How Racist Humor Fuels White Supremacy: JCU Welcomes Raúl Pérez
On July 6, John Cabot University’s Guarini Institute for Public Affairs presented a lecture by Raúl Pérez, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of La Verne, California, in which he discussed his new book The Souls of White Jokes (Stanford University Press, 2022). Drawing from W.E.B. Du Bois’ prescient essay “The Souls of White Folk” (1920), Pérez illustrated how the current widespread use of racist humor plays a central role in reinforcing and mobilizing racist ideology, solidarity, and power under the guise of amusement.
In the summer of 2017, Pérez came to Rome as a visiting scholar at JCU and had the opportunity to research the Five Star Movement, an Italian political party founded by comedian Beppe Grillo. During that time, Pérez also developed his book project and presented an overview of his ideas for what has now become The Souls of White Jokes to the JCU community. His goal was to write a book that could highlight the problem of racist humor as well as display a theoretical angle as to its importance.
In developing this theory, he found W.E.B. Du Bois to be a large influence, especially his work The Souls of Black Folk (1903) and the concept of “double consciousness.” Defined as “the sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity,” this double consciousness, and especially the aspect of “amused contempt,” provided a base for Pérez’s theory. Pérez described amused contempt as “a pleasurable feeling that regards others as inferior or beneath consideration” and explained that humor scholars today refer to this idea as the superiority theory of humor. Drawing from this, he created his own theoretical concept known as “amused racial contempt,” which centers around the role that racist humor plays in the social and political construction of race and racism as it simultaneously brings people together while creating further racial division and isolation.
Historically, the origin of amused racial contempt in the United States is rooted in minstrel shows. These performances were the first form of popular culture in the US, and as new media forms and technologies were developed, minstrelsy made the transition to radio and television. Amused racial contempt was pervasive in American culture, and as the repression of people of color increased so did the push back against racial humor. After World War II and the Civil Rights movement, legislation was finally passed as a step to prevent racism. Racial slurs were banned on television and there were limitations as to what kinds of content could be aired, but actors, comedians, and other performers still tried to push the limits of how far they could go without overstepping. Racial humor, while still persistent in the public sphere, became a more behind closed doors practice.
Pérez’s research follows the idea that although some people believe that racist humor and its consequences have become less prominent, this is not the case as this type of humor has simply become a more private practice. His book highlights specific cases in which racism has become more pervasive and speaks about the dangers of using racist humor to create sympathy toward racist opinions and protect their perpetrators from consequences. Far-right parties, such as the White Aryan Resistance, have weaponized racist humor to push their political agendas in these ways, which Pérez explores in one of the first chapters. One chapter also highlights the impact of racist humor on law enforcement and officers’ behavior in the field. Another discusses this humor in the political arena and assesses specifically the treatment of Barack Obama during his presidency. Overall, Pérez’s book displays how amused racial contempt has been central to racial supremacy and that there is a direct connection and continuity between colonialism and slavery and present-day racism.
The Souls of White Jokes will be available to the public on July 26, 2022. Building off his research on the Five Star Movement, Pérez is looking to develop a similar book within the context of Italian culture.