UNSW Med Revue – The Incredibly Racist
By Lungol Wekina
There’s something inexplicable about the feeling you get when you’re in the middle of a dark theatre and you’re surrounded by people laughing at racist remarks specifically targeting your own marginalised community. The first time it happens, you swallow your surprise and laugh nervously. Maybe this was an unsuccessful attempt at satire. Fair enough, this show wasn’t written by Lin-Manuel Miranda. The second time it happens, your frustration builds and you clench your jaw. You try to brush it off, but it was too offensive to ignore. You hope, you pray that that was the last one. But then it happens again. And again. And again.
By the time the show is over, you’re experiencing a plethora of emotions. You’re annoyed that you wasted your time and money. You’re disappointed that those jokes were said, and you’re confused as to how they got approved in the first place. But most of all, you are gutted – it is 2018, you’re on the campus at a university supposedly dedicated to providing “a safe, respectful and secure place for students and staff”, and still everyone around you bursts into laughter when your race is the butt of the joke.
Comedy is a funny thing. It supposedly exists in its own dimension where rules don’t apply and anything goes. I would disagree. This mentality allows comedians to say the most derogatory and inflammatory things and play the victim when their content offends. Comedians are notorious for discussing everything from the mundane to the taboo, and it is often their more controversial works that land them in hot water. Comedy is not some abstract craft that absolves all its artists of any form of accountability – anything anyone says can and does have real life consequences.
Good comedy, however, is not derogatory or inflammatory. Yes, it is controversial, but it treats real life issues with respect and provides a commentary on the circumstances surrounding them. Good comedy is clever, it is fresh, it is original. Effective satire and authentic gallows humour are often employed to examine specific issues under a lens that exposes truth with laughter. Comedy, especially good comedy, can have the power to not only produce laughter but reflect on society and start a conversation.
UNSW’s Med Revue, “The Incredipills”, was not good comedy, and arguing that it was even comedy is a stretch in and of itself. The annual show had singing, dancing, acting, and live musical performances. But the most memorable thing for me was the blatant racism they tried to pass off as comedy.
“Which kid has the biggest dick in Grade 5? The white one or the black one?”
“The black one, because he was sixteen years old.”*
This was just one of the many “jokes” specifically targeting Black people during the entire performance. In just one “joke”, an actor had succeeded in both sexualising children and trivialising the education gap present here with Indigenous Australians and Black people abroad.
“Why do they say gardeners have a green thumb?”
“It’s a metaphor. Like, when you steal something and they say you’ve been caught red-handed. Your hands aren’t actually red… they’re black.”*
Another “joke” perpetuated the negative stereotype that Black people are thieves. Not only was this insensitive, but it completely submitted to the false, yet unfortunately widespread, notion that Black people are inherently criminals. This bias has been proven time and time again to be a deadly one, as seen in the cases of racialised police brutality that birthed #BlackLivesMatter and the Stop Black Deaths in Custody: Protest being held at Sydney Town Hall this Saturday (May 12).
Nothing was clever, fresh, or original in either of these moments during the show. If anything, they were vocalised reiterations of racist memes that have been floating around the internet for years. Furthermore, neither of these “jokes” can be classified as satire or gallows humour. Gallows humour requires someone with a lived experience of being Black to deliver the punchline. This was not the case. Satire requires wit, tact, and creativity. This was also not the case. Neither of these statements open up a conversation about the ways Black people navigate through and are treated by society. Instead, they were vilified and reduced to a punchline for cheap laughs.
The writing of this production was lazy. Instead of putting effort into creating content that was genuinely funny and original, the writers decided to turn to the archives of the mid 20th century and the corners of reddit for tips on how to make the most people laugh. If that was the goal, at least they succeeded. Because that theatre was filled with laughter. But as a Black man, I felt like they were laughing at me. I was the punchline. And even though I was spared the Blackface, the accents and stereotypes and caricatures were enough to leave me with a pit in my stomach for hours after the curtains had fallen.
When Tharunka reached out to the Med Revue Executives for a comment, a representative replied with the following statement:
“We sincerely apologise for the racist jokes present in the voice-overs of the show. The humour was inappropriate and in poor taste. We’d like to make it clear that the jokes are not the true opinions of anyone involved with the show and have been removed for the remainder of our show.”
Although it’s nice to hear that the two aforementioned “jokes” have been removed from the final show, it still doesn’t address the issues of accountability and the society’s culture that allowed for this type of content to be approved, let alone performed. The writers of this material need to answer for the racism they saw fit to incorporate into the show, and the entire team behind the approval of said material must be held accountable.
The Medical Revue Society needs to be held accountable for this gross demonstration of discrimination. “The Incredipills” was plagued with violations of UNSW’s Anti-Racism Policy and Arc’s Clubs Handbook. As such a large presence on campus, they cannot be allowed to access funding and spaces from Arc and UNSW if said sponsorship is being used to support racist performances. It is 2018. There is no room for racism on this campus anymore.
Updated Statement from Med Revue:
We’d like to begin by genuinely apologising for the hurt and insult that we have caused. It was not our intention to endorse the strong history of racism and discrimination faced by people of African American heritage nor any other culture we have offended.
UNSW Med Revue is intended to be a light-hearted sketch comedy show. When drafting and brainstorming the voiceovers, we used the internet as a resource to help generate some ideas. The particular voiceovers that have been noted were part of the content that we found online. Regardless, we should have been more critical of the content that we chose to use and we should have thought through the consequences of our actions more thoroughly. From Wednesday night to Thursday night, we had already removed some of the racist voiceovers because we were uncomfortable with the message that they portrayed, and have cut out all such jokes, comments and remarks for the final show on Friday night.
As individuals, we do not align with the intolerant and xenophobic views that they portrayed. Belonging to historically marginalised ethnic minority groups ourselves, we should have been more aware of the ramifications of perpetuating sentiments that disempower such groups. As students, we are grateful and wholeheartedly embrace the culture of inclusivity that UNSW fosters. We deeply regret our actions and would like to emphasise that they were not reflective of our beliefs as people.
UNSW Med Revue is a society that we hold dear to our hearts. It is an accepting, welcoming and inclusive society that brings people of all different cultures together and has greatly enriched the university lives of many students over the years.
We understand your response and respect your right to speak out on the actions that have caused offence and would like to extend our sincerest apologies. We fully accept fault for our actions and thank you kindly for bringing this to our attention.
Med Revue 2018 Voice Overs
*Quotes may not be listed verbatim
Note: UNSW’s Med Revue “The Incredipills” contained additional racist content targeting other racial and ethnic minorities. This article only addresses the anti-Black racism that was present because of the writer’s individual experience as a Black man.