Illustration | Varvara Nedilska

Be mindful about jokes made by comedians of colour

Jasmeet Singh is a popular YouTuber and Vine user from the GTA who goes by “JusReign.” JusReign’s presence on the internet is important to me. He’s achieved fame by being able to make brown people laugh at some of the absurdities of our community’s culture. His style of comedy is often based on stereotypes that everyone can understand, but a lot of the time, the Vines and YouTube videos he posts are based on inside jokes within the brown community. Often, they critique the way brown people are treated in societies that are white-dominant.

I wonder, however, what non-South Asians see in JusReign’s jokes. What are they taking away from this Vine about a Hindi tongue-twister? People that aren’t familiar with the Chandni Chowk gag and its presence in Indian culture (remember that scene from Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham?) are just laughing at the funny sounds that JusReign is making. That’s what it boils down to; if you don’t know Hindi, and don’t know why it’s funny that JusReign would say the Chandni Chowk tongue twister instead of the woodchuck one, you literally do not understand the joke and are, therefore, only laughing at foreign sounding words.

Similarly, what is going through a white person’s head when they watch a Vine that is clearly about them—like JusReign’s Vines about how white people like to joke that all brown people are somehow related? Yes, it’s just a joke, but JusReign is calling white people out for being part of the racism he felt as a kid and probably still has to deal with. His Vine about how white teachers were impatient with the pronunciation of his name resonates so much with me and lots of other brown kids that grew up as part of the diaspora.

So then, when white people watch these Vines, what’s going through their heads? Are they self-assured enough in their understanding of racism that they believe they are allowed to laugh at the jokes that critique them? Do they think that kind of social commentary isn’t about them, but rather, other white people—the ones who are “actually” racist?

This is not to say that every white person who laughs at JusReign’s videos is racist. Perhaps these people are just too comfortable with their understanding of race to understand that they might actually contribute to a system of racism by not questioning what they find funny in JusReign’s videos. Some of the content is literally only funny because it features extreme close-ups and silly expressions and is relatively harmless.

Honestly, it makes me deeply uncomfortable to know that a lot of the people who think they are laughing with JusReign are actually laughing at him.

It’s not a stretch to imagine that some of JusReign’s audience is made up of the type of people that bullied me for being brown—and I don’t have to apologize for being offended about that. Imagine growing up constantly having to dodge jokes about terrorism, your parents, accents, the pronunciation of your name, and more, and then seeing the same people who did that to you laughing at a brown man who is comfortable enough to make those jokes about himself.

Even I cannot fully relate to some of JusReign’s content. Some of his videos and Vines are specific to Sikh and Punjabi culture, which I am not a part of at all (surprise—not all Indians experience life the same way!) My parents, who are Gujarati and Marathi, make lots of jokes about Punjabi people. I don’t understand the Punjabi language, and I don’t have to deal with the prejudice that other Indians inflict on Sikhs.

I don’t know what kind of people JusReign wants watching his videos, and I’m not trying to tell you to stop watching his videos if you’re not brown. What I want us all to do is to think critically about what we are laughing at when we watch a JusReign video—or anything else comedic for that matter.

The connotation behind laughing at jokes that have nothing to do with you is overtly arrogant. It doesn’t matter how aware you think you are; understanding racism is not a one-step process and we must constantly check ourselves and our privileges. Being an ally doesn’t give you a pass to laugh at jokes that hold you and your privileges accountable. Being “woke” doesn’t mean you’re in on the joke.