Smiles or smirks?

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An evening of stand-up focusing on racism brought to light the fact that comedy is sometimes no laughing matter

Racism exists and it is no laughing matter. It is often a projection of our own fears onto another person. Making snide comments about someone’s background, ethnicity, colour of their skin or the way they clothe themselves is a matter that is not to be taken lightly.

Stereotypes form the basis of racism. Some may feel that reacting to a racist joke is being over-sensitive, but it is racism. And racism in any form cannot be taken casually. Stereotyping is arguably the most dangerous phenomenon, which if left unchecked will fester like a wound and spread like an infection. Making a racist innuendo and then trying to brush it off with, “It was a joke mate. Take it easy”, is not on! People of influence from around the world are conscious that concrete action has to be taken to help accelerate the elimination of the ugly face of racism and discrimination.

Stand-up comedy is unique because not only can it give social critique and instigate transformation but it is done in a way that it generally leaves the audience wanting more. Stories and behaviour patterns that may typically be considered unacceptable are met with laughter and agreement when they are told on stage. The fact that the content is encrusted in humour is like a sugar-coated bitter pill. The laugh takes the sting away.

On the evening of 8 March, seven Sydneysiders came together at the Sydney Town Hall with the sole purpose of starting a conversation on racism and they used the best medium possible – humour. ‘Comedy vs Racism’ prompted the audience to think, participate and talk about the existence of racism in this Multicultural Australian society. Assumptions, pigeon-holing and stereotyping came up as the key factors that induce racism.

It is assumed that an indigenous stand-up comedian will always make it his business to talk about the problems dogging his community — how can a lady donning a hijab ever be a poet or a playwright and visit a gallery or a theatre, a white man with a non-white partner is a possibility but how can a white girl choose a non-white man and what would one know of the problems in Australian society if there is a higher concentration of melanin in your skin. The three comedians and the three commentators addressed these issues in a very novel and engaging way. While Suren Jayemanne, Bjorn Stewart and Tasnim Hossain injected the evening with some well-balanced humour, lawyer Pallavi Joshi, academician James Arvanitakis and journalist Ruby Hamad dissected the issues raised with their own personal experiences. Jennifer Wong was a very entertaining moderator and set the mood for the evening.

Often when people are faced with or challenged by something that is outside their regime of ‘familiar’, they come up with explanations or arguments that ‘fit the bill’ to transport them to their comfort zone. Stereotyping or pigeon-holing is one way of doing that. Bjorn, who is an indigenous Australian, started the evening with a very ‘random’ stand-up steering the audience away from the ‘expected’ to get them thinking. The shock value had its effect. Tasnim, through her well-worded poetry, brought out the short-sightedness in our society through the character of ‘Jim’ and Suren drove home a point by referring to his ‘white girlfriend’ time and time again. Something he said created ripples amongst friends and strangers alike.

Pallavi brought in the legal perspective and spoke about the importance of laws and its importance in setting standards for appropriate behaviour. She also said that though there are anti-discrimination laws no one has been prosecuted to date. She said that our ethnicity makes us richer as it adds another dimension to our personality and reiterated that denial was at the heart of racism. Educational activist James brought to light the presence of religious abusive epitaphs and how a ‘dick head’ quickly becomes an ethnic villifier when the aspect of race and religion is introduced. Columnist Ruby touched upon the huge role social media plays in racism and the increasing episodes of online racism. She has been deemed unfit by the some to comment on social issues, for, as she said, what would she know – after all she was an outsider; the fact that she spent most of her childhood and all of her adulthood in Australia is of no consequence.

The seven individuals from different ethnic backgrounds were very successful in making the audience think about racism and its existence in different modes and mediums. Clearly, the first step to addressing an issue is to first concede that the problem exists. We live in a progressive society. It is not about how much or how little racism exists. There are no comparisons. Any sliver of racism in the society is not healthy and it has to be rooted out completely. So next time you make a passing comment which you think is a joke, think again for humour is a serious business.

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