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Why ethnic jokes are not funny

Sol TrujilloSol 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



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Existing comments

As a supporter of multiculturalism (in the sense in which it has been officially understood since 1973 - as a celebration of diversity within the framework of a dominant British democratic culture and legal system reflecting the values of that culture), I think ethnic jokes can be funny for a range of reasons, of which remnant racism is only one. One can even find such jokes funny, without being racist.

The attempt by Michael Mullins (and any attempts by the Church and State) to tell us what we should find funny or not are doomed to failure so long as Freud's analysis of jokes remains valid: often we laugh at ideas/notions that we know are wrong precisely because such sentiments are suppressed by the powers-that-be.

Michael's analysis is far too over-riding and simplistic. At worst, they can lead to a fascistic suppression of freedom of expression based on the need for moral order.

Barry York | 01 June 2009  

Thank you Michael for this timely piece. May I add the following comments on the Irish joke, recently resurrected on a morning television program.

The Irish joke is essentially racist, a throwback to the days of scientific Darwinism when Paddy was represented with simian features and a pig under his arm. Malice may not be intended in today's telling; yet one cannot get away from the image of polite Tories, in their all-male club, sipping whisky and fortifying themselves with these anecdotes before going home to their Georgian terrace to be served dinner by Brigid the maid and retiring to their comfortable quarters prepared by Nora or Molly.

I realise that many Australians see the Irish joke as harmless; people with such a robust and self-deprecating sense of humour may find the Irish sensitivity puzzling. What they don't realise is that it hides hundreds of years of assumed superiority on the one hand and servile acceptance on the other.

In the Irish joke I recognise a clash of cultures. I know - but the teller does not know - that his joke is a belated attempt to destroy by ridicule what could not be taken by conquest: an older and more humane civilisation.

Frank O'Shea | 01 June 2009  

As we left a reunion of our large extended Chinese family reunion, our Asian hosts waved enthusiastically calling, 'Ciao' . . . were they being racist (Chow) or multicultural (Italian speaking). Whatever, we all collapsed laughing!

glen avard | 01 June 2009  

Many Australians are still racist, as are many citizens of many other countries, but Rudd's use of the word 'adios' in response to Trujillo's departure was not racist. At best, it was a positive recognition of Trujillo's heritage; at worst it was a reference to the title of the 'Three Amigos' given to Trujillo and the two other Americans that Trujillo chose to appoint because they were Americans rather than make those appointments on merit alone irrespective of nationality.

Tom Jones | 01 June 2009  

I agree entirely with Barry York. Something is funny if it's funny to you. Anyway, all the Prime Minister said was 'goodbye' in a language he assumed the addressee would understand.

Laurie Ryan | 01 June 2009  

I rather think that the Irish joke is an American invention, from the days of mass immigration of poor and under-educated Irishmen consigned to hard labour. The Irish joke gave way to the Polish joke which had the same basis, after Irish America got rich and educated.

The racist joke requires two things to survive and spread: First that the minority be large enough to be universally recognisable, and second that it not be so large that it might by chance be a majority in the pub.

Michael Grounds | 01 June 2009  

It's probably safe to assume that Australia, like any other country, has its 10% of racists. The comment by Rudd, however, I don't think is in this category. He could have said, 'Goodbye' and achieved the same effect. Which was to recognise that S.T was not liked here either as a person nor as an administrator.

Barry | 01 June 2009  

Michael Mullins says that an ethnic joke is racist if the other person is not laughing. An alternate explanation is that the other person is self-centred and precious.

I think I am as opposed to racism as most thoughtful people. Racism is predicated upon a disparaging view of a particular racial group, and I've never sensed that Australians are racist towards Mexicans. Certainly one hears the occasional 'Mexican' joke, just as you hear Polish jokes or German jokes. But that doesn't demonstrate racism. And we've all heard plenty of jokes about okker Aussies.

A few months ago, Pakistani people in the UK took exception to being referred to as 'Pakis'. But Australians don't worry about being called 'Aussies'. What's the difference? I think it's to do with an underlying social attitude, and not particular words.

Sol Trujillo is wealthy and privileged. The comments to which he took exception were, as far as I could tell, trying to make the point that people weren't impressed by his performance as head of Telstra. The PM said 'Adios"'. I took that to mean not "We look down on Mexicans" but rather "I wasn't happy with the way you ran Telstra, and I'll be glad to have someone else in the job." What's wrong with that?

Rob Brennan | 01 June 2009  

The BBC interviewer fed Sol Trojillo the words and the opportunity to label Australia as a racist country which he grabbed with alacrity.

It diverted attention away from Trojillo's (and his compadres')failure as CEO of Telstra. And from a contract that left him extremely well embursed for such a failure.
'Good riddance', Mr Rudd would have been entitled to say and most of us would all have understood why. Trojillo was a near disaster for Telstra.

Instead the PM said:'Adios' which I understood to mean he commended Tojillo to God's care. With typical(?) Australian media hypocrisy or ignorance 'Adios' was interpreted as an ethnic, even a racist, slur.
Would that you had told us how Prof Zubrzycki might have defined the difference between an ethnic and a racist joke/remark. And why the Australian media tend to turn on their political leaders when they are conned rather than on the con-man that duped them.

Uncle Pat | 01 June 2009  

No-one seems to remember that the original 'three amigos' tag was not based on Trujillo's ethnicity. (In fact, in all the years of reading about him, I have no memory of ever knowing that his ancestry was Mexican.)

The joke was based on the movie "the 3 Amigos', which was about a bunch of inept American idiots riding out to resolve another country's problems. So the tag may have been xenophobia about bumbling know-it-all Americans, but was not racism about Mexicans.

Lane Blume | 01 June 2009  

Sol Trujillo played the racist card to cover his 'behind' (can't say the 'A' word, might offend), to paraphrase Christine Keeler 'he would say that wouldn't he'. If Mr Rudd's intent was not racist (and is anyone seriously suggesting he is) then any insult is the perception of the recipient, but how can a person consider a common farewell in Spanish insulting?

Sol was a condescending elitist who treated the people of this country like fools - and now he seeks to divert blame for his incompetence.
The only Irish joke I don't find funny is the Catholic church; let's not waste our time on imagined slights when the real awful crime stares us in the face.

chris gow | 01 June 2009  

Spot on, Michael. To purge racism out of ourselves we must first admit that there is racism in us. Most Australians feel they are not.

Dewi Anggraeni | 01 June 2009  

If only it were this simple, Michael...

A joke is not funny if its intention is to belittle....
Wives, husbands, blondes,little old ladies,Irish, English, Scots, Welsh, Catholics,Jews, priests, rabbis....
Beyond that we are simply in the territory of sensitivity.No road map but loving our neighbours as ourselves...Trouble is most of us would not want ourselves as neighbours.

margaret | 01 June 2009  

Discussed this issue at Current Events group this morning.
We talked about our subliminal dislike of the other in Australian society and the need for change to occur
Kevin Rudd lacked sensitivity and his model was poor

Judy | 01 June 2009  

I reckon that Kevin telling Sol 'Adios', before Sol left Australia is about as racist as Barack saying to a departing Rupert: 'See ya later mate and stick another prawn on the barbie before ya go'.

Claude Rigney | 01 June 2009  

Bravo!!! ethnic Jokes are not always funny - and if we join in - are we really accepting (which is more than tolerating) the difference?

Jeantait@gmail.com | 01 June 2009  

Michael, get a sense of humour and stop taking yourself so seriously.

If people can't take a friendly jibe based on typical ethnic stereotypes, then we are in deep trouble.

If you do find a joke offensive, fight fire with fire, and give one back. All this moral preening is boring.

John Smith | 01 June 2009  

Sol T is a corporate looser and made comments that he did because he and the other two amigos made zero effort to understand the Australian corporate culture and the political culture. So they displayed an attitude of arrogance that was out of place. The Chairman should have fired them much earlier.

Kenneth Mortimer | 01 June 2009  

I'm with Rob Brennan on this -- Sol T was shameless in trying to bully the Australian Government(s)and ACCC, ran down the company, halved shareholder value and shoots through months early with more money than any of us will ever see in several lifetimes and he wants the world to be sorry for him?!! OK, let's call him an AMERICAN bandit. Is that better? Sol T is a bad joke, end of story.

Hugh Dillon | 01 June 2009  

Michael your article misses the mark.
Sol T REGULARLY USED THE RACE CARD TO GAIN AN BUSINESS ADVANTAGE, ask his competitors. He came across to us as a bully- aggessive -his way or the highway-shareholders interest not community-and greedy. Should you really promote him as a model of christian ethics in business?

guido vogels | 02 June 2009  

Racist???...O, Michael, get a sense of humour. Most of didn't know that Sol was Mexican, and couldn't have cared less. What we did care about was his assertion that we were "out-of-date" because we didn't copy US business-government relations. We weren't too pleased about his failure to improve the position of Telstra stock, either. His multi-million dollar salary looked like a complete waste of money.

Lenore Crocker | 02 June 2009  

I agree with John Smith who says “Michael, get a sense of humour and stop taking yourself so seriously... all this moral preening is boring”. Further, I say this article is very disappointing and particularly so for someone who has spent many years informing herself through reading, study and research and now achieved a deep understanding of the history, meaning and working/intent of the policy of multiculturalism in Australia and overseas. The policy of multiculturalism has been an abject failure in Australia and everywhere else, whereas the policy of a multicultural Australia has been a wonderful success and cause for celebration.

Many will know that FDR was dismayed at the very thought of a hyphenated American. We are all Americans, he said. Do we not all want to say, we are all Australians?

Christopher Hitchens is spot on when he calls for an end to one-way multiculturalism and the cultural masochism that goes with it.

Vonnie | 02 June 2009  

Little wonder racism and other isms are so entrenched in our culture when one reads the comments below
Margaret is right in reminding us that the object of these jokes is to belittle and marginalise
The issue isnt Sol's effort in business it is the Australian cultural need to put down others

Judy | 04 June 2009  

The intention of the speaker is the chief point. I have been offended when blond jokes were told seemingly to make my daughter feel inferior, when anticatholic jokes seemed to be unpleasantly directed at us, when Irish jokes are told in the same way, when age jokes seem to belittle me in my senior years. On the other hand I can enjoy all these jokes when they are shared with those who have no axe to grind.

Patricia Ryan | 13 July 2009  

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