I’m a comedian and banter is my job – this is the truth about racist jokes | Shazia Mirza

“I like your handbag!” I say.

“It was only a pound, from the pound shop,” she says.

“No! I thought everything in the pound shop was £10.99. You’ve been undercharged luv, you need to go back and pay the rest!”

This is an exchange I had with an audience member while I was on stage last week. Me and the woman didn’t know each other, we had a bit of a laugh, nobody was abused or attacked.

It’s called banter. I know what it is because I’m a comedian: banter is my job, I do it every night.

When I was a child, my mum and I were getting on a packed train at Birmingham New Street when a white woman came on board, pushed my mum off the train and said, “Get out the way you Paki bastard!” It’s been 30 years since that incident and I still feel sad and terrified every time I remember it. I remember the aggression and hatred with which it was said, and the horror not only of the word, but that nobody said anything to defend my mum.

That is not banter.

When the Yorkshire cricketer Gary Ballance came out and admitted to using the P-word against his teammate Azeem Rafiq, as part of the continuing row highlighting casual racism in sport and a national debate about racism in the workplace, the panel investigating said the use of the word was considered a “friendly verbal attack … in the spirit of friendly banter”.

But I’m not convinced that’s true, even for comedians like me who can joke about anything they want. If I went on stage in 2021 and referred to someone by using the P-word or the N-word, the audience would turn on me. They would either walk out, tell me to get off, or if they were really polite, write a letter of complaint. They just wouldn’t stand for it.

I say this, because even when I’ve made jokes about myself and my family, like “My mother wears the burqa – mainly because she doesn’t want to be seen with my dad”, many audiences find it uncomfortable to laugh. There is hesitation, a delay; it’s like they need me to give them permission to laugh nervously.

White comedians say to me, “Only you can make that joke”. That’s right. But even so, people are cautious. They don’t want to be seen to be laughing at someone based on their colour or religion. It’s the same in the green rooms at comedy gigs. As comedians, we often banter with each other, make jokes and laugh at one another – but I have never heard anyone making a joke at another comedian’s expense based on their race or religion, and I am certain that if they did, they would be called out on it.

It’s not always been this way, of course. In the 1970s, Bernard Manning and Jim Davidson were both racist and funny. It was acceptable then for them to use the P-word in their comedy, just like that woman on the train had, and audiences comfortably laughed along with it.

Since then, however, there has been the Race Relations Act, which outlawed discrimination, and high-profile campaigns like the anti-apartheid movement, Show Racism the Red Card and Black Lives Matter. The world has changed. It has evolved.

Racism is not banter. It’s racism.

I am Pakistani. There are some who would say that calling me a “Paki” is an abbreviation of Pakistani. It is not. It is a racial slur that has been built on hatred, aggression and violence. It is associated with a time in history when my parents first came to this country and were abused and attacked because of the colour of their skin and where they came from. A better abbreviation might be “Stani” – that has no harmful connotations. I am from Birmingham and don’t find being called Brummie offensive either – because that truly is an abbreviation of Birmingham.

There are things I say in private that I would never say in public, like how I must stop shoplifting from charity shops, and stealing sweets from the pick ’n’ mix. My friends say things to me in private as well, things about my moustache and my poor life decisions and bad haircuts. But even in private, they would never say the P-word to me – there can be no banter with a word that has such darkness attached to it, a word that is only ever used to demean and punch down.

Duwayne Brooks, the friend of Stephen Lawrence who was with him on the night of his murder, said that he heard one of Lawrence’s assailants saying racial slurs before attacking him. If you think the N- and P-words are just “friendly banter”, you should ask Doreen Lawrence and the parents of others whose lives have been lost in racist attacks if they think the same.

There really is nothing like British banter. We are the best at it. Along with queueing and tutting, it is a national pastime, like moaning about the weather. So what is banter? It’s the exchange of remarks in a good-humoured, teasing way. Banter might take aim at the clothes people are wearing, their hairstyle, their facial hair, their shoes. Racism should never come into it.

I would be very happy to create a list for every football and cricket ground just to make that clear.

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