Black women's oppression kept alive by sick jokes

Image: 123RF/ HONGQI ZHANG

I recently tweeted that most of what we consider humour is actually just defanged prejudice.

We have all been socialised to try and extract superiority where we can find it but expressing that is unacceptable, so we call it a joke.

Humour has never been apolitical and if we truly examine our collective sense of humour not only in South Africa but globally, we’ll see that most of what we find funny has to do with the denigration of someone’s humanity. Black people, queer people, women, disabled people and religious minorities all seem to tickle our funny bones, but at the intersection of black and woman we tend to fork out more for a ticket.

The things we find funny says a lot about who we are, even more so about the society that enables us to build careers on mocking stereotypes. There have been many social media sensations managed to build empires from their ability to mock Black women through the stereotypes of being loud, unsophisticated, materialistic, emotionally manipulative, hypersexual and unintelligent.

It is the perceived constitutive other to the delicacy and innocence of white womanhood. Ironically, it has been mostly gay cisgender men who have lapped up these opportunities to profit from caricatures of black womanhood. And it is always black womanhood.

We tend to think that our experiences of oppression exempt us from accountability for the ways we enact power through the privileges we do have. In a world where we are all trying to have our humanity recognised we seem to forget empathy for those doing the same.

For those who wonder what the big deal is about jokes; here it is: stereotypes. Stereotypes generate stigma and like the branding of cattle serve to determine the use of the body it has marked. Stereotypes, replayed over and over, mesmerise us into a state of trance where we can only conceive of the stereotyped object in a limited number of ways, most of which reinforce its oppression. The person is thereby locked into their body, with very little chance of self-determination.

When we make caricatures of black women, we are reinforcing false representations of their identities which feeds into a larger cycle of negative feedback about how we should treat them. This interlocks with a long historical legacy of the abuse of black women’s’ bodies as sacrifices at the altar of power.

In South Africa particularly, we find ourselves in one of the most horrific femicides anywhere in the world. When we continue to portray black women as the stereotypes that have been attached to them, we reinforce that they are undeserving of respect, love, admiration and acclaim for their gifts and talents.

We also endorse that those black women who do not present themselves as super talented and useful beings are even less worthy of that respect that affirms their humanity.

We embed into the social imaginary that black women are less professional and palatable for social and cultural production and should not be employed alongside the respectable alternatives. On a deeper level, we make it okay for them to be punished for what is seen as defiance of social rules; making their bodies a site of beating, maiming and raping. All of this happens while we are being celebrated for the representations that legitimises this violence.

When we don’t represent black women as worthy of love and respect, in any form, we are continuing centuries of violence against them. Worse, when we refuse to remove ourselves from the platform to make space for them to represent themselves, we are actively perpetrating that violence.

Building a career out of the oppression of someone else is horrific enough, but doing it as an oppressed person is almost diabolical. There are better ways to make a living than through feeding the powerful gaze’s lust for distorted humanity. We need to find better jokes, or make none at all.

Jamil F. Khan is a PhD critical diversity studies candidate.

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