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“It’s all jokes, innit”: Humour as a tool for the negotiation of difference in a North London comprehensive school

Sarah Winkler Reid (Brunel)

‘We played this game last year called SNTN, it stood for ‘Say No to Niggers’, we basically had to guard the common room and stop any of them coming in, if any of them got past then we had to fight to get them out again’

This was said to me by a white pupil in the sixth form common room of the school where I’ve just finished my fieldwork. It was lunch time and the common room was full with a typical mix of pupils in this ethnically diverse school. But while we might be shocked to hear this comment, no one in the common room spoke up in consternation, and in fact a number of other pupils, both white and ethnic minority then started to fill me in on the details of this game, SNTN.

This is because what initially sounds offensive can be understood very differently by taking into account the context that it was articulated in; the game is an example of a particular form of humour in the school, one that expresses a group identity shared by pupils of different ethnicities, and it is this humour that I am going to discuss.

The wider context

Before I go on to look at the specific context of the school, I want to touch on the wider context in which pupils are operating by focussing on two television controversies of 2007:

In January 2007 three white British female celebrities were accused of the racist bullying of Indian Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty in Celebrity Big Brother. Their ganging up, and ethnically directed name calling (Shilpa Poppoddum, Fuckwallah) had repercussions far beyond the Big Brother house. Channel Four and the Big Brother production company Endemol were heavily criticised for not intervening, receiving a huge amount of complaints and eventually offering an official apology for their inaction.

While name calling, ganging up and arguably, bullying had been characteristic components of every previous series of Big Brother, the ethnic/ racist element to these interactions hit a nerve. Along with generating masses of column inches, in both the red tops and broadsheets, the incident was also discussed in parliament and protested about in India.

In June 2007 the regular Big Brother was at the centre of another race controversy after a nineteen year old white contestant encouraging the singing of a black contestant said ‘push it out nigger’. The producers acted swiftly and

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