Punching Up versus Punching Down
Ashtar Deza
by Ashtar Deza
5 min read


  • Blog


  • Intersectionality
  • Racism

So. Have you ever listened to a Black comedian say pretty insulting stuff about white people and thought: “How is this OK? If a white guy said the same things about black people there would be hell to pay!”

You have? Cool, let’s dive into what’s going on there. You may have also wondered why that isn’t considered racist. The comedian is making jokes about people based on their race, probably even ridiculing them over all kind of racial stereotypes. How is that not racist against white people?

Well, the answer here is context and power. As much as we would like it to be, our society is not a level playing field. People of colour have it harder than white people. Women have it harder than men. Poor people have it harder than rich people. Trans people have it harder than cis people. People with disabilities have it harder than able-bodied people. The list goes on and on.

The thing is, these things add up. If you are male, white, cisgender and heterosexual you have a ton of privilege. Now privilege is often misunderstood as having it easy. It’s not. You can have a lot of privilege and still have a really really hard life. Privilege is much more about how often you’ll find power on your side.

Imagine for a moment a white guy and a black guy, wearing similar clothes, arguing in the street about ownership of a bicycle. They both claim that the bike is theirs and that the other guy tried to steal it. A police officer walks by and sees them. Who will the officer side with?

If you think that the police officer will make an informed decision, I’m sure you could find some example where that happened. But on average? The officer is way more likely to believe the white person. That is privilege.

There are a ton of similar scenarios where this plays out. Basically our world is set up in such a way that the “basic model default human” is a cisgender white man, heterosexual, able bodied, etc. Anything else is seen as a deviation from the norm.

The closer you are to this norm, the better you get treated. The further you are removed from it, the worse you have it. This is what we mean by oppression. No, oppression doesn’t mean that jack-booted thugs in black uniforms come arrest you, though that is what is on the extreme end of this scale. Oppression means that the further from the norm you are, the harder you have to work to achieve the same outcomes.

If your parents are poor and live in a rental house, you’ll likely have more debt coming out of college meaning buying your first house is way harder. You have to put in significant work to even reach the same position that someone else might start at. If your last name sounds foreign, you may very well have to send out a lot more job applications to even get an interview. This is oppression. It’s not caused by evil people behind a desk going “muhahaha”, it’s the compound effect of a ton of little prejudices.

So, let’s go back to our original comedian example. Let me paint the same scene again in a slightly different situation. So, we have a class full of 11 year olds, and the teacher has this full head of red hair and a big lumberjack beard. Little Johnny cracks a joke in class about the teacher’s red hair, the whole class laughs. Little Johnny is the class clown, he might get in trouble but his fellow students probably think he’s cool.

Now let’s reverse the roles: let’s say little Johnny has the red hair and the teacher makes a joke about that. Now it feels different, right? That’s mean. That’s unjust. Why? Because there is a clear power differential. The teacher has all the power in this situation. He could easily punish Johnny for the joke, or he could be a good sport and laugh with the class.

Johnny however has almost no power. If the teacher makes that joke he pushes down further on the already unbalanced situation. He reinforces that in this class he can do whatever he wants and the students are not in a position to do anything about it. The joke becomes a tool of oppression.

Note: Before we continue let me please be very very clear: this example was specifically meant to illustrate a clear power differential. I did not mean to paint oppressed people as helpless children, in fact painting people of colour as childish is a common racist trope, used as a tool of oppression.

Now for the title of this writing: what Johnny did is often called Punching Up. He’s using humour as a way to stand up to the power structure he is part of. He’s challenging the status quo and in fact challenging oppression.

The teacher however is Punching Down. He is reinforcing the existing power structure.

The same thing applies to our black comedian: when he makes jokes about white people he is in fact Punching up. He is challenging racism using humour as a tool.

If that same comedian then makes jokes about trans people though, suddenly he as a man is Punching down. He is reinforcing his power as a cis man.

Something closely related is another thing you may have heard: “Reverse racism / racism against white people doesn’t exist.”

When I first heard this one I thought it was an absurd statement. Plenty of people of colour have prejudices against white people. How is that not racism? The answer is: racism is racial prejudice aligned with and reinforced by power. Without the power it’s just prejudice. Not nice, but without this power the impact is orders of magnitude smaller.

So, what all of this comes down to is: context matters. If you ignore the fundamental inequalities in current society when looking at these things, you miss so much of the picture that the whole thing becomes meaningless.

If you’re in the dominant group and you’re being made fun of: yes, it hurts. It’s not fun. But also realise how much worse it would be if the full power of society was there to actually give power to those jokes. If instead of just an uncomfortable feeling, your safety or livelihood was a risk. That is the difference here.

So, want to stop people punching up at us? Then we should fight to end oppression. All oppression.

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