- The Souls of White Jokes: How Racist Humor Fuels White Supremacy by Raúl Pérez
When is a joke “just a joke”? This question is one of the central themes in Raúl Pérez’s The Souls of White Jokes: How Racist Humor Fuels White Supremacy. In his nuanced examination of the history of racist humor and controversies surrounding race-based jokes, Pérez takes a sociological approach to study how racist humor has developed in the United States over the past two centuries. Specifically, his critique of race-based humor centers on a concept he defines as “amused racial contempt,” which is a “shared emotional state” that [End Page 292] emerges in communities who are “laughing at non-whites” (8). According to Pérez, amused racial contempt continues legacies of white supremacy in the United States in ways that dehumanize and alienate communities of color.
Pérez’s book challenged me as an African American humor researcher (and sometimes humor creator) to think back to the jokes that I have consumed and helped produce in various professional contexts. Was it okay to “be a good sport” and laugh at jokes centered on differences between Black people and white people? I also wondered whether my previous work in late-night television made me complicit in the host and writers’ use of racialized humor in monologues. The majority of the analysis in The Souls of White Jokes centers on humor targeted toward white audiences. However, Pérez also discusses the legacy of racist humor in both historical and contemporary settings. The role of ethnic humor is particularly significant here, especially in jokes told by performers of color to audiences composed primarily of people with the same racial ethnicity or racial identity. For example, African American stand-up comedians working in the 1990s and 2000s frequently utilized ethnic humor as part of their act. Pérez questions the use of racial and racist humor by white comedians, though. These “equal opportunity offenders” (59), as Pérez calls them, frequently used racist slurs and jokes to make a profit.
A notable strength of The Souls of White Jokes comes from Pérez’s critique of the tendency among scholars to focus on the positive attributes of humor. In chapter 2, Pérez considers the role of socialization in the racist humor of the post–civil rights movement, postracial era. According to Pérez, the amused racial contempt toward African Americans that characterized Blackface minstrelsy unified white audiences and presaged their reaction to the civil rights movement. Pérez also effectively compares “the social role of humor in producing collective feelings of ‘alignment’ and ‘alienation,’” drawing on humor scholarship by sociologists like Christie Davies to propose an alternative interpretation of ethnic humor (24–41). Racist jokes, Pérez argues, cannot be brushed off as “just jokes” when they work to promote feelings of white racial superiority over other races or ethnic groups.
This point is made even clearer in chapters 3, 4, and 5, wherein Pérez expands on the notion of amused racial contempt in three specific groups: those who identify with the far right, members of certain police departments, and figures like conservative media pundits and cultural influencers online who made jokes about former President Barack Obama. In chapter [End Page 293] 3, Pérez provides examples of cartoons that were published in the 1980s and 1990s by White Aryan Resistance leader Tom Metzger in a publication of the same name. Pérez argues that these cartoons—which are unsettling insofar as they highlight the ways that white readers were invited to delight in their disgust for different racial and ethnic groups, including African Americans, Asians, Latinos, and Jewish people—also encouraged the use of violence against Black people. I appreciated this historical background but was also left wanting analysis of more recent racist humor used by Proud Boys, Groypers, and other far right groups. Surprisingly, most of this book’s discussion of Donald Trump’s use of amused...