Playing with Power: Humor as Everyday Resistance
Here’s a question you might be asked in Hungary or Romania: “Laco, Dežo, and Jožo are traveling in a car.” There’s a pause, and the speaker continues: “Who’s driving?” You think. You recognize the names as being popular amongst the Roma (or Gypsy) community. But how could you know which is the driver? It’s impossible. You shake your head and then receive the answer: “The police!” In an instant, all the pieces fall into place and your confusion is resolved. This is a joke based on the stereotype of Roma as a criminal underclass (how else could they ever find themselves in a car?). You might even laugh in appreciation of the joke’s structure and the way in which a resolution is achieved (“Oh that’s very clever!” you think).
However, jokes are rarely just frivolous entertainment. Rather, they can do serious things. When told by those with status and power they reproduce the often cruel and unfair stereotypes that maintain social hierarchies. The pain and hurt experienced by those whose ethnicity (or gender, sexuality, etc.) is being disparaged is real. Moreover, any attempt to voice such hurt can be difficult: All too frequently such a complaint would be met with the retort “Oh lighten up—it’s just a joke!”
Yet, sometimes the tables can be turned, because humor can be deployed by those who are typically the butt of the joke. When interviewing Hungarian Roma we found that some reported using humor in their interactions with members of the majority (non-Roma) community. Sometimes this involved them telling disparaging jokes about Roma as a means to test the attitudes of the person they were interacting with. As one interviewee put it, “It turns out by these little jokes whether the other is really racist or not. I’m sorry to say this, but it very quickly becomes obvious from one’s reactions.”
Moreover, there is more to humor than the telling of a joke: Several reported using irony, parody, satire, and sarcasm to subvert the assumptions that contribute to their humiliation. For example, fed up with being routinely followed around the supermarket by suspicious security guards, some reported approaching the guard with a spurious request for information on an item’s price or qualities. Their purpose was simple—to humiliate the guard and his role: “And he is surprised by that. And then he becomes embarrassed. And we like that situation. When he is the one who becomes embarrassed.” Similarly, another interviewee reported approaching the guard and sarcastically thanking them: “Thank you very much for looking after my personal security, I have seen a couple of Gypsies around.” Such performances were playful in the sense that all those involved (including the guard) knew that the Roma’s words were not to be taken literally but were instead teasing. However, all knew this playfulness had a serious purpose: The mocking of the guards’ actual role in surveillance and control.
Playing with those who are used to having the upper hand in their interactions is not without risk. As anyone who has tried joking with airport security about the “bomb” they are carrying in their luggage will testify, jokes can fail and fail with serious consequences. Sometimes this is because the powerful may misunderstand and so fail to get the joke. However, there will also be occasions when they get the joke and feel the ridicule, but rather than being temporarily disarmed, they respond with punitive affirmations of status and power. Yet, still, there is some potential power in minority group members’ playfulness. Most importantly, such biting humor can allow the routinely disparaged to seize some control over their interaction with majority group members.
A sense of humor is rightly regarded as a prized possession. It can help one navigate all manner of adversities and bring people together. Yet, humor does not always bring pleasure and laughter. As all those tired of sexist, racist, and homophobic “jokes” will testify, jokes hurt and reproduce inequity. Yet, humor can also ridicule the assumptions of the powerful and, in some interactions at least, be a tool for challenging the practices that contribute to one’s everyday humiliation.
For Further Reading
Dobai, A. & Hopkins, N. (2020). Humour is serious: Minority group members’ use of humour in their encounters with majority group members. European Journal of Social Psychology, 50(2), 448-462. https://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.2612
Anna Dobai is a Lecturer in Social Psychology at the University of Dundee and conducts research addressing minority group members’ experiences of their social interactions.
Nick Hopkins is Professor of Psychology at the University of Dundee and co-author of “Self & Nation.”