Why ethnic jokes are not funny
Michael Mullins June 01, 2009
Sol Trujillo's words to a BBC reporter last month were a not-so-gentle
reminder that multiculturalism in Australia is still a work in progress.
'My point is that [racism] does exist and it's got to change,' he said. 'If
there is a belief that only certain people are acceptable versus others,
that is a sad state.'
The former Telstra chief executive was responding in part to constant
references to his Mexican background that culminated in the Prime Minister's
'Adios' parting shot.
He was not slow to point out what he thought was wrong with Australia and
He was fond of saying that our system of strong corporate regulation was
outmoded. This is debatable. We can in fact be proud of the fact that our
strict regulation has helped to insulate us from the worst effects of the
global economic recession. We can even say that it is one of the
characteristics that defines and unites us as a nation.
However it is more difficult to argue against his assertion that racism
remains in our society, and the implication that racism is one of our
Because we lived so long with a policy of assimilation, our ingrained racism
takes more than a few decades to shake. Indeed we returned to it during the
Howard years. We need to see more public policy that definitively reasserts
the principles of multiculturalism. Instead our Prime Minister is caught out
making an ethnic jibe.
Australia's 'father of multiculturalism' Jerzy Zubrzycki died last month.
After the Cronulla riots in 2006, he wrote a paper for the Centre for Policy
Development in which he said the event was evidence that 'not all
Australians have been touched by the ideology of multiculturalism'.
He defined multiculturalism as 'a voluntary bond of dissimilar people
sharing a political and institutional structure'.
To make a joke about one of us is to weaken the bond that joins us. Such
jokes make one of us into an 'other'. Jokes disparage the difference that
It's not hard to tell if the ethnic joke is racist. We just need to look to
see if the person is spontaneously laughing. If this is the case, they are
sharing the joke, and their sense of being one of us - and not other - is
enhanced. The mockery is affectionate rather than dismissive. Sometimes they
will even tell a joke against their own ethnic group. They know that this
can help them to make connection and become one with us.
Sol Trujillo wasn't laughing.
With multiculturalism, there is no 'other'. In the words of the song that is
sometimes unfairly criticised as trite, 'We are one, but we are many ... I
am, you are, we are Australian.'
We may affirm multiculturalism, but continue to laugh dismissively at Irish
and other ethnic jokes. 'But they are funny,' we tell ourselves. The truth
is that they are funny to the extent that we are racist.