‘The Souls of White Jokes’ aims to show how racist humor feeds white supremacy, author says

·3 min read

The book’s title is inspired by the 1920 W.E.B. Du Bois essay, “The Souls of White Folk,” which examined the roots of American racism.

Author and sociologist Raúl Pérez has written a book called “The Souls of White Jokes,” which, he says, aims to show how racist humor fuels white supremacy.

Pérez told NBC News that even while attending a diverse university, where his fellow students were taking ethnic studies courses, many still made offensive jokes.

In a new book, “The Souls of White Jokes,” author and sociologist Raúl Pérez writes about how racial humor is used among the alt-right in its recruitment and in overall politics. (Photo: AdobeStock.com)
In a new book, “The Souls of White Jokes,” author and sociologist Raúl Pérez writes about how racial humor is used among the alt-right in its recruitment and in overall politics. (Photo: AdobeStock.com)

His book’s title is inspired by the 1920 W.E.B. Du Bois essay “The Souls of White Folk,” which examined the imperial roots of American racism.

Pérez explains that racist humor and its pervasive use can have a dangerous effect on the lives of marginalized people.

“Whether it is the LAPD or the Border Patrol, we see racist jokes correlating to how people are being treated by these officers,” Pérez says. “These are not just jokes, these are rituals that allow for mistreatment and violence against people the police view with ‘amused racial contempt’ … If police culture allows for the dehumanization of certain groups, then what do we expect when the police interact with the people they view as subhuman?”

Pérez writes about how racial humor is used among the alt-right in its recruitment and in overall politics. For example, he examines how pervasive racist jokes and depictions of former President Barack Obama and his family were during his administration.

“In racial jokes, there is this theory of ‘amused racial contempt,’” said Pérez, “which I define as feeling pleasure in regarding others as inferior, with pity, or with contempt. It’s basically the idea of finding joy in treating others as worthless.”

Pérez, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of La Verne in California, noted that making racial jokes has long been common in America. Minstrel shows mocking minorities, he said, were a regular pastime. However, “after the civil rights movement, racism was finally seen as bad,” he maintained. “Then racial humor became officially taboo, and unofficially a forbidden pleasure. Yet it has never gone away.”

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, a Duke University sociology professor, told NBC News that “racist humor is a reflection of our culture.”

“Those at the top of our hierarchy are saying that they want to be able to make jokes about women, the LGBTQ community and people of color,” he maintained, noting “it’s similar to what the country went through in the 1980s, only then it was a backlash to so-called ‘political correctness.'”

Targeting people of color in jokes isn’t expected to end anytime soon, Bonilla-Silva said.

“Irish jokes, Polish jokes, they have faded from the culture because the social standing of these groups has changed,” said the scholar. “For Blacks and Latinos, it will be harder to escape such racism, because we cannot assimilate away our skin color or distinct heritage.”

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