In defense of russell peters: are racial stereotypes ever funny?

by Special Correspondent Thea Lim

When is it ok to laugh at comedy based on racial stereotypes?

After our past conversation on Bernie Mac and “in house” jokes and the sudden gruesome ubiquity of Esther Ku, the answer seems to be, Uh, never.

But then, where does that leave Indian Canadian comedian Russell Peters?

This is where I need some help: I freakin’ love Russell Peters. Am I a disgusting hypocrite?

His act is littered with sexism, he’s made a household name for himself with a joke condoning child abuse (somebody gonna get a hurt real bad…), and one of his hottest bits involves mocking South African names. But everyone I know loves him – particularly people of colour, and anti-racist people of colour at that.

Is it because he’s irresistibly likeable? I’d like to think that it takes more than a goofy face to make us abandon our politics. Is it because he’s not only Canadian, but from just outside of Toronto, one of my hometowns? Apparently not, because I was introduced to him by my BFF in Singapore.

I have an inkling as to why it seems ok to like Peters. Last year at VONA, a yearly creative writing workshop for writers of colour, I met the wondrous Junot Díaz who introduced my group to his theory on the Wheel of Tyranny.

Díaz argued that too many books by writers of colour represent only two ethnicities per book: people from the writer’s own community of colour, and white folks.

In these writers’ fictional worlds there are only brown people and white people (The Namesake); or only black folks and white folks in the world (The Colour Purple); or only Chinese people and white people in the world (The Woman Warrior)…In these books, the communities of colour have white folks as their sole interlocutors. What about conversations between different communities of colour? It’s pretty rare that you come across a book like, for eg, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, which featured a white family, a brown family and a black family.

This lack of real diversity, Díaz argued, creates The Wheel of Tyranny (and if he was here to draw this for us he would), where communities of colour circle constantly around a hub that is white folks, while never communicating with each other. Díaz suggested that in reflecting the experience of other people of colour in our work, we create a home for each other in our art; we show each other that we exist.

Which is arguably what Peters does.

Let’s look at Esther Ku. In the video Latoya posted a while back (see the Esther Ku link above), who is Ku speaking to? In her celebration of yellow fever and her assurances that even Korean people can’t tell each other apart or use chopsticks, she’s always speaking to white audiences – even though when the Last Comic Standing camera pans to the audience, there’s always a few faces of colour.

Along with the fact that these jokes are offensive (and not really funny), they send the message that audiences of colour are not important enough to write jokes for. In fact, all they’re good for is the butt of jokes. Just like ye olde status quo, Ku’s jokes place white folks at the center of everything.

Peters on the other hand talks about relationships between Indians and Chinese folks, between Indians and Jamaicans, between Indians and Latinos. More than this it really seems like Peters is simply trying to make people like himself laugh. There’s something sorta subversive about the fact that he’s playing to himself, instead of pandering to an audience that doesn’t share his experience at all.

Latoya used the phrase “in house jokes” to refer to jokes that communities of colour will only tell to each other. These are jokes that are only funny when told by the POC they make fun of, to a POC audience. Peters’ jokes are different – while they definitely would not be the funny if told by a white person* they work for all stripes of audiences, because they aren’t crafted for a white audience.

Having been told my whole life that Shakespeare and James Joyce were the definition of great (i.e. straight white English-speaking Western dudes), the whole way I saw writing changed when I realised that I could write for myself, and for people like me, instead of having to write for people who really identified with Jane Austen.There can be great power in creating your comedy/writing/art/blog posts for readers of colour, even when your audience is white. Jokes that are for ourselves don’t marginalise or exclude white folks, they just don’t focus on them. Many writers and artists of colour I know are driven primarily by the desire to make art for us, which in itself seems revolutionary when so much art has existed to marginalise us.

But I have to say that my feelings about comedy shift depending on who I view it with. When I used to watch Borat skits at home, I laughed, if not uncomfortably. But when I went to see the Borat movie on the big screen with an audience that was mostly white, I felt uncomfortable and tense throughout most of the movie. Which doesn’t make sense – why is it ok for me to laugh at racist jokes, but not for white folks?

You tell me, is it ok to laugh at Russell Peters? Is it ever ok to laugh at any comedy that makes fun of race?

*They wouldn’t be funny when told by a white person because of the context of institutionalised racism that we live in, where white folks are the dominant culture. Do a search on this site for “reverse racism” and why it doesn’t exist for more info.

[Editor's Note - For those of you who cannot see the videos/audio, I do not have a transcript. But here's a post from Sepia Mutiny that describes one of his sketches, and deconstructs the uneasy lines he plays on. - LDP ]