degrees of nationalism. (2007: 167)
While Rattansi aligns these events to a united ‘nationalism’, many English working-class people also see their own sense of nationalism as something that has been stigmatised and repressed in the post-colonial period, especially by the political Left, and this, coupled with the relative success of anti-racist discourse in rendering racism increasingly unacceptable, and the linked establishment of multiculturalism, presents the conditions for a resentment fuelled and politically motivated working class racism. As expressions of these sentiments also increasingly fall under the remit of unacceptable discourse, humour provides an alternative and rhetorical vehicle of expression. It is clear from the material that these comedians see themselves as marginalised in relation to alternative (middle class) stand-up comedians. This marginalisation maps on well with the sentiments of the working-class racism and with working-class marginalisation, both cultural and economic.
In presenting this argument, I do not want to exaggerate the class-based differences in the enjoyment of racist comedy, as the architects of alternative comedy also produced racist material. These comedians enjoy a far greater reputation today in middle class circles than the stand-up comedians under study. For example, Peter Cook, Peter Sellars and Spike Milligan all produced racist humour. Cook’s expressions of embodied racism in Derek and Clive, Sellars’ hit song Goodness Gracious Me (with Sophia Loren) and Milligan’s ‘Paki Paddy’ in Curry and Chips are all problematic. Although it is possible to argue that this humour is more polysemic than the stand-up and internet sources discussed in this and the previous chapter, usually because it is expressed through impersonation or character acting, it can produce racist readings.