I suspect I need to be careful how I go about phrasing this, so as a preamble – if you could endeavour to interpret this post mainly as bewildered head scratching and attempting to come to grips with something I’m just not getting the hang of, rather than an outraged “I can’t believe it, what IS the world coming to?!” type of arrangement, then that would be perfect.

OK, so British actor Sir David Jason – famous for his 45+ year career comprising such gems as Danger Mouse, The Darling Buds of May, and Only Fools And Horses – was thrust under the media spotlight today regarding his appearance on a radio show on Tuesday.  When the host asked David to suggest a question for the next caller, he reached into the mental bag & grabbed what was presumably the most middle-of-the-road joke he could think of:

  • What do you call a Pakistani cloakroom attendant?  Mahatma Coat.

Now, before going on I suppose some analysis is important.  The structure of the joke is a fairly simple riddle – a question with a comic response involving a pun or play on words, in this case a homophonic phrase.  The question sets up the answer, in that if you were to visit a cloakroom to retrieve your belongings you could conceivably say “My hat, my coat”, and “Mahatma” is a name taken from the Sanskrit language and as such it’s reasonable to assume that due to the cultural settlements & movement patterns over time that there would be men of that name living in Pakistan, India, and possibly other countries with an Indo-Iranian linguistic basis, like Nepal.

The response from the radio station, as reported in The Telegraph, was:

A spokeswoman for Absolute Radio said the joke was “unacceptable” and that O’Connell distanced himself from it by saying “no more jokes like that” afterwards.

“To minimise any offence among our listeners we also edited the comments from the Breakfast Show podcast,” she said.

“We consider the views of our listeners to be very important and have received no complaints about these comments. Christian O’Connell will issue an on-air apology in tomorrow’s breakfast show.”

A spokesman for media watchdog Ofcom said it has not yet received any complaints about the joke.

Google News listed a whole swathe of similar stories by a variety of news sources, most of which at face value seemed to hint at the usual bubbling over of righteous indignation & fury at how unacceptable this sort of thing is.

  • The Mirror: The gaffe on Christian’s Tuesday breakfast show was widely condemned yesterday.
  • Again, from The Telegraph: No apology was offered to listeners for the 8am gaffe and the offending clip was edited out of the show’s podcast available online.
  • Edinburgh Evening News: Sir David Jason has apologised for a “joke” he made about Pakistanis on a radio show.
  • Evening Standard: The joke was edited out of the show’s podcast on the station’s website as race groups condemned it.
  • Amusingly, the Malaysia Sun‘s story is headed “Brit actor David Jason apologises for Paki comment

Bizarrely, the least outraged of the articles seemed to come from The Daily Mail, who reported:

Britain’s first Muslim minister, Shahid Malik, who is of Pakistani origin, said he did not see the joke as racist. ‘It really is a storm in a tea cup,’ he said. ‘I’m a big fan of David Jason.

‘The only thing is he’s let me down because it’s not very funny.’

It would have been an interesting conflict of interest for them, and clearly their longstanding campaign against Political Correctness came out on top in this case.

So the thing I’m having a hard time understanding is what about the joke was actually racist?  The Wikipedia article on racism begin:

Racism, by its simplest definition is the belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race. People with racist beliefs exhibit stereotype-based prejudices towards individuals and groups of people according to their race.

My understanding of racism, as the concept was explained to me in Australia in my formative years during the 1980s and 90s, was where a person expresses negative attitudes to another person or group of people based on their appearance, culture or background, or leaps to assumptions about an individual based on the same.  This has always worked reasonably well for me and aligned with what the people around me seem to feel, more or less up until the last few years – has the definition changed, or did I have it wrong?

To go back to the example of the joke: one of the reactions featured in The Telegraph’s story was “These are inappropriate remarks about a stereotype that may have held a little water in the 50s and 60s but is not true to today. Many top jobs in this country are held by British Muslims, from lawyers, to doctors, politicians and businessmen.”.  I’ve read that joke several times now, and nowhere can I see where there’s anything to suggest that the teller of the joke is trying to make a point that any particular racial group is limited to working in menial jobs like in a cloakroom, or that it might not be possible to shoehorn an equally bad pun into any other profession’s context.

As there’s no sentiment of malice that I can detect anywhere in that joke, to my eyes it falls into the same sort of basket as others such as:

  • What do you call a French guy wearing sandals?  Phillippe Pholloppe
  • What do you call 2 Mexican firemen?  Hose A, and Hose B
  • What do you you call an Irish double-glazing salesman? Paddy O’Doors

To me they all look like simple wordplay based on common names or pronounciation connected with the country/region mentioned in the joke setup.  Nowhere do these jokes mock the professional efficacy or fashion sense of any of the fictional individuals who are the subject, nor do they make any generalisations about the people or cultures mentioned in each other than providing context to the reader in order to set up the joke.  The firemen don’t specifically have to be from Mexico – in fact it’s immaterial really where they’re from, so long as it’s a Spanish-speaking country that pronounces the name “José” with an “h” sound at the beginning, but not Portuguese which I understand uses the “Zho-sé” pronounciation.  However as a joke it doesn’t really work to say “What do you call two firemen who were named by parents who originated from Spanish-speaking countries, excepting those from regions speaking the Galician dialect, which doesn’t intone the j as a voiced velar fricative?”.  Well perhaps it does as a statement against political correctness – however I feel like most people would have walked away by the time I got to the question, had no idea what I were talking about, or branded me as a smartarse.  None of these conditions are unusual, by the way.

I had a discussion with a quite culturally aware colleague of mine who, when I asked if he thought the joke was offensive, replied “contextually, I’d say it’s mildly offensive. That’s definitely a racist joke. It doesn’t offend me but would others…”.  That seemed an interesting point, as the Telegraph’s article stated that Ofcom hadn’t received any complaints, and yet The Mirror was citing widespread condemnation.  Being offended by something is a conscious choice, so how is it possible for a human from one culture to know what would offend others?  To me that assumption undermines the capacity of all of the “others” being referred to.

I guess I’m more keen to embrace the philosophy of Australian comic Brendon Burns, who put on a storming show confronting racism entitled “So I Suppose This Is Offensive Now?” and won the big award at Edinburgh the year we were there.  It was a pretty full-on show, and certainly more confronting and in-your-face than most standup sets.  However he made several (what I believe to be) excellent points: “racism is one of humanity’s funniest shortcomings, because when you laugh at it, it goes away”.  It’s actually a brilliant show – I’ve just watched the DVD trying to get quotes for the other points, and am now gonna be late for work.  He pointed out also that during these race-related “furores” in the British press, the ones making the most noise on either side are usually making money or publicity from it.

It just seems that it’s becoming more and more difficult to make a statement incorporating elements of someone’s race into it, for fear that the person you’re talking to is going to have that kneejerk reaction of “You can’t say that, that’s racist and I’m offended”, or worse you say it in the public arena somewhere and the media shine their spotlight on it until the witchhunt begins again.  To me it feels like, in many cases, the reaction is a Pavlovian one which gets reinforced every subsequent time it happens, and the more twitchy people get about mentioning race in any context means that presumably it gets harder and harder to celebrate the cultural differences which make humanity interesting.

I’ve had racist statements made at me (and notice there avoidance of using the phrase “victim of racism”) before – for instance I caught a taxi once where the driver took me an extremely elongated route owing to him making a mistake, and the meter read £12, whereas every other time it’s only cost around £8.  I told him that I’d give him £10, as that’s all I had on me (assuming that even with delays and a slightly creative route it wouldn’t top a tenner), and his unimpressed response was: “You Aussies are all the same – you never pay what you’re supposed to”.  The only reason I can see to display offence however is not to indicate that my feelings have been hurt, but rather as a way of getting back at him, and were I to write a formal complaint to the cab company citing his number and what transpired he’d probably get a bollocking about it and still feel the same way about Australians.  But the statement he made was clearly racist, I think.

This has gone on rather a lot longer than I’d expected, however I’m not trying to make a point so much as to understand one.