‘Jokes’ about race in comedy; a little sophistication goes a long way…

Posted on: 16th August 2012

At Body & Soul we work with people from many different ethnicities and cultures. As such we strive to be sensitive towards difference, use language carefully and try to understand how subtly the effects of racism can sometimes be felt. I recently went to Latitude music festival and happened to see a comedian called Lee Nelson performing. I had never heard of him before but have since been told that part of his act is pretending to be totally insensitive towards people of different cultures, women, people of different abilities and generally anyone different from himself. Apparently this is supposed to ‘expose’ such views as wrong or perhaps outdated.

While watching his gig I was not at all convinced that this was the effect it was having. As a person from an ethnic minority myself I sat in an almost entirely white crowd, listened to people laughing around me at his jokes and began to feel increasingly uncomfortable. I felt that rather than undermining such insensitive views he was actually just reinforcing stereotypes in people’s minds. This is damaging when as a society we still have so far to go before people are all treated equally and with respect. See some recent research on racism, treatment of disability, homophobia and gender inequality confirms this:

• In the past 12 months 57% of BAME applicants were invited to interviews through a recruitment agency, compared to 73% of white candidates (Race for Opportunity 2012)

• 66% of disabled people say that they have experienced aggression, hostility or name calling (Scope, 2011)

• 83% of teachers had witnessed racist behaviour amongst their pupils and many felt there were strong racist attitudes amongst their pupil cohort. (Show Racism the Red Card, 2011)

• Homophobic bullying continues to be widespread in Britain’s schools. More than half (55 per cent) of lesbian, gay and bisexual pupils have experienced direct bullying (Stonewall, 2012)

• The full-time gender pay gap between women and men is 14.9 per cent (Fawcett Society)

When I expressed my dislike of Lee Nelson’s racist jokes, someone told me, ‘but it’s just an act, he doesn’t really mean it, he’s attacking everyone not just non-white people’.

Hmm, I felt both offended by this and thought it was over simplifying a much more complex issue. It’s not that I ‘didn’t get the joke’; I just didn’t think it was funny. I think issues such as this can and should be dealt with in comedy and jokes can be made very well – but in this case they were being made clumsily, and with a negative outcome. In my view it was less holding up a mirror to society and more closing eyes and looking the other way.

The next afternoon at the festival I went to see one of my heroes, the performance poet Benjamin Zephaniah. A terrific and intelligent antidote to Lee Nelson. Listening to Zephaniah reminded me that I didn’t need to feel isolated in my view, because there are a lot of people out there who get it. He also reminded me that we can talk about race directly, laugh at ourselves and each other and also not forget what we are striving to achieve. One of my favourite moments was when he performed his poem ‘What has that got to do with me’ (above) . Challenging racism and inequality is everyone’s business. And trying to understand when it is operating subtly is too.



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  • sheila at 01:07 on 24th September 2014

    Thank you. Great comments. I’ve just seen an NHS ad/smokefree/in which a Lee Nelson character Dr Bob appears. He’s white with brown smudged skin and a pronounced Indian accent. I find it offensive that white people think it’s OK to do this… that it’s past racism now… rubbish.
    I’m a middle aged Brit of Indian race. I grew up with racism and don’t want to go through that again.