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‘It was a joke’: sorry Alan Sugar, no it wasn’t

08 Jul 2018

“It was a joke ”, translated most accurately as “I don’t give a fuck”. An age old rebuttal used to defend the indefensible. Like everything else, it has managed to find its way to the internet, and for the most part seems to be doing quite well. To me, these four words make up the most offensive, infuriating and trivialising vocabulary English has to offer. But to many they don’t, as Twitter and the papers seem to be awash with this broken record, which sadly seems to be going nowhere fast.

Those who misguidedly use it think they are being clever, brushing off deftly the fact that they a) aren’t sorry and b) are too scared to admit it. However, where they feel this political evasiveness has made them seem markedly more human and relatable, it achieves the exact opposite. It is blindingly obvious that they are justifying not apologising, careless not heartfelt, undermining not understanding and in the most part would say what they said again, or worse, in a heartbeat. These people throw out flippant, often racist remarks, only to detract them with the same air of disregard with which they said them in the first place. “It was a joke” gives them the means to do so without the backlash they deserve.

Twenty years as a young mixed raced woman has taught me that ignorant people have been born with an innate survival kit that sees these four pathetic words strung together as a lifeline to be relied on, when their bigotry, misogyny and racism puts in jeopardy their god-given right to free speech.

“As a society, we settle for humour as an explanation for offence and it is both bizarre and increasingly worrying”

I’m sure we’re all used to seeing a lack of positive black representation in the media, and as much as I am disinterested in the World Cup and everything its hosting country stands for, it has been really uplifting to see so many young, black men in the papers, lauded for bringing home the hopes of their nation rather than being demonised on front page news. This is why Alan Sugar’s latest tweet – which compared the Senegalese team to men selling sunglasses on a Marbella beach – resulted in understandable upset and anger. Denial and racism become embroiled once again, as he became yet another Caucasian dinosaur to cause deep offence in his effort to grapple with his new shiny toy – the internet. Despite it receiving widespread condemnation and outrage, Sugar thought it fine to follow up with: “ it is meant to be funny … for god sake” and “I cant [sic] see what I have to apologise for…you are OTT…its [sic] a bloody joke.”

The frustration which comes across on his part is laughable. It’s the same kind of frustration you receive as a woman being hit on by a greasy old man whose subsequent rejection by you induces anger and confusion. In the only show of humour in the whole debacle, Sugar received an epiphany when his contract with the BBC came under threat, at which point he miraculously took to Twitter once more, hand held by his allowance-giving superior, to revise his misconduct. The tweet and everything it stood for, whilst horrendous, was overshadowed by his attempt to put it all down to satire. As a society, we settle for humour as an explanation for offence and it is both bizarre and increasingly worrying when you look at the wide spectrum of contexts this “oops” / “boys will be boys” mentality is covering . It is why America has a president that excused the normalising of molestation, why police brutality can be attributed to mere mishap or accident and why the degradation of sporting icons is nothing new in terms of how we deal with accountability.

We are taught from a very young age that this is a quick fix, a solution and a compromise for not having to really say sorry”

Using humour as validation for offence is something that I am used to. I am not surprised by this turn of events. In primary school I received the same validation – it was a joke – when I was upset by a comment that compared me to a burnt gingerbread man. My teacher saw this as an acceptable conclusion to a falling-out between two six-year-olds; so it was no surprise when 13-year-old me accepted the ignorance of a classmate who found my parents’ interracial relationship “weird” on the basis of my dad being Jewish and my mum having dreadlocks. I accepted his excuse – it was a joke – as he attempted to laugh off my visible discomfort. Reacquainting myself with these personal experiences, I find it no coincidence that Sugar’s reaction is akin to my peers. We are taught from a very young age that this is a quick fix, a solution and a compromise for not having to really say sorry. 

But when I say we are taught this, of course, that is not wholly true. It is only those of privilege and power who are allowed these liberties. Unsurprisingly, accountability seems to share the same double standard, found everywhere else in society. When Maya Jama’s tweet resurfaced from 2012, in which she retweeted a joke by a comedian which was at expense of dark skin women, she was met with warranted uproar. Rather than defending her tweet as a joke (which, ironically, was its original intended form) she rightfully condemned the tweet for what it was: racist, colourist and unacceptable. After numerous appearances which saw her provide genuine remorse, people including myself were still in doubt as to whether she could recover and come back from it. But when a white man guilty of doing the same or worse comes out of such an incident, they can continue to police our roads, continue to work for the BBC and most shockingly become president of one of the world’s superpowers. 

In typical colonial conduct, it is a learned idea that accountability for offence must be avoided at all costs, therefore it is unsurprising that white celebrities and icons do the same. Humour is the most palatable form of denial and justification in an age that no longer accepts silence from peoples of power, and this needs to change.