Best of 2009: Why ethnic jokes are not funny


Sol TrujilloFirst published June 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 our ways.

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 national traits.

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 multiculturalism celebrates.

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.
Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.


Topic tags: michael mullins, sol trujillo, racist, adios, kevin rudd, racism, multiculturalism, assimilation



submit a comment

Existing comments

It was only Aussie tolerance that prevented us from telling Trujillo to vamoose a long time before. He didn't come to assimilate. He was only ever a visitor who came to impose his way on a large percentage of the Australian population, many of whom he sacked. He didn't want to work with us, importing his own men: thus the '3 Amigos' monicker. Witty commentary when the papers say it yet evil racism when Rudd stays in theme. A little perspective please and get a sense of humour. Sol wasn't laughing because he messed up.
Eclair | 11 January 2010

Thanks Michael for an interesting article. I guess for many Australians, it is difficult to feel sympathy toward a very tall poppy - a very powerful / rich man in Sol. But the point we need to remind ourselves, is leading by example - slanging off at the powerful along racist lines, will only serve to seriously undermine the far less powerful and keep the racist pot bubbling.

The media too have a great role to play – last week an unfortunate incident here in my hometown of Ballart – where an Indian taxi driver was assaulted/abused…the initial media report said he was bashed – and then this changed over course of day to downplay somewhat – whilst I think appalling that he was affronted by the passenger – ‘bashed up’ – was extreme. More accurate reporting rather than incinerating the issues would I am sure help.

Tarn Kruger | 18 January 2010


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up