Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Jane Junn, Russel Peters and the Ridiculousness of Race

In an interesting video via Fora TV, Rutgers University associate professor of political science Jane Junn makes it pretty apparent that more and more Americans are discovering Canada's own Russel Peters.

In the course of a speech about race and politics Junn notes that the fastest growing demographic in the United States is those Americans who describe themselves as multiracial.

Junn gushes about Russel Peters' comedic genius while quoting one of his jokes about the mixing of race.

"He says 'what if you mix together a Jamaican and an Italian what do you get'?" she recites. "A pastafarian."

"What about a woman from Iceland and a man from Cuba you get Ice Cubes," she continues. "And a woman from the Phillipines and a man from Holland you get a Hollapino."

Peters doesn't stop with hilarious send-ups of the kind of jokes that six-year-olds tend to tell their parents.

Performing for the Def Jam Comedy Jam, for example, Peters quips about brown being the new black. This would provide an interesting new way to look at Barack Obama's election as President: if a black president is fascinating to you, just imagine a Muslim president!

It shouldn't be imagined that race is set to disappear from the United States -- or from countries such as Canada -- overnight, or even within the next hundred years. Or ever.

But the rapidly-growing category of multiracial Americans has obvious implications for both racism and race. The United States has clearly come a long way from the days when interracial mating, dating and marrying was considered miscegenation and was illegal.

In the near future race may not only be considered to be irrelevant, but it may eventually even come to be seen for what it is: absolutely ridiculous.

That is the genius of Peters' comedy. As a member of a visible minority himself, he certainly recieves a special dispensation -- consider it something of a "never, ever go to jail" card -- as it pertains to race.

He embraces this license to indulge in racial humour and ultimately uses it to make the very notion of race -- or at least the social need to label people on account of race -- seem more and more ridiculous. After all, if our societies really have a deeply-rooted need to label people according to race, the time is not far off when we would need to come up with jumbled labels such as the type that Peters proposes.

This was certainly an ingenious stroke shared by the writers of the movie Domino, an action-verite film that featured a scene in which one of the black characters goes on Jerry Springer and proposes new labels such as "blacktino" and "chinegro".

The hostile reaction Lateesha Rodrigues faces from an audience member serves as a reminder that society may not be ready to abandon it's old socially-entrenched labels just yet.

But the inevitability that such lables do not apply to increasing numbers of people makes their obselescence inevitable. This shouldn't be mistaken to mean that racism will cease to exist. Racism will likely adapt to racially-mixed norms, although some people will certainly cling to modern notions of racism just like some people cling to their old computers and television sets. (You mean like that ancient RCA you're watching TMZ on right now? -ed)

As modern notions of race become less and less relevant, modern racism will likely become retro. Maybe it'll even die like disco -- which, whether anyone cares to admit it or not, has never died entirely.

Like many great comics, Russel Peters may well be ahead of his time, and Jane Junn knows it.


  1. I paid 50$ to see Peters a few years back. Best money I ever spent on a stand up comic.

    Peters does what he does so well that you don't even feel guilty for laughing at his racial humor. In fact I think that you hit the nail on the head when you said that race will one day be seen as something completely ridiculous.
    I keep my fingers crossed that one day it will.

    Now if I could just stop my own politicians here in Quebec from being outright racist we'd be much better off (in my neck of woods anyways)

  2. I think a big part of that will be reminding people that a political party that is based on a racial ideology isn't legitimately progressive.

  3. This is what I keep saying to people. But the argument I get from people here is: it's not racism, it's self preservation.
    Which is the weakest argument I've ever heard...

    All that to say if more people listened to Peter's they might understand how dumb they sound when they spout racist comments.

  4. My personal opinion is that racial humour only works when the punchline is actually about racist people.


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