Is it okay to joke about colonialism?

I subscribe to A LOT of newsletters about development, NGOs, and international issues.  Most of these groups talk about international development issues in 1 of 4 keys ways:

  1. Tell us about the bad news (usually the latest natural disaster or war outbreak) in very somber tones.
  2. Tell us about the great news (such as a country first holding democratic elections) but with a healthy dose of skepticism.
  3. Ask for our help (usually in the form of a donation) by telling us about all the great work they’re doing and showing us pictures of smiling (or poor, hungry) children.
  4. Criticize the aid sector (and say how we SHOULD be doing everything), usually in the form of a blog or op-ed

But are there other ways of starting a conversation?  What other types of media can be used to engage with audiences and get people thinking?  I think that humor and satire is definitely an option when it comes to commenting on society.


One example I saw of this recently was Trevor Noah (a South African comedian) performing a bit about colonialism and immigration on the John Bishop Show.  He jokes about the treatment they give him at the airport when he comes to the UK, and how he wishes the South Africans had the same attitude when the British first arrived there.  I actually thought it was really funny, and also a good way to start a conversation about a topic which might be a bit difficult for people to bring up.  I think comedy can also be a way of bringing awareness about real, important events to a wider audience who might not follow the news or understand historical events.

However, how far is too far to push the line?  Everyone knows at least a few comedians who purposely try to offend or at least tell jokes that people know are politically incorrect.  But how far do you have to go before a comedy bit is simply making fun of another population (particularly one that is more marginalized than the one you belong to – think ethnic minority, lower socio-economic class, people with disabilities, etc.)?

For example, in another segment, Trevor Noah makes jokes about people in Zambia who are just learning to ride escalators. It may seem a bit off-putting at first (joking about how people in an African country are “backwards” and don’t understand technology), but it also opens up a great conversation about technology, and how Zambians have iPhones but don’t have escalators.

Does it make a difference that Trevor Noah is black?  That he lives on the African continent?  Or would it be okay if everyone said it?  As a white North-American, I am always aware that the situation I am in is a very different (and easier) one than most people in the rest of the world.  It is easy for me to accidentally offend, so I try to be as politically correct as possible.  But maybe it’s time we start trying to create a larger conversation – and comedy just might be the way to do that!

I would love to hear your thoughts…

Is joking about important international issues (like colonialism) a good idea?



About Amanda

Hi, I’m Amanda! Originally from Ottawa, Canada, I am currently living with my partner (Steve) in Sucre, Bolivia for the next year. I work in the unique space between industrial design and international development – but what does that even mean? I’m passionate about working WITH marginalized communities in a way that utilizes design to improve the lives of different types of people around the world. I have worked, studied, traveled, and researched on every continent (except Antarctica), and most recently I lived in Ghana, Bangladesh and Nepal. I love exploring new cultures and learning more about myself along the way.
This entry was posted in Opinions, TedTalks, Videos, and Webinars and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Is it okay to joke about colonialism?

  1. brian cheung says:

    people will joke about everything, whether behind closed doors or out in the open. humour by its nature has a transgressive quality about that. that being said, joking about demographics or people in a lower power position can have a definite bullying quality about it, unless done delicately. as for whether or not it makes a difference about the race or ethnicity of the comedian, for sure it has a huge impact. if it’s somebody from that background it can come across as a laughing with as opposed to laughing at. course, this is also complicated by who the audience is since that also can change the optics


    • mandyrox2 says:

      Hey Brian, Thanks for the reply! I totally agree that people are going to joke about things whether they’re “okay” or not. I think it’s always tough to draw an exact line in the sand, but was just something I was thinking about 🙂


  2. megfir says:

    We discussed this at pre-dep related to comedians that take it too far and why for example Russell Peters. Lots of interesting questions here, and I think the answer is subjective. Great post 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s