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Who’s to blame, Jimmy Carr or the system that feeds him?

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NB: The term ‘white’ in this blog is being used to describe those racialised as white within the dominant culture of the UK, and those that benefit the most from white privilege. Though Gypsy Roma Traveller [GRT] communities may in cases be racialised as white, their culture sits juxtaposed to the dominant thus ‘not white enough’, so may not always be seen as white by white British people (see Bhopal, 2018: 29-47).

“Extending the gaze to whiteness enables us to observe the many shades of difference that lie within this category – that some people are ‘whiter’ than others, some are not white enough and many are inescapably cast beneath the shadow of whiteness” (Nayak, 2007).


Following Haley’s excellent blog on the Jimmy Carr debacle, I would like to bring another perspective. For those of us racialised outside of whiteness, I know I do not need to describe the litany of examples where those racialised as white portray racist hatred as humour on and off social media. Haley continues in writing, “Jimmy Carr’s [His] Dark Material stand-up comedy is the latest in a long line of everyday racism that has been subjected to a trial by Twitter.” When we challenge these “jokes”, at least in my experience I was told iterations of “stop being so sensitive”; “it’s just a joke”; “lighten up” and so on …

In her long-essay What White People Can Do Next: From Allyship to Coalition, Irish author-academic Emma Dabiri (2021) writes:

“I grew up in a culture of bantering and, ngl, I love a caustic riposte. And while in certain ways I resent the current policing of language, there is a distinction. I hate to break it to you, but a “joke” in which the gag is that the person is black isn’t a joke, it’s just racism disguised as humor. A joke told to a white audience where the punch line is a racist stereotype isn’t a joke, again it’s just racism; if there is only one black person present, it’s also cowardly and it’s bullying. Jokes of this nature probably aren’t funny for black people.”

Emma Dabiri (2021: 98)
Photo by Dorin Seremet on Unsplash

Whilst in my time writing for Thoughts I have engaged with many issues, one I have not yet written on is the ‘canteen culture’ of bantering I grew up in amid the English private school system. So, I am quite familiar with the culture of private schools having gone to them myself (aged 5-16) where racism (specifically anti-Blackness) against me was passed off as “a ‘joke’ in which the gag is … just racism disguised as humour”(Dabiri, 2021: 98). As a boy, Carr went to sixth form at Royal Grammar School, a selective boys’ school in High Wycombe in the image of a posh state school famous for projecting its boys into Oxbridge. Thus Jimmy Carr passed into Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.

If there was to be a culture of ‘banter’ where Carr learned such behaviours, these selective schools and universities are a good place to start. For people not racialised as white, these places can be a new-kind of hell very much in the image of colonial-style racism. At school, in my experience there existed a toxic human concotion of racism (as banter) which infected not only the students but also the staff. It’s this sort of thing that may sit under the thinking behind Carr’s “joke”, and why he thought it was okay to make it in the first place. However, as much as I would like make this about him, this isn’t really about him at all.

Carr has had a very successful career of punching down on the marginalised and historically excluded, profiting from their suffering. For me, this is more about how large institutions like Netflix give platforms to people they know are bad news and let them espouse hatred anyway. Professor Sunny Singh tweeted how it is a “reminder that Jimmy Carr’s joke went through a whole production process in order to appear on @netflix.” When we consider how any piece of media goes through a rigorous editing / production process, the fact nobody questioned a Holocaust “joke” about Roma and Sinti people is a stark reminder of how white supremacy functions in media.

Here a white man makes a “joke” to an audience of mostly white people backed by a production team (largely white, let’s be honest) at a white institution Netflix … with ‘institutional whiteness’ hardening (Ahmed 2006; 2007; 2012; 2014; Hunter, 2015; 2019; White Spaces). Simply affirming what the late Charles Mills (2004) wrote where “… white supremacy implies the existence of a system that not only privileges whites but is run by whites, for white benefit” (p31).

The uproar to Jimmy Carr’s “joke” follows #ClanchyGate where author-schoolteacher Kate Clanchy was criticised for perpetuating racism and ableism in her 2019 memoir Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me. She used descriptions like “chocolate-coloured skin” and “almond-shaped eyes.”Moreover, she referred to autistic children as “unselfconsciously odd” and “probably more than an hour a week” around them “would irriate me, too, but for that hour I like them very much.”

Like Netflix, her publisher Picador did not spot these in the editing process. Or they did spot them, and said nothing … reiterating the ableism, racism, and white supremacy that exists in publishing where rather than hold Kate Clanchy accountable, her colleagues like Philip Pullman berated women of colour who challenged her taking to Twitter and comparing them to the Taliban. The same three women of colour who have been erased from this discourse. The issue with Picador is a reminder of how predominantly white artists (not always … like Dave Chappelle in his Netflix special The Closer) with power are then platformed with no accountability when they cause harm (intended or not). Kate Clanchy has since gone on to find another publisher for her book after she was required to rewrite!!

Jimmy Carr follows Chapelle, Clanchy as well as Joe Rogan and his racist rhetoric. Not only is Carr’s just horrific, but it also reinforces the the discrimination Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller [GRT] people face in Britain where their cultures will be erased should the government’s crime, policing and sentencing bill reach fruition. The conversation around Carr’s “joke” reminds me how general opinion is still comfortable with racism so long as it is wrapped in ‘humour’. With the ‘free speech’ champions following behind. It’s also showing me the number of people that think racism only happens to those racialised as Black or Brown.

It is not so simple. The way we define racism is worthy of further discussion and analysis when we consider the racism that happens because of cultural belongings. As Emma Dabiri writes:

“The myth of a unified white ‘race’ makes white people, from what are in truth distinct groups, better able to identify common ground with each other and to imagine kinship and solidarity with others racialized as ‘white’, while at the same time withholding the humanity of racialized others. The ability of whiteness to create fictive kinships where differences might outweigh similarities, or where one ‘white’ group thrives and prospers through the exploitation of another ‘white’ group, all united under the rubric of whiteness constructs at the same time a zone of exclusion for racialized ‘others’, where in fact less expected affinities and even cultural resonances might reside.

In truth, this is the work of whiteness, who invention was to serve that function. Saying that all “white” people are the same irrespective of say, culture, nationality, locatioin, and class literally does the work of whiteness for it. But despite the continuities of whiteness – the sense of superiority that is embedded in its existence – we cannot disregard the differences that exist. This demands a truthful reckoning with the fact that the particulars of whiteness, as well as the nature of the relationship between black and white, will show up differently in different countries and require the crafting of different responses.”

(Dabiri, 2021: 45-46)

Emma Dabiri’s What White People Can Do Next (2021) follows David Roediger’s Wages of Whiteness (1991), Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White (1995), Matthew Jacobson’s Whiteness of a Different Color (1998) and Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People (2010), all of which in some way show how different white groups have modifiers attached when talking about “white people.” This must be discussed interlocking with other factors including culture, place/geography, and class. Through Roediger, Ignatiev, Jacobson, Painter, Dabiri, and other scholars, we can see how whiteness splits and mutates to serve its purpose of divide and rule, and really how white supremacy may also negatively impact against those read as white and ‘not white enough’ in different ways.

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The late archbishop Desmond Tutu believed that our quest for liberating the oppressed must also come with liberating the oppressor too. He saw how white South Africans during Apartheid had become bitter and hateful as a result of the racism that pervaded through their lives on a daily basis. Visiting Israel as well, he saw the same thing in the Israeli state’s dehumanisation of the Palestinian people. As Tutu himself states:

“Part of my own concern for what is happening there [Israel] is in fact not what is happening to the Palestinians, but is what the Israelis are doing to themselves. When you go to those checkpoints and you see these young soldiers behaving abominably badly, they are not aware when you carry out dehumanising policies, whether you like it or not those policies dehumanise the perpetrator.”

Demond Tutu

That ‘dehumanisation of the Other’ is central to any system of oppression, and we see this again in Britain with the police’s treatment of Black people going all the way back to 1919. However, we also see it in the state’s treatment of GRT people, compounded by the policing and sentencing bill. On a local level, the dehumanisation of GRT communities can be seen again when we observe the comments sections of local news. The comments of everyday people reflect the racist policymaking of politicians. In the continuous persecution of racialised minorities more generally in Britain, we must also consider what racism does to the perpetrators and what this ‘dehumanisation of the Other’ has done to the cultural majority. Even scarier, what has this dehumanisation done to the people that do not even realise they are racist?

When that ‘dehumanising’ appears on big public platforms like stand-up “comedy” shows, we have a problem – essentially giving racism the green light underpinned by violent policymaking in government. So, the discussions around Jimmy Carr not only show me that there needs to be more conversation about how whiteness impacts those read as Black or Brown, but also how whiteness impacts those read as white or not white enough (GRT, Eastern Europeans and so forth). We have work to do and lots of it.

Jimmy Carr and Acceptable Racism

Hope by Elijah Vardo: https://www.travellerstimes.org.uk/features/hope-romani-artist-elijah-vardo

Jimmy Carr’s Dark Material stand-up comedy is the latest in a long line of everyday racism that has been subjected to a trial by TwitterThe context in which the joke is told is as follows:  

A wealthy white gorger man mocks Roma and Sinti people because of who they are. His mostly white gorger audience than laughs and finds this hilarious. This man’s stand-up is so successful that it is endorsed by Netflix, of which the CEO appears to be a rich white gorger man. Both Jimmy Carr and Netflix profit from dehumanising a marginalised group of people.  

If the joke had been delivered to audiences which were predominantly Gypsy Roma and Traveller people this would not have been viewed as funny. To adapt Emma Dabiri’s (2021, p. 98) work, ‘a ‘joke’ in which the gag is that the person is [a Gypsy, Roma or Traveller] isn’t a joke, it’s just racism disguised as humour’ (2021, p. 98).  

Carr’s joke should not be surprising as he prides himself on his use of homophobic, racist and misogynistic ‘career ending’ jokes and these jokes are enjoyed by many.  

The anti-racist Twitter reactions to this joke could provide some hope that many people are becoming more willing to challenge racism. Some Tweets were aimed at increasing the awareness and calling-out racism. Many Tweets were kind, and others were asking for Jimmy to provide a genuine apology. Although, Carr’s words (plus the support of the audience and Netflix) are a symptom of a racist society, so does the focus on Carr’s interpersonal actions mean that people are being distracted from the broader structural issues of racism and white supremacy?   

After scrolling though Twitter there was a clear divide between those claiming to be ‘anti-racist’ and those claiming that ‘the freedom of speech’ is more important than combating racism. This left me thinking,  

How do we get to a point where people are willing to recognise that oppressive systems impact us all, but differently, in some way shape or form?  

And; 

How could people be encouraged to fight against unequal and damaging systems in a way that encourages social change and forgiveness rather than hate and division? 

It seems that online activism might be useful for raising awareness and giving voices to those pushed out of mainstream media. However, if focused on just ‘calling out’ individual acts of racism whilst online there is a danger of being caught up in an online culture war and not actually doing much to change structural issues in the offline world.  

Whilst the Jimmy Carr Twitter debates continue, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which could further damage Gypsy Roma and Traveller lives is in the final stages of Bill passage. As well as this, inequality and misery is set to become further entrenched with the impending surge in energy bills. All of this is thanks to a government which is a mess, corrupt and devoid of any sense of morality. Even so, maybe Jimmy Carr should stick to making jokes about his own experiences of upper class tax avoidance next time.  

Note: Thank you to Emma Dabiri’s What White People Can Do Next (2021) for helping me to articulte my frustrations with online Twitter debates.

Hope’ by Elijah Vardo: https://www.travellerstimes.org.uk/features/hope-romani-artist-elijah-vardo
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