Taking Hate Speech Seriously When Racism is a Joke

I’ve been pondering a contradiction about racism.  On the one hand, I’ve argued here and in my book that racist hate speech, including on the Internet, is something that we should take seriously.   On the other hand, Internet culture in general is one where humor is the prevailing norm and racist hate speech often gets treated as a joke.     One of the students at Johns Hopkins University earlier this week raised this point in the Q&A following a talk I gave there.  It’s also a nuanced point that Lisa Nakamura made in her talk about “Enlightened Racism” in online games at Harvard’s Berkman Center a few months ago.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: theloushe

Part of the reason I (and other critical race theorists) argue that it’s important to take racist hate speech seriously is that words harm people.  Everyone living in a democracy has a right to be equally protected from harm and to not be subjected to a particular kind of harm just because of their race, religion or other identity status.   In the U.S., that’s known as “equal protection” and it’s covered by the 14th Amendment, among other laws.   As a recent example of how racist hate speech harms people, there’s a story out of Roanoke, Virginia about a notorious white supremacist with the rather un-ironic name of William A. White.   White recently lost a lawsuit – and fined over half a million dollars  – for his racist hate speech.  The lawsuit was filed by five African American women who had the bad luck to be tenants in a Virginia Beach apartment complex where White was the landlord.  White wrote threatening letters to the women, saying they were “Section 8 N—s” and elsewhere referred to all blacks as “parasites.”

These words had an impact.   During testimony in U.S. District Court in Roanoke, the five black women described their reactions to getting the threatening letters from White: one said she began to suffer seizures; another developed an ulcer.  Yet another woman testified that she no longer lets her 10-year-old grandson outside to play or ride his bike alone. “I didn’t know what was around the corner waiting for us because of him,” she said.  All five of the women testified that they still live in fear of White based on the racist hate speech he sent in that letter.   Although White used a traditional form of letter for this round of racist hate speech, he’s used the Internet in other attacks.

The jury did the right thing when they found in favor of the women suing White (it was a civil case, so he was not found “guilty”). Part of what this jury did was take hate speech, and the harm it caused, seriously.  That kind of racist hate speech is not, as many Americans assume, protected as “free speech” under the first amendment.   In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled (Virginia v. Black, 2003) that a “burning-cross is not protected speech” because it’s not speech that’s intended to contribute to democracy, but is intended to terrorize people.

I know, I know – not very funny so far.   Where are the lulz in this story?

The second part of this contradiction I’m pondering is that the culture of the Internet is all about what’s funny.  Lisa Nakamura made the excellent point in her talk about the “racist griefing” that goes on in online games which often makes explicit use of racist epithets, which she explains this way: “The n-word is funny because it is so extreme that no one could really mean it. And humor is all about ‘not meaning it.’ If you take humor and the n-word, you get enlightened racism online and attention.” She calls this “enlightened racism.”  Nakamura goes on to argue that paradoxically, “the worse the racism and sexism are, the more extreme and cartoonish it is, the harder it is to take seriously, and the harder it is to call it out.”

She points out, quite astutely I think, that for those within gaming culture, calling out racism in this context signals you as someone “not of the gaming culture” and thus, as someone who is taking racism “too seriously” and doesn’t have a good sense of humor. Yet, this sort of humor is a “confusing discursive mode for young people,” she observes, because they are “unable to separate enlightened racism from regular racism.” And, indeed, I think this is a real problem here. As Nakamura notes, the image of the “humorless feminist” is now joined with the image of a “humorless” old(er) person who takes race too seriously.   I’m going to have to plead guilty to this.  Racism, in my view, is serious business, but that stance is antithetical to mainstream Internet culture.

There are some people, far more talented than I am, who can take racism – even racist hate speech – and make it funny.   No, really.   Let me introduce you to Elon James White (no relation to William A. White, that I know of), and his video blog series, “This Week in Blackness”(TWIB). His take on Dr. Laura’s racist rant a few weeks ago (Season 3, Episode #8) is one of the funniest things I’ve heard in awhile.  In addition to being funny, Elon’s routines are scathing, and much needed, critiques of white privilege and white culture.  I’m a fan of Elon’s (even downloaded the iPhone app of TWIB) and I think what he does is valuable and entertaining.

I think it’s the racism as entertainment meme where we need to be careful here.    Chauncey de Vega (of We are Respectable Negroes) has a thoughtful piece about Slavery as Entertainment, in which he highlights two role-playing games in which people can reenact some aspects of slavery (“I wonder if visitors can be whipped, branded, physically disfigured, manacled, or raped and defiled to complete the “historical” experience?”).  He notes that these types of “reenactments” can go oh so wrong because they trivialize the experience of what was until then an unimaginable historical tragedy.  If you look at historical accounts of lynchings, those were considered entertaining by whites at the time.  Whites often packed picnics and smiled when they had their photo taken at those vigilante lynching “parties.”

And, I see I’ve veered right back into the unfunny material.  I’m old school like that.

I’m not sure there’s a way out of this contradiction.   In some ways, this contradiction speaks to the “both/and” quality of racism that characterizes the current historical moment.  We have both the vitriolic racist hate speech, often spread via the Internet; and, we have a dominant culture in which humor is the prevailing norm, often making racism into entertainment.  Just because some of us are laughing doesn’t necessarily mean we’re making progress.


  1. Joe

    I made these points on racialized joking by whites in our Two Faced Racism book:

    Sigmund Freud did a serious analysis of racial and ethnic joking as hiding aggressive feelings and thoughts. In his view, such jokes allow individual joke tellers to break societal taboos and thereby gain pleasure from expressing normally repressed feelings and views. In a civilized society, particular individuals use racist jokes to siphon off subconscious aggressive feelings that cannot otherwise be released. Therefore, much racist joking substitutes for even more aggressive actions against the racial targets. Such joking is thus said to be destructive of real group solidarity. However, this Freudian analysis misses the broader sociological reality that much conventional racist joking by whites involves an already shared framing of society and thus actually builds white group solidarity. Certainly, racist joking can operate to test the waters of a racial topic, but most racist joking and smiling performances commentaries imbed or reinforce group views and solidify existing networks. Racial joking often adds fuel to the fire of aggression against its racialized targets–—for the joking individual and his (or, less often, her) group. Interactive racist joking often relieves tensions in a social setting and unites a group. Even in an apparently light-hearted joking context, the racialized “fun” of whites usually reveals hostile and deliberately hurtful sentiments that are typically part of a larger white white-racist framing. By telling racist jokes and by insisting that they are only jokes, whites promote their acceptability, persistence, and harmful impact.

  2. Jessie Author

    Joe – I think your analysis is right on about whites’ racist jokes, and that certainly applies to the Internet as well.
    I’m making a slightly different point, following on Nakamura. My point is that the prevailing Internet culture is one in which “joking” and how funny something is, determines its popularity online. The good news about that is that it makes people like Elon (who is black) very popular and maybe even rich. His stuff is funny and is joking *about* racism while critiquing white privilege. I see that as both resisting racism and entertaining.
    The problem comes when the racism as entertainment meme, or as Nakamura puts it, the enlightened racism (of “The n-word is funny because it is so extreme that no one could really mean it”) is the only lens that people have for understanding racist language.

    • Joe

      The key really lies in the underlying framing. Funny stuff that is mostly out of the white racial frame and its language reinforces it even as it laughs at it. Only joking out of a strong counter-frame counters the underlying racial frame that is the structure of most thinking about racial matters in this society. Those counter framing comedians do not get much attention or support from whites .. Think Dick Gregory.

    • Jessie Author

      Hey @ignoblus ~ Good to see you here. Yeah, again, I’m thinking that it’s slightly different than race-baiting…. (although that may well be what’s happening at those 2 links, along with a lot of other stuff). As I said, I think Elon’s “This Week in Blackness” is hilarious stuff, and it’s not race-baiting at all. In fact, he’s using his humor to make many of the same political points we make here on this blog. It’s just that if the social/cultural context shifts in such a way that racism becomes a punchline, it makes difficult to take it seriously in specific instances.

  3. No1KState

    I agree with Joe, too. Also, I think whites display their privilege by insisting that it’s “only a joke.” Growing up, I would have to apologize if my “joke” hurt someone’s feelings and not allowed to tell that particular joke to that particular person again if at all. So, it’s grating to hear someone say something racist and then accuse the other person of being hypersensitive.

    A separate but related question – is this not etiquite in the white community? I mean, would a white parent not correct their child for teasing the fat neighbor kid because the kid’s being “too sensititve?” Do white children get out of trouble even as teens by claiming intent, “I didn’t mean to?” in which case, would that my parents were white! LOL! (Hey! I stayed on topic.) Or, are the rules the same, and privilege allows whites to ignore etiquite when dealing with other racial groups?

    Back to the post, I think what makes racial joke funny is when the target is the racist or racism itself. “God hates bigots!” is, I’m guessing, in response to those “God hates fags” signs and as such is hilarious! (Even though neither is true.) On the other hand, someone of that GHF group making fun of LGBT community or teasing each other with an LBGT slur isn’t.

    My guess is that it’s mostly whites and males, or assimilated others, who engage in racial griefing. I’m not aware that anything would be accepted as a joke just because it’s outlandish. You’d have to follow up with an “LOL” or “j/k” or something, right? But, I’m not a gamer and usually stick to facebook and blogs, so I definitely could be wrong.

    @ Jessie – You spoke at Johns Hopkins? The more I learn about you, the more impressed I become. With both you and myself for knowing you! 🙂

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