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Why ethnic jokes are not funny

  • 01 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