Nik Coppin and the context of race

6020_nik-solo_EFUL_GUIDEThe material in Nik Coppin Is Not Racist concerns an incident during Coppin’s last visit to Adelaide during the 2012 festival, wherein the mixed race Englishman was abruptly cut off air, thrown from the studio and subsequently labelled “racist” in print by local radio host, columnist, and middle class white guy Peter Goers.

Coppin’s use of this material for his 60 minute 2013 Adelaide Fringe set in the Austral’s “Red Room” is effective. His quick-fire, conversational story telling doesn’t overflow with obvious jokes or easy one-liners, but that can be refreshing and, particularly with this sort of politically and socially important material, more appropriate. The humour in this show comes from a building sense of farce and frustration at some of the racially abusive insults Coppin has copped from both white and black (but rarely Indian, he says) aggressors who label him “mongrel” or “half-caste” for his joint English-Barbadian heritage.

The set’s one big punch-line, of course, is Coppin’s recount of the events surrounding his 2012 interview with Goers. This story occupies the show’s second half and Coppin does an effective job of keeping his audience eager to find out more about the “ridiculous events” and “bizarre developments” in question.

*** ANECDOTAL SPOILER ALERT ***

While on air, Coppin began telling an historical, anecdotal story about his reasons for supporting the Essendon football club – a story the comedian has told on a number of occasions since first touring Australia several years ago. The black-with-red-sash uniformed Essendon Bombers currently boast Australian football’s highest level of indigenous participation, in terms of both players and fans. However, Coppin also learnt they had originally been nick-named “The Blood Stained Niggers”. Appreciating the progress in racial attitudes reflected by such a turn-around, Coppin began recounting the story at various gigs, including some at Essendon club functions. There was never a problem, and these audiences responded with the appropriate mix of historical shock, progressive head-shaking and, yes, laughter. Coppin’s description of a celebratory AFL match in which teams reverted to original colours and nicknames is particularly amusing. When pressed on why Essondon retained their current name and colours for the event, their president’s response was apparently to “shut the fuck up and stop asking questions.”

Having reached the punch-line on air with Peter Goers, however, Coppin had his microphone immediately cut off and was told to “get the fuck out of my studio” by Goers himself, who subsequently labelled the comedian a “painfully unfunny racist” in print. Coppin then launched and won legal proceedings, which required Goers to make a printed apology and retraction both for accusing Coppin of racism and, furthermore, awarding his show “minus 4 stars” despite not bothering to attend. Based on all this brouhaha, the appeal of Coppin’s new show is not primarily as stand-up comedy, but rather a comically narrated and politically relevant story about one person’s experience with how society approaches issues of racial identity and discrimination.

On one level, of course, it is perfectly reasonable to regulate the use of potentially offensive terms in the public sphere. In this sense, the context of the word matters less than its mere utterance. This was the case during a recent “censorship row” about the repeat broadcast of an old Fawlty Towers episode on BBC2, during which the cantankerous Major Gowen refers to “niggers” and “wogs” in a particularly hilarious piece of social satire. Some viewers complained about the airbrushing of history and “terminally thin skinned” political correctness, correctly pointing out “that the major is a racist old bigot, incongruous with modern society – even in the Seventies. The audience isn’t supposed to agree with him, they’re supposed to laugh at him.” However, the BBC’s explanation that “it made some minor changes to the show so it could be shown at the child-friendly time of 7.30pm” did seem, as The Guardian reported, “rather sensible.” The show was not censored because of overly sensitive, politically-correct-do-gooders. Rather, it was in the spirit of that good-old-fashioned conservative declamation, “think of the children!”

In his on-stage comments, Coppin acknowledges the legitimacy of censoring racial language during certain times or contexts, along the same lines as other “swear words”. He avoids the rhetorical over-reach of those otherwise well-intentioned BBC viewers. His material does not draw a false comparison between, on the one hand, regulating course language in parts of the public sphere and, on the other, repressing or deliberately misinterpreting discussion about racial identity or bigotry.

Coppin’s problem was not the cutting of his microphone to avoid uttering a bad word on air. Rather, it was the subsequent response of Goers both personally and in print that, for whatever reason, sought to label the comedian with a deeply offensive identity trait (that of racism) based solely on his use of an historically relevant and contextualised word. The fact that he was half-black, Coppin says, simply made the situation even more “farcical”. Australia’s often troubled engagement with racial issues also comes into play. Coppin argues thatin possibly the most racist westernised country on the planet,” someone of mixed heritage being called racist suggests a dangerously reductive view of the issue that seeks to ignore real, widespread manifestations of racism by focusing on semantics.

The lessons that Coppin’s experience serves to highlight are particularly relevant, not just in regard to race but all forms of identity politics, in a time when public discourse has been largely reduced to sound bites, simplistic rhetoric and party slogans by all sides of politics, left and right, activists or governments alike. As Coppin points out,

racism is a horrible and backward thinking way of life, but there are massive differences between race hate, a joke about a race, a racist joke, a story about race etc. People seem all to quick to lump anything to do with race in one basket, which is totally wrong in my opinion. By all means stamp out racism, but don’t do it by way of brushing it under the carpet.

In this context of simplified public discourse, outrage culture and what many have called excessive “political correctness,” labelling people as haters, bigots or reactionaries has itself become one of the most acceptable, widely utilised and intellectually lazy form of abuse. As Coppin says, “since intelligent and forward-thinking people know that [racist] people are to be looked down upon and shunned, I like to use the term, ‘Racists are the new niggers’ … Mr Goers … has by calling me a racist, in effect, called me a nigger himself.”

Nik Coppin should be applauded, both for turning his own unpleasant experience into effective comedy, and for tapping into such an important, relevant set of issues for contemporary society, culture and politics. PLUS 3 stars.

Nik Coppin Is Not Racist runs until Thursday 14 March at the Austral Hotel – Red Room

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