Sociology of Humour and Whiteness in Academia

In a new article defending Trevor Noah’s sexist and racist comedy about Aboriginal women, a White woman academic exemplifies how Whiteness is normalised in academia and in public life.  In Talkin’ Up to the White Woman, Dr Aileen Moreton-Robinson chronicled how White women academics denigrade Aboriginal women’s contributions and knowledge. The case study that follows is an example of this dubious tradition. The sociology of humour can help to expose how a White woman’s minimisation of sexist racism is a strategy to retain power and dominance over Aboriginal women.

The author of the racist and sexist op ed defending Noah is a senior lecturer who teaches feminism, media and public policy. She also writes on cyberbullying. This is a curious foci given the argument presented in the op ed. In this article, the author uses the word “we” 18 times in a way that shouts down Aboriginal women’s critiques of Trevor Noah, who has yet to applogise for sexualised racism. For example, Rosewarne writes:

  • “What do we feel we need from Noah…”
  • “Will we only rest when we get a James Gunn-style firing”
  • “…This is how we respond in our age of outrage”All these “we” pronouns infer Aboriginal women’s critiques without naming them. Never mind that Aboriginal women have not asked for Noah to be fired. The author ignores Aboriginal women’s nuanced critiques of how Noah’s “jokes” reinforce historical and ongoing sexualised violence of Aboriginal women. A strange omission, given this academic calls herself a feminist and also teachers gender.

The author defends Noah’s “incredibly intelligent, funny” comedy on race. But she ignores Aboriginal women’s discussion of how Black American entertainers cater to White Australian audiencesShe does not address race relations in Australia.

The author strategically uses the word “we” to position critiques of Noah (“the left”) as damaging to White people: “If we know that the left will take any opportunity to pounce, to silence…” A disempowered social group (Indigenous women) are a threat to White interests. Nowhere does the author examine race relations nor her own Whiteness. She is not an expert on race. But she feels a need to weigh in on public discussion about race to align her Whiteness with a wealthy man from South Africa and completely ignore Indigenous women. Why would a feminist do this?

This is an example of White feminism, which positions Black women’s knowledge and social media contribution as toxic, simply for pointing out racial inequality. White feminism is a practice which ignores racial justice in discussions of gender, and serves only the interests and power of White women. White feminism thrives in academia, diminishing Aboriginal women’s agency.

White feminism aspires to share power with White men—but no one else. White feminists do not recognise their White privilege over men of colour unless it serves their agenda (as Noah is used here) and they seek to keep Aboriginal women and other women of colour in subordinate positions.

This author defends Noah because they recognise that if their “safe” Black comedian is held accountable for his comedy, their own racism may one day come under scrutiny. See emotive language used in the op ed to describe anti-racism by Aboriginal women (“call outs,” “unconstructive shaming,” “guilty for enjoying,” and “outrage”). The author supports Noah but does so by removing his race from her framing. Noah is described as a “human” who has “stumbled.” He is not a Black South African man being critiqued by Black women in Australia.

This is a cognitive device: Noah is “just” a race-less person, and she is a race-less White woman excusing Noah’s sexist racism.

The author deploys racist American right wing rhetoric to dismiss Aboriginal women (“progressives,” “the Left”) in the same way White supremacists do all day, every day, to de-legitimise important conversations about racial inequality. It matters gravely that she does this as an Aussie academic. White people dominate academia. While many White women are deeply concerned with “gender inequality,” they really only notice that White ciswomen are less represented in positions of authority, in conferences, and in other decision-making roles. White women don’t always notice about gender inequalities affecting Indigenous people or other racial minorities.

So when White academics take up space in public discussions about Aboriginal women, using an op ed opportunity that should be given to Aboriginal women, this is a big message about power in academia. Whiteness must be defended even at the cost of feminist solidarity. If academics take to the media to absolve racist sexism, public record of their complicity to racial oppression, consider the damage they’re willing to do daily to Aboriginal students and colleagues. They choose this hill (“a joke!”) rather than contributing to anti-racism.

“Jokes” are never just about a matter of “taste.” The sociology of humour shows that jokes either reflect or challenge social norms. Comedy also reproduces notions of belonging (us/them), or mounts resistance to hiearchies of oppression. Comedy—like academia and other aspects of public life—is political, and shaped by social context.

A version of this post was first published on Twitter.