June 2, 2015 at 5:00 pm

’Why Do Indians Smell?’ The Case for the Self-Referential Racist Joke

’Why Do Indians Smell?’ The Case for the Self-Referential Racist Joke

By Sumedha Iyer


“Why do Indians smell? So blind people can hate them too.” My mother told me that joke when I was in my early teens. I was both offended and energised by it. This sucks, that smelly Indian person could be me! But it’s my mum too, and she’s telling the joke. Which is delicious. Like samosas and chutney. Wait, that’s a stereotype. Am I being racist? My head hurts.

An early foray into the politics of race, the joke forced me to think about the difference between being racist and being subversive. It hit a nerve in some part of my identity, while making me feel better as I laughed at it. I could hear the provocation of unfair stereotyping in it, but told my mother’s voice, complete with soft Indian lilt (but no head wobble, unfortunately), it felt like as I laughed something would be gained rather than lost.

The joke sounds like it must have originated in the English worker’s clubs of the Sixties and Seventies, coined by Bernard Manning or someone similar. It has probably been repeated so often that it isn’t attributable to anyone, but part of a canon of ‘Paki’ jokes that is now public property. I can almost imagine the joke being retold by white English people when it was still fresh, as well as the strained, uncomfortable laughter of any Indian people who happened to be present.

Laughter is powerful. It is why people tell jokes in the first place. But anyone who has felt compelled to laugh at a discriminatory joke at their own expense knows that there is such discomfort in that particular kind of laughter, that it can hurt you. A joke can demean as it defines; the laughter it evokes for those who are not hurt by it is at the expense of shame for those who are.


Racist Joke = Racist?


But does telling a racist joke automatically make you a racist? It is easier to tell with some jokes than others. If Kevin ‘Bloody’ Wilson tells a joke about Aboriginal people, it is obvious and easy to dismiss this form of humour as racist. Such jokes are anchored in the comedy peddled by Bernard Manning and others in the Sixties and Seventies; they are easy to classify as cultural relics that belong to a less ‘enlightened’ time.

Since that time, however, political correctness has both entrenched itself in Western culture and experienced a subsequent backlash. What small-l liberals made unsayable because of political correctness came back with a vengeance in the form of humour that relies heavily on shock value. Taboos surrounding race and other subjects were challenged.

Adult cartoon South Park galvanised this form of humour in popular culture, using it to furnish the show’s social satire. Thought-provoking hilarity ensued, and pushing the boundaries Western cultural morality using taboo subject matter became fashionable. This has made it more difficult to tell when a racist joke is, in fact, racist. The person telling the joke can more easily invoke irony or social commentary as an excuse if there is a perceived element of risk in telling the joke in the first place.

While the line of acceptability has been blurred, the stakes have not really changed. While it may be socially risqué, the risk in telling a joke that is homophobic, sexist, racist or otherwise demeaning to a particular group is actually still the same as it always was. If a white Australian tells a joke about Muslims, the risk lies in the joke’s potential to reaffirm the vilification of an already marginalised group. The defiance of political correctness becomes less in the vein of South Park and more Pauline Hanson. There is nothing particularly subversive about reaffirming the status quo.


Rape Jokes and the Power of Self-Referential Humour


The rape joke is the latest form of humour to cause a ruckus. Recently Melbourne comic Ray Badran was taken to task for telling one, and the ‘offence debate’ that ensued were described by Helen Razer as a “brawl that [had] to one side a crude defence of freedom of expression and to another a naïve urge to protect vulnerable citizens from the memory of trauma” (see the rest of her article here). Certainly, anyone should be able to tell a joke about whatever they like. But other than the taboo of talking about rape, there’s nothing inherently radical about men telling rape jokes. They’re statistically less likely to be victims of rape, after all.

Women tell rape jokes. Sarah Silverman has told a rape joke (“I was raped by a doctor. So bittersweet for a Jewish girl). So have Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. The humour is truly subversive; the laughter is uncomfortable for the audience as they confront potential victim and comic collapsed into the same subject. Which brings me back to telling jokes at the expense of one’s own ethnic and cultural background. Implicating my own subject position in racist jokes has been rewarding. It has been a way to foreclose shame while confronting the racist impulse of the joke’s subtext.

I have passed on my mother’s joke just as she told it to me. I have told the joke to non-Indian people and Indian people. For my white friends it incites uncomfortable laughter. Their discomfort is decidedly unlike the pain of being told a joke that degrades some part of your identity by someone with more cultural power than you. The joke is subversive now because the ostensible butt of the joke is the person telling it; the implications of real-world racism are part of accepting the invitation to laugh.

I have also told it to Indian people. The most recent person was my mother – she had completely forgotten having told me, so I retold the joke. She laughed loud and long. “That’s a good one,” she said, “I’ll have to tell your father.”


Sumedha Iyer is a PhD student at UNSW. Her dissertation is on the way migrant and Indigenous fiction interrogates the White Australian national story. She has taught English subjects at the University of Wollongong and published a journal article or two. She also rants sporadically at strangers on the internet: batlyfaffled.wordpress.com.

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