Humour can be a powerful tool in handling racism

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Bjorn, Tasnim, Jenny, James and Pallavi with Ruby  

By Neena Badhwar

It was an interesting performance by seven accomplished performers of Sydney that included our own Pallavi Sinha at Sydney Town Hall on Tuesday March 8, 2016 on a commentary on Comedy vs Racism.

Racism is very much a part of life here as races mix in a melting pot that is quite unique to Australia since its settlement in the 1800s. Humour exists in every community including the Aborigines who have lived here for thousands of years before the white settlers came in and claimed it as theirs. Humerous punchlines, anecdotes, smart come back comments can diffuse a very tense situation and are able to point out the obvious, the stereotypes, the preconceived impressions of people that have labelled some of us for centuries and continue to do so even today. At times they seem rather odd, other times outdated as if people are living in some kind of a time capsule.

Seven young people came together in a show that was all laughter yet it touched some real issues of racism that may have multiple entry points in areas such as theatre, television, films and life in general.

Jennifer Wong, well known comedian, conducted the six presenters, the team included playwright Tasnim Hossain, comedian Suren Jayemanne, writer/actor Bjorn Stewart (ABC’s  Black Comedy), Western Sydney University’s Professor James Arvanitakis, lawyer and speaker Pallavi Sinha, writer Ruby Hamad (Daily Life), and host Jennifer Wong (702 ABC Sydney’s  Thank God It’s Friday).

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Jenny Wong came on stage and lightened up the audience with her witty dialogue as she introduced them on stage. Bjorn Stewart came first and brought out laughs with his act. All the comedy presented on the night was to smash stereotypes and how people are pigeon holed. Tasnim,  an Australian-Bangladeshi, is a playwright and a writer who talked about stereotypes in theatre and how racism can be fatiguing in a very subtle way.

Pallavi Sinha talked about institutional racism and also highlighted that there had not been one prosecution for serious racial vilification under 20d of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977(NSW). She added that there was a review a few years ago and that the NSW Attorney General is considering this issue   She mentioned about a number of hate tweets she got when on January 26 the IQ2 debate, including her speech on racism was replayed on ABC TV. “Yes I was called an abo or even a curry- muncher at school,” said Pallavi and that racism is quite endemic in our society not just here but everywhere. She also spoke about how to deal with it.

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Suren’s stand up comedy was superb and brought out many laughs. It was quite cleverly put about all the stereotypes which clearly exist though at times covert. Sometimes one does not know how to tackle them but only can handle them with some smart, witty come back comments.

Pallavi  commented on Suren’ s comedy act that some serious issues were highlighted by his speech including the difficulty for some people to get a job if they had a ‘funny’ sounding name. Legislation, policy , education and collective action is the key to addressing racism.

Writer Ruby Hamad wanted more panels like this where one can have conversations about racism. Professor James said that education can be a powerful tool for fighting injustice. For Suren education is the answer to create awareness. Tasnim’s suggestion was that she should be writing plays by another name to be accepted while Pallavi thought that our diversity enriched us and thus helped us to which even Bjorn agreed that talking about a whole lot of different people  and topics can help.

All the seven participants  made an interesting panel who took a micky out of the racist stereotypes and presented how comedy can really help water down racism and how they had faced it in their walks of life and handled it in an  intelligent and witty way. Surely people went back happy, comforted by the fact that though it is serious enough yet racism can be dealt with the help of humour as everyone left the place in a lighter mood. Definitely they asked and were promised for such events to be organised more often.


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