Last week, students of colour at the University of Edinburgh raised concerns about a racist joke on the Facebook page ‘Edifess’. This page publishes anonymous submissions, some of which are jokes, centered around the university. Another page, ‘Edimeme’, which publishes anonymous memes, has been called out for similar racist humor in the past.
The burden of problematising racism on campus often lies on us as students of colour, and comes at our emotional and academic expense. Often, when calling out racist humour, we are told that it is just ‘banter’. But something can be humorous and racist at the same time.
The ‘banter’ argument is an attempt to dissociate humor from the racism it conveys. In his paper ‘Slurs and Ideologies’, Eric Swanson – a linguist and philosopher at the University of Michigan – argues that this dissociation is not successful. He claims that when we use a slur, we implicate that it is acceptable to use that word. This means that when Edifess or Edimeme receive a racist submission and publish it, they implicate that its content is acceptable. By platforming racist content, Edifess and Edimeme normalise the racism prevalent on campus.
Swanson says that racist jokes not only normalise racism; they even fuel it. For Swanson, using a slur affirms the author in their racist attitude because they usually get away with it. Memes and confessions live off the positive reactions they receive. A single Edimeme post attracts up to thousands of predominantly affirmative reacts, shares, and comments. These reactions signal to the author that the racist post was not only acceptable, but relatable and funny.
Swanson would also argue that posting a racist meme or confession means consenting to the racism in the post, be that intentionally or unintentionally. This is because explaining the punchline of the joke would require assenting to racist ideas. For example, explaining an Edifess post containing the n-word would require complying with the layers of racism that come with using the n-word. Swanson would also argue that, as these posts are publicly visible on the internet and consented to by hundreds of individuals through affirmative reactions, they even encourage others in their racism.
However, this oppression extends beyond racism. One now-deleted meme that received hundreds of positive reactions targeted a man of colour who sometimes begs on Middle Meadow Walk, and shamed him for a supposed speech disorder. This meme and its reactions expose and normalise the ableism, classism, and racism that run through our student body.
One recurring theme on the Edimeme page is the supposed intellectual superiority of University of Edinburgh students over students at other universities in Edinburgh. The Higher Education Statistics Agency found that in 2012/13, the University of Edinburgh ranked 142nd of 154 UK universities in the percentage of university places awarded to students from state schools. These memes, by ignoring how much the idea of intellectual superiority is rooted in class structures, disregard the material and social barriers that make the University of Edinburgh inaccessible to students from working-class backgrounds and reinforce the classism that working-class students face at our university.
Racist online humor is not only difficult to call out because it is humour, but also because it is online. The format of a Facebook page protects the anonymity of the page admins and content authors, making it difficult to hold them accountable. We have recently seen how anonymity enables violence on campus with the anonymous transphobic incidents in Edinburgh University Students’ Association buildings.
Framing the racist experiences of students of colour as ‘offendedness’ means nothing more than telling them that they didn’t understand the joke. But we very well did, we just don’t think that racist humour is a laughing matter. Racism permeates our student lives: we face it in course syllabi, university accommodation, student societies, student government, student counselling, club nights, and the demographic composition of who teaches us and who we study with. Those who submit, publish, and affirmatively react to racist Edifess and Edimeme posts only normalise and fuel these structures. Every defence of racist humor that doesn’t acknowledge this is a joke.
Image: Myresa Hurst via Wikimedia Commons