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The laughing truth: Race and humor in a documentary filmmaking class.

ABSTRACT. Drawn from a larger study that examined raced interactions in a racially diverse urban high school in the Midwest, this paper uses Mikhail Bakhtin's carnival to explore how three young men from different races created a carnival-like atmosphere as they exchanged what they called 'racist jokes' during a three-month collaboration on a documentary film about immigration. Findings suggest that carnival laughter and abuse rituals were dialogically generative. That is, they allowed the young men to play with and transform racial stereotypes in a space otherwise overshadowed by colorblind racial discourses, and in so doing, come to know each other and engage deeply in their film work. Drawing upon Bakhtin's theory of the carnivalesque, I argue that laughter, even the most profane and abusive laughter considered to be taboo in classroom spaces, opens a possibility for closeness, dialogic consciousness, and deep learning. The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate that backstage laughter, as an embodied reaction to ideologies, is far from off-task and may, in fact, be central to the kinds of engaged collaboration and critique we desire for students.

Keywords: race; laughter; carnival; dialogic; embodiment; discourse

Montay:  I had a dream. I was like/
Shawn:   Everybody has a dream.
Montay:  ((in a deep, melodic voice)) I have a dream.
Shawn:   F--you in the ass.
Montay:  Oh, you racist. (.)
Shawn:   You are the African (monkey).
Abdi:    ((Calls Ms. Callahan over))
Shawn:   Score one for the Mexican.
Montay:  You were probably listening to that in your lowrider, huh.
         Score one for the Black guy.
Abdi:    ((Continues to try to call Ms. Callahan over))
Shawn:   How is that racist? Black people have a lowrider too.
Montay:  I know, but you Mexican.
Shawn:   ( ) There's Black people with lowriders too.
Montay:  ((Laughing)) They were brainwashed by y'all.
Shawn:   Until I get offended, if I feel offended, I'll get a score for
Montay:  I wasn't offended when you said I had a dream.
         ((Laughs)) Okay, I was.
         ((Shawn and Montay laugh))
Shawn:   Shit, I'd be happy in that lowrider.

The scene above took place in a documentary filmmaking class as three young men, Montay, Abdi, and Shawn (1), collaborated on a film that they were producing about immigration. Each was a student in an English/Language Arts course for juniors and seniors in an urban high school in the Midwestern United States. This particular instance took place about four weeks into film production. It was one among many similar incidents that I witnessed as a participant-observer over the three-month period in which the young men co-produced a film that sought to capture the stories of local immigrants and highlight the complexity of immigration issues.

During the production of their film, Montay, Abdi, and Shawn, who identified as African American, Somali, and Hispanic, respectively, were required to work closely inside and outside the classroom. During film production, they had a two-hour block each day to work on the film and spent additional hours after school and on weekends collecting interviews and footage. Although they had not known each other well prior to their work together, they developed a rapport through the process, one that involved a pattern of name-calling, joking, and tattling around race. Although it evolved into a practice that they and others came to recognize as and call 'racist joking,' the game itself was not subtle. The table below offers a glimpse into how this 'racist joking' took place over three months of film production, particularly between Shawn and Montay.

Examples of 'Racist Joking'
Shawn laughs at the racial implications of Montay's story about
drinking Kool-Aid from a pitcher. Montay calls Shawn 'taco.' Shawn
says, 'Man, you are Black,' when Montay spells a word wrong. Shawn says
that Montay eats too much chicken. Shawn says if he let Montay play his
guitar, Montay would 'get it dirty and shit.' Montay says Shawn
probably has graffiti all over it already.

Interactions among Montay and Shawn carried aspects of name-calling (e.g. 'taco' or 'Black monkey'), drawing upon cultural stereotypes related to artifacts (e.g. 'lowrider' or 'Kool-aid') and identities (e.g. being lazy, academically deficient, or dirty), and score-keeping. The incidents also included an element of calling out racism and mock-tattling on one another (e.g. 'He racist again' or 'He started it'), directed at the teacher and at times, directed at me.

Simply put, Montay and Shawn were openly calling each other offensive, even racist names. And they were laughing. The laughter was hearty and deep, engaged and profound, sometimes starting even before a word had been spoken.

To theorize this laughter, I draw upon Mikhail Bakhtin's (1984a, 1984b) analysis of carnival to explore how these three young men from different races created a carnival-like atmosphere as they exchanged what they called 'racist jokes' and to better understand aspects of language that are, most often, taboo in classrooms. Most classrooms, as Timothy Lensmire (2011) has noted, are serious spaces where laughter represents an occasional break from learning or an off-task moment that disrupts it altogether. I draw upon Bakhtin's work to argue instead that laughter--even the most profane and abusive laughter considered to be taboo in classroom spaces--opens a possibility for closeness, dialogic consciousness, and deep learning.

Study Methods and Participants

This work is drawn from a larger study that examined, what Mica Pollock (2004) has called, 'raced interactions' in a racially diverse urban high school. The goal of the study was to explore students' interactions related to race in a documentary filmmaking class, how those interactions shaped learning, and how the social and institutional context of school shaped racial interactions and identities. In short, I wanted to find out what I could learn from students if I listened as they talked about race with each other in both class-sanctioned discussions and background conversations (see Tierney, 2013).

The high school course that was the setting for this study focused on the analysis and production of documentary film and other media. Projects throughout the year were designed to balance critical analysis of media, particularly film, with critical production of media including photography, podcast, and film. Students' identities and experiences were explored in the context of media production, and as such, race was a present and ongoing topic of conversation.

Data collection was grounded in ethnographic methods. Data sources included field notes, audio and video recordings of film production groups, interviews, and student productions. During the year of data collection, I was both observer and participant; during the three months of film production, I readily gave support and feedback to students in their work. As a member of the classroom community three to four times each week, my presence also influenced the conversations and interactions I observed and recorded. I write about this in more detail later.

Carnival Laughter and the Dialogic Consciousness

Bakhtin's analysis of carnival laughter serves as a powerful theoretical framework for understanding how humor functions in race-related talk. Carnival of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, as Bakhtin wrote about in Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics (1984a) and Rabelais and His World (1984b), was a celebration of folk culture that included festivities, feasts, and parodies. As described in the introductory piece to this collection, a key component of carnival space and time was the special forms of marketplace speech and gesture, a 'frank and free' form 'impossible in everyday life' (1984b, p. 10). Such language forms parodied and mocked the completed and official order, up-ended hierarchical relations, and expressed a pathos of change and renewal.

On carnival laughter, Bakhtin (1984b) wrote: 'It is, first of all, a festive laughter. Therefore it is not an individual reaction to some isolated "comic" event. Carnival laughter is the laughter of all the people. Second, it is universal in scope; it is directed at all and everyone, including the carnival's participants...Third, this laughter is ambivalent: it is gay, triumphant, and at the same time mocking, deriding. It asserts and denies, it buries and revives' (pp. 11-12).

For Bakhtin, carnival laughter was an encompassing laughter--one directed both at the world and also at those who laugh. All were considered equally open to derision and triumph. As such, carnival was a time of transformation and becoming that influenced the consciousness of those engaged in carnival life. Carnival laughter was, in this way, dialogically generative. That is, the comedy and parody of carnival life, directed everywhere and at all things, placed multiple and often opposing ideas into a playful tension with one another and allowed laughing folk, as Bakhtin (1981) wrote, to see the 'underside and falseness of every situation' (p. 159). The carnival folk laughed, and through that laughter, the people saw that official structures could be, if only for a moment, suspended and overthrown. They were not, in fact, the way things had to be.

'Oh, you racist': Bakhtin's Carnival in a Classroom Example

Significant aspects of the time/space of film production in this high school classroom were carnival-like. Shawn, Montay, and Abdi worked, for the most part, without interventions from their teacher. They had the freedom to determine the course of their time together, and while this included a concerted effort on the film (they were farther along than any other group), it also included engaging in stories, joking, and laughing. They worked in the hallway to record voiceovers and left the school to collect footage and interviews in other parts of the city. Their time together also spilled over into evenings where Shawn, Montay, and Abdi sat together in Abdi's brother's coffee shop and drank tea. This movement and freedom allowed for the 'free and familiar contact' of that carnival market square.

Closeness among the three young men came about not just through freedom and movement, but also through the 'free and familiar' way in which they interacted with one another. Bakhtin (1984a) described the profanities, blasphemies, insults, and obscenities of carnival as 'a whole system of carnivalistic debasings and bringings down to earth' (p. 123).

Indeed, the 'racist joking' between Shawn and Montay, as the example at the start of this article demonstrates, was all about the bringings down to earth and keeping track. Scholars have written for decades (Lefever, 1998; Smitherman, 1999/2000) about race gameplay and abuse as a way of bonding. For Shawn and Montay, racist joking was also a form of verbal violence where they played with racial stereotypes during a project overshadowed by race. Because the research and interviews that they conducted for their film about immigration always carried an undercurrent of racial implications, race was an ever-present and serious aspect of their film production. In fact, Shawn and Abdi did not always agree on the direction of their film as they struggled to represent the identities of the immigrants within it. During the same half-hour, Shawn and Abdi might argue over footage and then Shawn and Montay would turn to calling each other, and laughing heartily over, profane, abusive names. While Abdi participated in the abuse only to a lesser degree (laughing more than joking), it was Abdi (the only driver in the group) who left Shawn and Montay to walk home from one of their interviews, which was a story all three liked to bring up and laugh about over and over.

These abuses became ritual and exposed a certain absurdity to the seriousness of their film work and to the challenge of representation before them. Shawn, Montay, and Abdi used humor to bring each other close (through bringing each other down) in an intense period around a topic that was both personally and politically charged for them. Joking about race helped to shape a space where the young men could anger each other over the content of their film and laugh about it at the same time. Laughter opened a new, playful way of being in relation with each another and of being in relation with themselves. Like the laughing folk in Bakhtin's carnival, Shawn and Montay did not exclude themselves from derision. For instance, in Shawn's self-deprecating statement, 'Shit, I'd be happy in that lowrider,' it's clear that those who laugh are also of the world at which their laughter is directed.

The question remains, though, in the utopia of Bakhtin's carnival where all are considered equal, whether all are also kept from harm given the abuses and profanities expressed. One aspect of joking among the young men that was less developed, albeit present in several interactions, were humorous exchanges related to heterosexual male identities. Shawn's statement, 'F--you in the ass,' indicates how raced interactions are also gendered in complex ways. Their ritual of racist joking is also a struggle over masculinity where competitive male rituals emphasize a dominant version of what it means to be male (Kehily & Nayak, 1997).

Shawn and Montay also knew this ritual was taboo--that was, after all, what made it so funny. Still, they both hinted at the possibility of the game being misunderstood by others outside their group. When asked what would happen if outsiders entered into their play, Montay shared: 'I feel as if okay, I can say this, but because we're playing. Like I can say this about him, but nobody else can say this about him, because then me and that person would have a problem. Like you can't say that about Shawn, because me and Shawn know that we're playing with each other.'

There were occasions when students--both White students and students of color--outside their film group recognized the practice of joking about race. In these moments, others did not enter the play as full participants, but acknowledged and even steered the game (e.g., one White female student told Shawn, 'Don't even say it,' when he was about to ask if she was accusing him of something because of his race).

Shawn and Montay were also conscious of my presence (a White female, a researcher, an outsider) to varying degrees in the incidents of racist joking. During various class periods, Shawn, in particular, told Montay, 'Dude, everything we're saying is being catched by that [the audio recorder],' 'Don't tell her [Jessie] everything,' and even on one occasion, 'Jessie, I'm sorry about what you're about to hear on this tape.'

Such statements reveal the extent to which the joke play between Shawn and Montay carried elements they, and Shawn in particular, may not have wanted me to hear, while at the same time revealing that I had become an audience for their jokes and someone who might recognize and affirm or misunderstand and stop them. Shawn, Montay, and Abdi each brought up the jokes to me during interviews and seemed to appreciate the opportunity to theorize them. I was a willing ear and someone who engaged with them on their terms. And yet, the irony of being a researcher interested in the racial interactions constructed in backstage, humorous moments is that even when I think I understand the joke, I cannot truly experience the deep pleasure embodied there, as much as I might like to.

Given the complex, nuanced, and situated nature of the racist joke play between Montay and Shawn--where the possibility of being misinterpreted was real--to what degree was there freedom and equality in their carnival ritual?

Here, I return to the possibilities for renewal inherent in the ambivalence of Bakhtin's carnival laughter. In the construction of race and humor in their interactions, Shawn and Montay respond to utterances and addressees outside the moment of interaction as well, and as such, their humor is multi-voiced. When, for example, Montay calls Shawn 'taco,' or Shawn refers to Montay as lazy, they utter the words of others who have spoken racial stereotypes in seriousness. They re-voice the words of others and, to use Bakhtin's (1981) words, turn 'persuasive discourse into speaking persons' (p. 348). Such a move represents an ideological struggle and the possibility, through laughter, for a shift in meaning.

In The Dialogic Imagination, Bakhtin (1981) described the significance of ideological struggle this way: 'This process--experimenting by turning persuasive discourse into speaking persons--becomes especially important in those cases where a struggle against such images has already begun, where someone is striving to liberate himself from the influence of such an image and its discourse by means of objectification, or is striving to expose the limitations of both image and discourse' (p. 348).

My reading of the scenes of 'racist joking' through this lens is that the young men in this study speak racist discourses in an ideological struggle with them. Their 'racist' discourse is directed toward each other and themselves as the objects of humor, but even more, it is directed toward persuasive racist discourses that circulate in the official world. Such is the 'twofold direction' (Bakhtin, 1981) of their discourse; it is spoken always with a nod toward another discourse and another speaking person.

Even more, the utterances that Shawn and Montay offer in the chain of utterances around race are refracted through humor. On comedic forms, Bakhtin (1981) wrote, 'They freed consciousness from the power of the direct word, destroyed the thick walls that had imprisoned consciousness within its own discourse, within its own language.' In so doing, Shawn and Montay free such words from their power and transform persuasive, racist discourses into laughing persons in order to expose their limitations. This is the regeneration and renewal of their humor--from the degradation and destabilization of static voices comes the possibility for new, heteroglossic relationships and meanings.

In the act of bringing each other closer and revealing dialogic tensions through abuse and laughter, the young men worked out, to quote Bakhtin (1984a), a 'new mode of interrelationship...counterposed to the all-powerful socio-hierarchical relationships of noncarnival life' (p. 123). The young men built a significant bond, one that allowed them to explore the complexity of racial identities without serious risk of offense. This required humor. Through it, the young men constructed a space where they could also argue seriously over content related to the complex and ambivalent identity positions of the immigrants in their film. Montay explains this best:
Like at first, there was a time where Abdi just wanted to do it his
way, nothing else, and that's kind of what messed us up. Like at first
we were just going to do success stories of immigrants. That was the
topic and that was it. He didn't want nobody to argue with him about
it, nothing, but that was only because his brother was so successful.
But then later on, after we've argued for a week or so about that, it
didn't work. It didn't work at all. I just feel like neither one of us,
no matter how many immigrants we knew, no matter how many sources we
had, it wouldn't have worked out the same way. Maybe it's because of
just the fun that we had, or I don't know how to say it, but the mental
combination that we have. We basically move like a body. I can't do
this without Abdi, and Abdi can't do this without Shawn.

Coming to a diversified story required intense interactions among Shawn, Montay, and Abdi--interactions that were mediated by moments of levity, laughter, and deep respect for one another's contributions to the whole body of their work. The young men experienced intense pleasure and joy that spoke to their desire to be together and know each other--a desire that, unless they laughed, could be read as taboo. Their friendship--explored, challenged, and ultimately, solidified through humor--was the most important outcome of their work.


Carnival laughter in this study represents the serious race-work that young people engage in when given the freedom, space, and critical impetus to struggle ideologically. The race-work in which Shawn and Montay engage was creative, complicated, and significant to learning. As they parodied racist discourses, they transformed meanings, and by bringing racist discourses and the racial other closer through laughter, race became a sign of friendship, affiliation, and a renewal of meaning. Shawn, Montay, and Abdi also demonstrate that there is important social work taking place in the backstage talk and laughter of classrooms--social work that is more 'creative and complicated than often planned for by teachers' (Johnson &Vasudevan, 2012, p. 39).

Finally, I want to emphasize that the transformation of meaning in which Shawn and Montay engaged through humor was, in fact, learning. Humor and laughter created a 'privileged space' (Vadeboncoeur, 2005) where the young men formed a playful relationship to each other and the world. On the link between humor and critical learning, Timothy Lensmire (2011) wrote: 'As we become more serious, we risk undermining the sort of joyful, playful relation to the world and each other that would actually allow us to look fearlessly at the world and tell the truth about it. In other words, in order to criticize and remake the world, children and youth and teachers will need to play (with ideas, with each other) in order to experience and imagine something better--a something better that throws the present's shortcomings into bold relief (pp. 125-126).

My purpose is to demonstrate that laughter, as an embodied reaction to ideologies, is far from off-task and may, in fact, be central to the kinds of critical engagement and 'being in relation' (Ellsworth, 2005, p. 135) we desire for students. Such moments in classrooms are not just temporary releases that serve to perpetuate authority, but they are instead spaces of meaning making, spaces of transformation and renewal. As Shawn, Montay, and Abdi engaged in carnival insult and abuse, they told the laughing truth about race and remade their relationship to each other and to the world through it.


(1.) All names are pseudonyms.


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Bakhtin, M. (1984a). Problems of Dostoevsky's poetics. (Trans. Caryl Emerson). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Bakhtin, M. (1984b). Rabelais and his world. (Trans. Helene Iswolsky). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Ellsworth, E. (2005). Places of learning: Media, architecture, pedagogy. New York: Routledge.

Johnson, E., & Vasudevan, L. (2012). Seeing and hearing students' lived and embodied critical literacy practices. Theory into Practice, 51, 34-41.

Kehily, M. J., & Nayak, A. (1997). 'Lads and laughter': Humour and the production of heterosexual hierarchies. Gender and Education, 9, 69-87.

Lefever, H. G. (1988). Deep play: Rituals of black male identity in urban ghetto communities. Anthropology and humanism quarterly, 13, 11-17.

Lensmire, T. (2011). Too serious: Learning, schools, and Bakhtin's Carnival. In J. White & M. A. Peters (Eds.), Bakhtinian pedagogy: Opportunities and challenges for research, policy and practice in education across the globe (pp. 117-128). New York: Peter Lang.

Pollock, M. (2004). Colormute: Race talk dilemmas in an American school. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Smitherman, G. (1999/2000). Talkin' that talk: Language, culture, and education in African America. New York: Routledge.

Tierney, J. D. (2013). 'It wasn't like we were serious': Laughter in the mediated action of race talk (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses database. (Order No. 3567482).

Vadeboncoeur, J. A. (2005). The difference that time and space make: An analysis of institutional and narrative landscapes. In J. A. Vadeboncoeur & L. Patel Stevens (Eds.), Re/Constructing 'the adolescent': Sign, symbol, and body (pp. 123-152). New York: Peter Lang.


University of Minnesota

JESSICA DOCKTER TIERNEY is a lecturer in English Education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Minnesota where she studies the relationship between discourse and power in classrooms.
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Author:Tierney, Jessica Dockter
Publication:Knowledge Cultures
Date:May 1, 2017
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