Question Hemalatha Languages

Use of Humour to Disguise Racial Insults in "To Sir, With Love"

Racial insults can be thinly disguised as humour. Do you support the statement? Give examples from ER Braithwaite’s "To Sir, With Love".

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The text selected for this assessment is ER Braithwaite’s autobiographical novel To Sir, With Love. The novel, first published in 1959, documents the experiences of a young male Afro-Caribbean teacher working in an inner London school serving a predominately white working class community. Philips (2005) notes that race is a central theme in To Sir, With Love, and that Braithwaite does not shy from documenting the ways in which bigotry, racism, and questions of identity are central to the protagonist – also named Braithwaite – and his experiences of living and working in London.

Racist attitudes to Braithwaite (the character) are often coded and disguised as humour in To Sir, With Love. In his first encounter with staffroom colleagues, the term “black sheep” is conflated with the term “lamb to the slaughter” by a teacher, marking Braithwaite out as both a new teacher in a troubled environment, and as other in respect of his colour (Braithwaite, 2005, p. 14). Braithwaite notes the joke and the insult combination and resolves to be “ready, willing, and I hoped, able to take a joke about myself” (Braithwaite, 2005, p. 14). Elsewhere, Braithwaite is referred to by Weston, a colleague, as “our sunburned friend” (Braithwaite, 2015, p. 25). Here, the new teacher is being shown around the school, but at once in this remark is framed as both one of the teachers, and yet apart, in respect of the reference to skin colour, in a way which may be jocular but also reinforces otherness in a racist way. Through examples such as these Braithwaite is able to show that racist insults can be coded through use of humour; this does not, though, mitigate them.


Braithwaite, E.R. (2005) To Sir, With Love. London: Vintage Classics.

Philips, C. (2005) ‘Introduction’, in Braithwaite, E. To Sir, With Love. London: Vintage Classics, pp. 1–4.