It’s not about the parrot.

A friend of mine sent me a joke by email. Let’s call him ‘Fred’ (not his real name).The email came with a photo of a pretty young Muslim girl wearing a pink head covering. She had a coloured parrot sitting on her shoulder. It was a wonderful picture. 

Here is how the joke went:

“I was in a pet shop when I noticed a Muslim with the most amazingly coloured parrot perched on her shoulder.“Where did you get that from?” I asked.

“Christmas Island, Australia,!!!…There are thousands of ’em!” ……..said the Parrot.”

In response I emailed ‘Fred’ saying that I found the joke offensive and not funny. He replied and apologised as he didn’t intend to offend me.

While it is strong and courageous to apologise, he misses the point.
I didn’t seek an apology. Rather I would have preferred a realisation that the ‘joke’ was wrong as in our society many don’t see the harm ‘jokes’ like this can lead to.
In reply I asked ‘Fred’ to think back a few weeks to when the two French girls were yelled at on the bus in Melbourne. (see here)

I reminded ‘Fred’ that some bloody idiot thought it was somehow OK to abuse the French girls for the great crime of not speaking English. The Youtube commentators and international media asked not only why this yobbo yelled at the girls, they also rightly asked why no one on the bus came to their aid.

That is a good question. The abuse was bad, but a bus load of silent onlookers is perhaps even worse.

When failure to intervene becomes the norm, then abuse can get worse until you see things like commuters on an Indian bus remaining silent as a girl is raped. Silence is deadly over the long term.

I was a soldier once. In officer training we were taught moral courage and leadership. We were taught to look into our own hearts to know when things are right or wrong, when things are funny and when they are reinforcing stereotypes, or increasing hatred. We were taught to stand up when we see wrong being done.

I met ‘Fred’ during that Army training all those years ago. It is why we are still friends, and why I chose to take issue with him rather than just add his address to my spam filter. I said all of this to ‘Fred’ in a return email.

 ‘Fred’ is a grandfather now, so my email returned to the issue of the picture. The picture was pretty. Lovely girl. Probably a happy child.
But how would SHE feel knowing what her photo was used for, I asked Fred. How would ‘Fred’ feel if a photo of his granddaughter was circulated as the but of a joke?
I asked Fred how far we should let silence or consent continue? Is it ok to pass on a joke? Is it ok to stand by and watch someone bully a kid in the street if they were a Muslim? How would you feel if a big ‘Aussie’ bloke in the street yelled at a child and told her to take the headscarf off because it was ‘un Australian’?
You think it wouldn’t happen? Well ask the French girls how many people intervened to help them.
I still have faith that in his heart ‘Fred’ knows that a better thing to have done was to not send the ‘joke’. I’m sure he just needed a reminder of the lesson from army training that we all need to start with our own actions – or inactions.
I chose to remind him of the lesson of army training those years ago because Fred had been a trainer back then, not a student. He was one of the people that taught me the very lesson he seemed to have forgotten.
I was curious to see where ‘Fred’s’ email chain started so I scrolled down to see who initiated the ‘joke’? Surprisingly, even though the joke mentions Australia, the email began in the UK, a country with a greater proportion of Muslims than ours.
The issue of staying silent is not an issue between friends or even an issue that is just in Australia. It is global and we are all connected. It’s time we all stood up to vilification and to the tone of where our global society is heading – getting more polarised each day.


This becomes the point. We all know the old saying that all it takes for evil to triumph is when good men stay silent. But how many people stay silent now?

How many people reading this are thinking ‘it was only a joke, don’t get carried away’, or ‘what are you, the thought police’? How many people reading this article today have received ‘jokes’ like that and stayed silent, or worse still, hit the ‘forward’ button?

We must all ask ourselves where to draw our own line in the sand. Where does our moral courage start and finish? In the end this email exchange was not about Fred or my offence. It is about all of us. It is about where we choose to stand up, and when do we choose to stay silent. Think about your response next time you receive an innocent ‘joke’ in your email box.
Follow Andrew on
twitter @andrewmmacleod

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5 Replies to “It’s not about the parrot.”

  1. Andrew –
    What an interesting perspective. Setting aside the photo accompanying the email (which is a privacy discussion for another day), could you please kindly clarify, with specific reference to the parrot joke from “Fred”, what part of it you found to be offensive? Because I suspect you have defaulted to the simplistic, reactionary mindset: “reference to a Muslim in a joke automatically equals islamophobia”. Let's assess it. The joke is politically topical and factually accurate. The humor of the joke is derived from the unexpected and absurd punchline from a talking animal. There is no racial vilification or proponency of islamophobia. Slamming this as being “offensive”, and unfairly linking it to horrific racial abuse incidents, actually shows a deep lack of reasoned consideration on your part… and I think you need to deeply re-assess your position next time before you sanctimoniously chide an acquaintance over a private and relatively harmless joke shared between two friends.
    – Jay

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  2. P.S. I am trying to “join the discussion”, so if you would kindly make this post visible without any “editorial improvements” beforehand that would be terrific. Thanks, and looking forward to your reply.
    – Jay

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  3. You've asked for an explanation of what is offensive, so I've tried to deconstruct it below. However, judging from how much it upsets you that someone is offended by something you admit you don't understand, and judging from your preemptive defense against the response you anticipate from the author, (a) I don't think your request is genuine, (b) I still don't think you'll understand it, and (c) I suspect you're not a member of any minority groups that are subject to regular encounters of discrimination and as such have not been able to consciously realize the cultural pervasiveness of racism and discrimination. So I won't spend too much time on it.

    No element of a joke is irrelevant. If a joke makes reference to something, there is a reason for it. For example, it really doesn't matter what colour someone's hair is, but a joke about a blonde person is a reference (at least up in this hemisphere) to the stereotype of the “dumb blonde”.

    The punch line of the joke has to do with the role reversal of the parrot from being the pet to being the pet owner. That in and of itself isn't particularly offensive. One could argue that it objectifies the person on whose shoulder the parrot sits. In other words: the person is someone you can acquire or purchase as you can with a pet. Take out the reference to Muslim and to Christmas Island, and this is just an absurd comment that is an inherent part of the joke.

    But by affixing a demographic to the person–i.e. by saying that the parrot is on the shoulder of a Muslim as opposed to a generic person–the innocent role-reversal joke becomes a commentary about members of that demographic. The accompanying photo reinforces the importance of this element.

    If that demographic were pirate (i.e. “A pirate walks into a bar with a parrot on his shoulder”), that is a reference to a stereotype that pirates often have pet parrots. Relevant to the joke, reinforces the main point.

    I'm not, however, aware of any stereotypes about Muslims and parrots. Perhaps all the Muslims on Christmas Island walk around with parrots and I'm not aware of this because I'm not familiar with the local reference. Assuming this is not the case, the reader of the joke must then fill in the blank: why did the author include a references to Muslims and Christmas Island?

    The most likely reason I see is that the joke is a vehicle to make commentary on Muslim people. The primary comment is that there are thousands of Muslims on Christmas island (and this, for some reason, might be a bad thing), and the secondary one is something about the objectification of Muslims (a stretch, I admit).

    It could be that the author liked the photo of the parrot and was merely using the Muslim reference to describe the person in the photo for better continuity with the joke. Even if they did, they inadvertently made an innocent joke about a parrot into an offensive commentary about Muslims.

    – RG>

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    1. That’s interesting to me that you saw it as a negative reflection on Muslim people. I immediately laughed – largely in embarrassment – as I saw it it solely as a reflection on Australian people. I saw it immediately as an incisive and damning reminder of the heartless crimes we’re committing on Christmas Island and similar incarceration centres, specially with respect to children.

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