For anyone that hasn’t heard, John Crosbie told a joke about a Pakistani suicide bomber last week. Strangely, it occurred at the inauguration of his new position as Lieutenant Governor General of Newfoundland and Labrador. The joke was racist.
The provincial government of Newfoundland has admonished Crosbie, saying the joke was inappropriate. But they came short of saying the joke was racist.
Similarly, most pundits and journalist have avoided using the ‘r-word’.1 On Friday, November 4th, the National Post published a half page article with handsome photo of Crosbie and a retelling of the joke in an oversized, coloured font. The article was written by Scott Stinson. It was essentially a defense of Crosbie’s racist joke.
When I first read about this incident, I was quite startled that that a public official would make such a joke at a public event. The joke perpetuates racism. But very quickly I was similarly startled that there were so few official institutions calling out his racist comments. This is not to say that Crosbie is a racist, but rather that his actions were racist and that he should be held accountable for the impacts of his behaviour.
The next three sections make arguments based on the assertion that the joke Crosbie told was racist. The following sections explain why the joke is racist, challenge common ideas about race and show some of the impacts of racism in Canada.
The laughter of Conservative Party members was racist
If someone tells a racist joke, and someone else laughs at it, the laughter constitutes a racist action.
It was widely reported that the mostly Conservative audience laughed loudly in response to Crosbie’s joke about the Pakistani suicide bomber. Since the joke was racist, their laughter and affirmation of the joke was also racist.23
The National Post’s retelling of the joke was racist
If a joke is racist, and an organization retells the joke without saying it’s racist, the retelling of the joke consitutes a racist action.
The article that Scott Stinson wrote was framed by an attractive large blue font, with occasional use of allcaps for emphasis, that retold the joke. In this presentation, the joke is not simply repeated for analysis, the joke is actually retold. Retelling a racist joke, without saying it is such, is a racist act.4
The National Post’s defense of the joke was racist
If someone tells a racist joke, and an institution defends their actions, the defense constitutes a racist action.
Page three of a newspaper is prime time. That’s an important page. You turn the first page, the cover, and there it is. That’s where the half page article defending Crosbie was located. The National Post opens the piece thusly:
John Crosbie, the Lieutenant-Governor of Newfoundland and Labrador, told an edgy joke at a ceremony last week. Hand wringing has ensued. The Post’s Scott Stinson plays the role of the humour police.
This is interesting framing. ‘Edgy’, much like ‘bold’, is a compliment in most contexts and I would say it is here as well. Accusing a group of ‘hand wringing’ is an easy way of diminishing the concern and outrage they feel. And the notion of a ‘humour police’, like ‘thought police’, is an effective way to marginalize those who think that humour can have negative impacts on people and those impacts should be taken seriously. One can read this introduction and know instantly that the article will be a defense of John Crosbie’s racist behaviour.
Scott Stinson then goes on to defend Crosbie’s telling of the joke. His first paragraph concludes that the joke is, in fact, funny. His second paragraph concludes that the joke is not racist. Stinson’s third paragraph concedes that the joke may be mildly inappropriate, but not because it’s racist. In the fourth paragraph, Stinson admits to being surprised by Crosbie’s humour. In the fifth paragraph, Stinson notes that Crosbie is kind of backing down or somewhat apologizing for his behaviour, but then Stinson laments this fact and frames this as boring. This is a trope that has been repeated substantially in other press. Crosbie himself has framed it this way. The idea is that the alternative to [racist] humour, is being boring.
In the fifth paragraph Stinson notes that this may be the first time that a representative of the Queen has ever “told a suicide-bombing joke.” Note Stinson’s careful non use of the words “Islamic” or “Pakistani.” This is the basis of his failed attempt at plausible deniability. In the seventh and final paragraph, Stinson accuses the Provincial Government of Newfoundland and Labrador of getting their “knickers in a knot” for claiming that Crosbie’s joke was inappropriate. He concludes by saying that the only alternative to telling [racist] jokes is being soporific. 56
Why the joke is racist
“This fellow said, ‘I was so depressed last night thinking about the economy, wars, jobs, my savings, social security, retirement funds, etc., I called a suicide hotline and got a call centre in Pakistan. When I told them I was suicidal, they got all excited and asked if I could drive a truck.” – The National Post, November 4, 2011, and John Carnell Crosbie, 12th Lieutenant Governor of Newfoundland and Labrador
This joke relies on someone calling a help line in Pakistan and randomly getting a suicide bomber, or someone enlisting a suicide bomber. Someone that is a suicide bomber, or is inciting violence or is asking someone to become a suicide bombing, is a terrorist. Pakistan is an Islamic Republic and if you call a random person in Pakistan it is highly likely that they will be a Muslim. The actual chances of getting a terrorist on the line by randomly calling Pakistan are outrageously improbable.7
So just to recap: we have a joke about calling an Islamic country and randomly getting a terrorist on the phone, who is interested in using the distress of the caller to enact violence.
- Islam is a violent religion,
- Muslims use bombs,
- Muslims incite violence,
- Muslims are terrorists,
- Pakistanis are violent,
- Pakistanis use bombs,
- Pakistanis incite violence,
- Pakistanis are terrorists, and,
- Pakistanis don’t care about Canadians in distress.
Just to be clear, and this can’t be said often enough, there is no biological or genetic or ancestral grounds for race in humans. What we’re talking about is the unfortunate habit that humans have developed of racializing groups. Muslims or Pakistanis constitute no more of a race than Jews or blacks. The point is that races are socially and politically constructed.10
However. And this is a big however. Pakistanis, similarly to Jews and blacks, are a racialized group. That is to say that many Canadians do think of these groups as races. And people still behave as though these groups are races. This is the only way for sociologists and psychologists to explain so much of our behaviour. Some Canadians still use the racial slur: “Pakis“. Some Canadians still think that Islam is a violent religion. Some Canadians still think that the people in or from Pakistan are predisposed to blowing stuff up. These are all unfortunate and dangerous beliefs that trade on racial stereotypes.
I don’t think Scott Stinson, or his editors at the National Post, understand this. I don’t think John Crosbie understands this. And that’s cause for outrage.11
A couple of thought experiments to better grasp this racism
Probably there are still a few folks that have read my reasoning and still deny that the joke is racist. So here’s a couple of thought experiments to try to help them.
#1 Crosbie told the joke to a predominantly white upper class, Conservative audience. But instead, imagine him telling the joke to a room full of people who have immigrated to Canada from Pakistan. Or better yet, imagine that Crosbie told the joke to the a wedding of two Pakistani-Canadians families. Does anyone laugh?
#2 Crosbie told a joke that turns on a Pakistani suicide bomber. But instead, imagine that Crosbie told a joke about calling Israel, and a banker with a big nose answers the phone. Or imagine that the caller phones Israel, and a cheapskate vying for world domination answers the phone. Or imagine that the caller phone Israel and a soldier that has killed Palestinians answers the phone. These are racist tropes. They are more visible than the racist tropes about Muslims and Arabs and Pakistanis tend to to be. But the visibility of a racist trope doesn’t necessarily correlate to the significant and violence of the racism.
John Crosbie’s ‘apology’ was not an apology
Crosbie’s attempt to save face in the media, was not an apology. His ‘apology’ was a subtle diminishment of anyone that is ‘too sensitive.’ He never admits to understanding that the joke is racist. And he never expresses any actual empathy to people who are impacted by the joke or concerned by his lack of judgement. Crosbie only admits that some people think it’s racist. Crosbie himself both denies and affirms the link between Pakistan, Muslims and terrorist:
“It’s got nothing to do with that they’re sympathetic with terrorists, but we know, of course, that in Pakistan there are a large number of terrorists, so that’s the joke.”
“I am not a racist”
In a predictable move, Crosbie denies that he is a racist. But no one has actually said that he was. I certainly haven’t claimed that Crosbie is a racist. He might actually be one, but I’m not saying so. What I’m saying, is that he told a racist joke. His behaviour was racist. The fact that he has continued to defend his behaviour is suggestive, but I am not a psychologist, or an expert profiler. I’ll leave it to them to decide whether Crosbie’s collective behaviours pass the threshold of racism, in general.
The point here is that this is a common practice among folks that are called out for racist behaviour. They deny being racists. But that is not a defense of how a particular behaviour, joke or action impacted others. An individual utterance or joke can be racist, without the person being a whole hearted racist. It’s much like when an honest person is caught telling a lie. The statement can be a lie, whether they are an honest person on the whole, or not.
“My intention was not to offend anyone”
Actually, Crosbie’s intentions don’t matter that much. Malicious intent is not a necessary condition for racism. When Crosbie claims that his intention was not to offend anyone, he reveals his utter ignorance about the significance of racist humour. When a white person dresses in black face, for example, it doesn’t matter that their intention wasn’t malicious. Their behaviour is still racist.
Intentions aren’t really what matters; impacts matter. Intentions can be lied about. A comment, or a joke, can be racist regardless of the intention of the utterer. If Crosbie can’t understand that a joke can be racist, regardless of whether he intended it to be racist, then it seriously calls into question his judgement as a spokesperson for the Queen.
Additionally, when the conversation is focused on the intentions of the speaker, we can get distracted from paying attention to the impacts of what was said. What matters most in this situation is not whether Crosby thinks what he did was racist.
“Some people don’t find the joke offensive”
Alternative and related versions of this meme include, “it’s just a joke”, “some people need to lighten up”, “some people are too sensitive”, and “my friend is x, and they’re not offended by the joke.”
This is a common refrain. But finding some people who aren’t offended doesn’t actually matter. Racists, for example, generally don’t find racist jokes offensive. So this is obviously not a test for whether a joke is racist or not.
“What about free speech?”
This is a common defense of racist jokes. I won’t say much about this red herring here, except to point it out and to add that people are held to account for the shit they say every day. Many folks lose their jobs or are sued for libel. Journalists and editors, more than most, understand just how thin “free speech” is. Because of the sensitivity of the role of the Lieutenant Governor General, this job makes one more accountable, not less.
Why racist humour matters
If you doubt that racist humour matters, check out the Canadian Council for Refugees [PDF] brochure about discrimination in Canada. Or read about some surveys done on discrimination and racism. Or find out how a racialized minority person’s economic standing or job search is currently impacted by ignorance and racism. Or sort out how ignorance of other people and countries can enable violent foreign policies. In the Lawyer’s Weekly, J. Michael Cole, a former CSIS analyst, believes that racism and cultural insensitivity “represent what is probably the greatest threat to Canadian security in the long term.” 12
Beyond the immediate hurt of racist humour, it can also make space for other kinds of hate and more serious kinds of hate crime.13 The fact that there has been so little mainstream outcry against Crosbie’s racist joke suggests that mainstream Canadian culture is a racist milieu.14
The comments left on website articles is further evidence of a racist Canadian milieu
If you still doubt the seriousness of bigotry towards people from Pakistan, Muslims or Arabs, please consider some of the comments posted on the CBC article about Crosbie’s ‘apology’. I’ve listed some below.15 Pay close attention to the way these comments assert that the joke was just a joke (i.e. not meant to be taken seriously), and also that the joke is funny because of how true it is (i.e. has a basis in reality and so should be taken seriously). Some comments literally assert both ideas in the same breath.
Mr. Waqar, we have free speech here in Canada because of people like John Crosbie. If you want to show your worth as a human being then man up and speak out about honour killings and forced marriages in your own country. Make changes where they are really needed. This is your opportunity now that you have seen a truly free country. You could even speak out against your government allowing terrorists to train there to kill North American soldiers. But oh, excuse me, you are busy right now protesting a Canadian patriot with a sense of humour…Get your priorities straight and then Canadian citizens may take you seriously.. Kodiak Bear 2011/11/04 at 8:11 AM ET
Shame on you John; you should know by now that you should never tell it like it is. Just another Canuck 2011/11/04 at 7:57 AM ET
It was hilarious. Maybe it hit a little too close to home for the offended? Truth hits sometimes. Personally, I figure those who took complained should GO BACK HOME where the climate is more attuned to their senibilities. They don’t have a right to come to our country and tell us what we should and shouldn’t say, think or do. truth or consequences 2011/11/04 at 6:29 AM ET
But as he is reported to have said he “didn’t take the G D fish out of the ocean”. So what, a racist joke like this is innocent enough. At least he didn’t use the “n” word. Well done, Johnny Boy. You are a credit to NL. masterwatch 2011/11/04 at 5:10 AM ET
Nice to hear true sentiments from a leader figure in Canada’s politics. Time for those students at MUN to go home please, now. NEWSBUM 2011/11/03 at 5:40 PM ET
The truth is sometimes funnier than fiction. xnewfie 2011/11/03 at 5:00 PM ET
John Crosbie has always been known for is colorful comments… Suck it up and get over it…. were all adults.. I think society is becomming to crazy about this stuff.. Not allowed to make a joke?? Way to go Mr. Crosbie.. Keep the humor comming. As for those who took offence to it.. GO HOME and leave our home and people alone. frymic2011/11/03 at 2:52 PM ET
Crosbie hit the nail on the head. Un-Common-Sense2011/11/03 at 2:11 PM ET
People are so ultra sensitive these days…if you don’t like what someone has to say just walk away. You’re not some kid being bullied and picked on in the schoolyard with no way out…you’re a grown man (or possibly a woman…Wasiq Waqar????).
There are a lot of things that I don’t like in this world but I choose to mind my own business…less headaches for me!!! betterthanyou2011/11/03 at 12:25 PM ET
Bahahahaha, that joke is hilarious. Good one. Mr. Crosbie is a funny guy. The Pakistani students have an association? How racist is that? People should be upset at that. Perhaps if the Pakistani students actually tried integrating into the student body instead of forming their own little cults then they wouldn’t be so upset. Mr FUnny – November 4, 2011 at 11:26:32
What Crosbie said was racist, regardless of whether he intended it to be. This kind of racism has far reaching impacts, in part because it is so common and difficult to challenge.
If I was Crosbie’s boss, I would dismiss him.
- I have found one article that affirms that the joke is racist. ↩
- Jack Knox says something almost condemning those that laughed ↩
- Please note, that I am not saying that the Conservative Party members who laughed are, themselves, racist. They might be racists. But I don’t know that. What I am saying, is that their behaviour was racist. ↩
- Please note that I am not saying that the National Post is racist all of the time, everywhere. The institution might be racist, but that would require more argumentation and evidence. What I am saying is that the National Post’s retelling of the joke was racist. ↩
- Soporific is really just a fancy way for reiterating the frame that the alternative to using (racist) humour is to be boring. Looks like Stinson knows how to use a thesaurus. ↩
- Please note that I am not saying that the National Post is always racist. I am arguing that their defense of a racist joke, was a racist action. ↩
- I don’t know the precise odds. All that matters here for my argument, is that the odds are very very slim. ↩
- Some may have the misguided impression that one cannot be ‘racist’ to Muslims. There is a clear and solid academic literature linking racism and Islamophobia. See, for example, Media, Racism and Islamophobia: The Representation of Islam and Muslims in the Media, or No Exit: Racial Profiling and Canada’s War Against Terrorism ↩
- It should also be noted that there are many Sikh immigrants in Canada from Pakistan. Sikhs make up a very small part of the population in Pakistan, but because of their visibility here in Canada, many Canadians associate Sikhism with Pakistan. Similarly, many Canadians associate the image of a bearded brown man in a turban, with Pakistan. ↩
- There is no biological basis or genetic grounds for human races. See Barkan, Elazar (1992), The Retreat of Scientific Racism : Changing Concepts of Race in Britain and the United States between the World Wars, Cambridge University Press, New York, NY. Or check out Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2003. Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. ↩
- Please note that I am not saying that Crosbie is a racist. I am saying that his behaviour was racist. More particularly, Crosbie’s telling of the joke was racist. ↩
- Naseer (Irfan) Syed, “Media gets a failing grade in cultural sensitivity”, Lawyer’s Weekly, August 2008. ↩
- Hate Crime in Canada (PDF) ↩
- For an interesting read on how the mainstream media portrays Muslims, check out this Racialious interview with Mimi Thi Nguyen and Junaid Rana ↩
- Actually, many comments were deleted by the moderators for stepping over the bounds ↩