Humour and Racism

Two days prior to this incident, on 6 August 1990, Sattler allowed a racist joke about the Waugle to be told by a caller:

Caller: G'day Howard, how are you going?
Sattler: Good Bradley.
Caller: Answer a quick one about the Waugle.
Sattler: Yes.
Caller: Um, what do Waugles and pink elephants have in common?
Sattler: What do Waugles and pink elephants have in common?
Caller: You've got to be drunk to see either of them.
Sattler: Now now, now now, now now, Bradley, you shouldn't be like that. Well, I can't account for everyone.41

As the WAAMA Director pointed out in a complaint to the ABT:

There is again no question that Sattler should have pressed the dump button on this one. Instead, he allowed it to go ahead and then issued a facetious admonition to the caller, which by the insincere tone actually conveys to the listener Sattler's approval and sense of mirth.

Not only did this vile and disgusting incident again denigrate our people's spiritual beliefs, but in a malicious way reproduced racist stereotypes about drunkenness.42

Sattler had plenty of time to cut this obvious racism from his program, but instead put to air a joke which equates an Aboriginal spiritual belief with drunkenness. His comment 'Well I can't account for everyone' is simply a diversion from the fact that he tightly controls what is heard on the program, and is in this sense entirely accountable.

Sattler's logic with respect to the airing of racist jokes and poems on his program was articulated on 31 March 1992, when he invited Aboriginal rights activist Clarrie Isaacs to appear on the program to substantiate claims that Sattler's programs were racist. This followed an appeal for help to the WA Trades and Labour Council by Aboriginal people, regarding Sattler's ongoing practices. Sattler refuted claims that he or his program were racist.

He appealed to listeners to call the TLC to ask why they were mounting a campaign against him instead of getting people jobs. In fact there was no such campaign by the TLC. On the contrary, Sattler had been invited by the TLC to discuss concerns put to the Council by Aboriginal people (see note 2). However, the TLC did receive a number of calls after Sattler's comments. A couple of these callers registered their protests by blowing whistles down the phone line; this action resulted in a disabling hearing injury to a member of the TLC staff who took the call.

During the same program, Isaacs asked Sattler to read aloud the derogatory poem he had allowed to be read by a caller some eighteen months earlier. Sattler said he found nothing offensive in the poem. Sattler asked Isaacs if he and others were so 'thin-skinned' that they 'couldn't cop' this sort of language. He said people make all sorts of jokes about the Queen, the Pope etc., and was Isaacs suggesting these should not be allowed?

For Sattler, 'humour' is privileged as 'a level playing field' type of discourse, in which all issues and persons are fair targets. Such a logic presupposes a vast system of social equivalences, where all players are equal in relation to each other in terms of social and economic capital and power, where historical relationships of dominator/dominated are suspended. A joke about colonised, disempowered Aboriginal people can thus be equated with sending-up the Queen -- humour as a great leveller, as if the Queen and an Aboriginal fringe-dweller or activist are somehow equal in every other way. Hidden here is also the fact that jokes, folk tales, myths about Aboriginal people are all linguistic resources by which racist and colonialist attitudes have been circulated and sustained. In short, humour is sometimes used, quite literally, as a put down, not against powerful individuals like the Queen or the Pope (against whom offensive jokes are in fact very rarely made in public, especially on commercial radio), but against whole ethnic groups.

Can't take a joke? Perhaps there's good reason: humour and jokes permit the otherwise unspeakable (in public) to be spoken. And they appear to resist or subvert official, bureaucratic, elite discourses, thereby assuming for themselves a sense of a priori truth, common-sense, common knowledge ('cutting through the crap'). This apparently laudable style of larrikin media irreverence can work wonders when it is turned against adversaries that are bigger or more powerful than the speaker -- targets like officialdom or corporate buccaneers can be 'fair game'; but the same weapon should not be used to pick on those who are unable to fight back on equal terms -- it's the cowardly act that the same larrikin code deprecates as 'kicking a man when he's down.'


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