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Keywords:

  • racial humor;
  • individualism;
  • speech conventions;
  • whiteness

This paper analyzes some of the cultural dynamics that shape the significance of race in the United States. The focus is on the role of social conventions governing speech and the operation of categorical identities, such as “individual” and “group.” These cultural dynamics are examined via moments of humor—some that are received poorly and others that are successful—because jokes both condense and engage deep reservoirs of implicit cultural knowledge. The goal of this discussion is to highlight how these conventions and categories shape Americans' assessments of what counts as “racial.” In juxtaposing a series of “racial remarks” (by Don Imus and Michael Richards) with a series of television ads that deploy many racial signifiers but drew little critical commentary, my aim is to analyze how Americans can keep laughing about race even as they draw emphatic lines about not being amused by racist remarks.