The power of humour in combatting racism

5 minutes to read
Rowie van Hagen

When incidents of racism occur in associated football, players need to be aware of the message they send to supporters when they respond to them. While a humorous response can serve successful approach in the short-term, it could also contribute to the normalization of racist stereotypes in society in the long run.

At the end of February 2017, the sports pages of various news sources (such as the Dutch Algemeen Dagblad and the South African Huffington Post) featured a photograph of Brazilian football player Everton Luiz being consoled by a member of his team, after he was continuously harassed with racist sounds and slurs during a professional football match in Serbia. Each time he was in possession of the ball, he was subjected to jungle noises and monkey sounds by supporters of the opposing team. As the brief interference of the referee had no diminishing effects on the racist noises from supporters, Luiz took matters into his hands at the end of the match. According to a video of the incident from Voetbalprimeur, Luiz seems to have flipped off the racist supporters before leaving the field in tears, which resulted in a yellow card for Luiz and small riots among supporters and players.

Judging by some of the comments left under the digital news item, as presented by the British The Sun, not everyone sympathised with Luiz’ way of handling the situation. While most people openly condemned the monkey sounds made by the supporters, others claimed that Luiz should have pulled himself together and should have ignored it. They stated that Luiz should have been tough enough to laugh it off, before simply moving on with his life, since crying made him seem weak and vulnerable on the field. Interestingly, comparisons were made to a similar incident in Spain, where racist chants and monkey sounds were directed at the Brazilian Dani Alves, playing for Barcelona back in April 2014. Here, it did not stop at jungle noises and monkey sounds. A banana was eventually thrown at Alves’ feet. Alves, in an effort to keep the focus on the match rather than on the racist supporters, decided to take a bite off the banana while taking a corner.

In a spontaneous response, Alves employed a sense of humour in an act of defiance against an incident of racism in sports. Regardless of the fact that both incidents of racism directed at Brazilian football players are slightly different, people tend to prefer Alves’ witty - perhaps even jocular - handling of the situation instead of Luiz’ approach, that clearly showed his frustration and marked him as a victim. This is striking, as anti-racism and humour seem an unnatural pair. While humour can be employed as a short-term tool in dealing with incidents of racism, we must remain cautious that it might also serve as a contributing force to the normalization of racism in society in the long run.

When did humour become a generally preferred response to a criminal offense?

The normalization of racist ideas and stereotypes in society through humour can be explained by primarily looking at racism as an ideology. Jan Blommaert, professor of language, culture and globalization at Tilburg University, underlines that racism is an ideology and is thus generally grounded in social structures. Racism is the effect of a process of normalization. As long as a message is spread frequently enough, people will eventually believe it to be true. The message is assumed to be ‘normal’, e.g. it becomes seen as factual information. In this light, humour and jokes can implicitly carry (and normalize) a racist message.

While Alves was never racist himself, he may have contributed subconsciously to the normalization of an existing racist idea (that seems to link the Brazilian football player to a monkey, based on their looks) through humour. From another point of view, the very fact that we would consider Alves' response witty and humorous can be seen as a detrimental effect of ideological racism that reduces Alves' defiant response to an entertaining event. Cultural theorist and sociologist Stuart Hall makes a critical observation on why the use of humour with regards to racism remains a serious issue, regardless of the intention with which such humour is employed. In his article ‘Racist ideologies and the media’ (2000) he states that jokes involving racism

“reinforce the difference [where relations of racial superiority and inferiority prevail] and reproduce the unequal relations because (…) the point of the joke depends on the existence of racism. Thus they reproduce the categories and relations of racism, even while normalizing them through laughter. To state the good intentions of the joke-makers does not resolve the problem here, because they are not in control of the circumstances – conditions of continuing racism – in which their joke discourse will be read and heard” (Hall, 2000, p. 279).

That employing a sense of humour in combatting racism can have reversed consequences in the long run is clear, but these exact consequences are difficult to predict. It is difficult to measure the normalizing effect jokes that dependent on racist relations may potentially have on racist ideas and stereotypes in society. On the other hand, spontaneous jokes can help lighten the situation at the moment the racist incident occurs. They may even become acts of defiance; ways of raising awareness in society that racism is in fact a crime that should be taken seriously. After all, in Alves’ case, the eating of the banana was quickly taken up on social media. After fellow Brazilian football player Neymar posted a picture on social media of himself and his son eating bananas together, accompanied by the hashtag #WeAreAllMonkeys, photographing oneself eating a banana became a brief media hype of online resistance to racism and a call for equality. Apart from the potentially normalizing effect of humour on racist ideologies, Alves’ seemingly humorous uptake of a racist incident in sports resulted in a short-term online anti-racism movement as well.

While a sense of humour can have a brief positive effect in dealing with an incident of racism - by raising awareness of the issue in society and through its uptake as an act of defiance - we must also be aware of its potential to lead to the maintenance of racist stereotypes and relations in society. As such, Alves' approach in dealing with an incident of racism in associated football was not necessarily better or more justifiable than Luiz' response. Besides, racism is classified as a criminal offense in many countries across the globe and it is clear that witty or humorous responses to it should never reduce the importance of (and need for) criminal persecution of the perpetrators. The real question we should ask ourselves is this: when did humour become a generally preferred, or even accepted, response in society to a criminal offense, such as racism, in the first place?



Astley, L. (2017, February 20). PARTIZAN RACISM SHAME – Football star Everton Luiz leaves field in tears after suffering horrific racial abuse from rival fans who shouted ‘monkey noises for the entire match’. The Sun.

Blommaert, J. (2000). Racisme als perspectief: over het ideologisch karakter van racisme. Communicatie, Informatie, Educatie.

Hall, S. (2000). Racist ideologies and the media. In P. Marris & S. Thornham (Eds.), Media studies: A reader, pp. 271-282. New York, NY: New York University Press.

McGowan, T. & Gittings, P. (2014, April 29). Villareal give life ban to rogue fan who threw banana at Dani Alves. CNN.

Redactie Algemeen Dagblad. (2017, February 20). Partizan-speler in tranen van het veld na racistische spreekkoren. Algemeen Dagblad.

Redactie Voetbalprimeur. (2017, February 21). Braziliaan huilend van veld door oerwoudgeluiden: “Kon mijn tranen niet inhouden”. Voetbalprimeur.

Shapiro, R. (2017, February 21). Soccer Fan’s Racist ‘Monkey Chants’ Cause Brazilian Star To Leave Game In Tears. The Huffington Post.