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Is It Ever Okay to Laugh at an Accent?

Is It Ever Okay to Laugh at an Accent?

  • Current Affairs
  • Opinion
Top image credit: Youtube

“Here’s the thing, stereotypes are harmful, but the voices are funny. I don’t know how to reconcile those two things.”

Stand-up comedian Louis C.K. makes this comment 44 minutes into his latest show (Louis C.K. 2017) before going on to speak in an exaggerated black accent. I couldn’t help but laugh.

Would I still have laughed if he was adopting a more familiar voice? Like a Malay or an Indian accent? Probably, but I would feel guilty doing so.

The first thing we need to realise, when it comes to accents and laughing at them, is that context matters. For example, there’s nothing funny about a Chinese man speaking with a Chinese accent. If you happen to find this funny, you’re racist.

However, when a Caucasian person speaks in pure, unadulterated Singlish, it’s funny simply because it’s so unexpected. Likewise, when comedians such as local favourite Kumar perform stand-up in drag while flaunting an exaggerated Indian accent, things get a little absurd.

Kumar plays up his Indian-ness when addressing stereotypes aimed at him, and we then find it acceptable to laugh because we are laughing at the absurdity of the stereotypes portrayed, not at the accent itself.

Sean Ruttledge, a comic and voice artist, explains, “Context and intent is key. This dictates whether someone will find it offensive.”

When we laugh at comedians who employ accents in their acts, we are often laughing at the incongruence or unexpectedness of the situation.

We see this when Louis C.K. performs an exaggerated black woman accent in this video:

At the 2 minute mark, his boss (a black woman) asks him, “Do you always speak this way?”, to which he replies in the affirmative. It’s then revealed that he has been putting on a fake black accent for the 5 years he’s been with the company. The scene becomes funny not because he’s speaking in a black accent, but because it’s just completely ridiculous that anyone would do this for a full 5 years.

Equally important is what is actually said in these comedic routines. If Kumar, for example,  mimicked Filipino women by saying “Ma’am, I mop the floor today,” that would be offensive because his words reinforce the negative stereotype of Filipino women being subservient, broken-English speaking domestic helpers.

This kind of humour is unacceptable because it disadvantages a specific race (and also one that already occupies lesser socio-economic status).

But not all the stereotypes that we perpetuate are negative.

In Love Actually, British man Colin arrives in America, convinced that his sexy Britishness will be an asset to him. This is proven true in a Milwaukee bar when his accent draws the attention of three women. As the night progresses, they become increasingly enamoured with the way he pronounces ordinary words such as “bottle” and “straw,” eventually inviting him over for the night.

This scene takes aim at the stereotype of the “sexy” and “charming” British accent—which is funny in execution—but no way would one consider this negative or disadvantageous.

We shouldn’t treat all accents as if they’re equal.  

If an accent is being exploited to one's advantage, how can it be offensive?
Absurdist humour or not, the fact remains that laughing at some accents seems to be more offensive than others. This is where it starts to get complicated.

Although there is nothing intrinsically funnier about a black accent compared to an Indian one, the fact is that they are culturally and critically distant from each other.

As Singaporeans, we are generally less familiar with black accents and black culture. It’s thus harder for us to take offense at something that seems too far away i.e. most of us can laugh at black accents without feeling guilty about it.

On the other hand, the same cannot be said of local accents. Growing up in Singapore, you would probably have friends who come from different racial backgrounds, and would thus be more sensitive to the stereotypes that affect your immediate social circle.

Does this then mean that it’s okay for Singaporeans to laugh at accents that they are not familiar with? Is it okay to laugh at comedians who employ Black accents, but Chinese, Malay or Indian accents are then out of bounds?

There are clearly double standards in play, and like it or not, we do find it socially acceptable to laugh at some accents, especially when it does not have an immediate relevance to our culture.

Are you laughing at the absurdity of someone’s act and the content of that act? Or are you mocking the accent?

So knowing when it’s okay to laugh at accents and when it isn’t, boils down to knowing what you are laughing at. Are you laughing at the absurdity of someone’s act and the content of that act? Or are you mocking the accent?

This self-awareness is crucial in discerning what counts as racist and what doesn’t.

That said, comedian and author Karith Foster warns in the Chicago Tribune about the danger of over-policing every sensitive subject such that we end up losing comedy itself. So for what it’s worth, I’ve laughed (non-maliciously) at accents for years and will likely continue to do so – not because I lack the empathy or sensitivity to understand the implications of stereotypes, but because I choose humour to help me make light of the world’s increasingly dark political climate.

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Joshua Lee