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Ethnic Police Humor as Ethnic Boundary-Making in the Swedish Police Force

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Published onApr 01, 2019
Ethnic Police Humor as Ethnic Boundary-Making in the Swedish Police Force


All professions display their own specific humor shaped by the occupational culture, type of work, and working conditions defining them. In this article, the role of ethnic jokes and banter in police humor, including their functions and consequences, are investigated drawing upon interviews with Swedish police employees from an ethnic minority background. A typology is developed containing six distinct types of ethnic police humor. Based on it, some of the ways in which ethnic boundary-making occurs and operates within the Swedish police force are analyzed. The consequences of ethnic humor for police work both internally within the police organization and externally, in the daily work of police officers out on the street, are examined. Particular attention is paid to the police’s interactions with the public and, more in general, to the role of ethnic police humor in contributing to the production and reproduction of an ethnified social order.


Just like all the other professions, also the police have their own specific type of workplace humor, reflecting the police’s occupational culture, the character of the work the officers do, and their working conditions. This humour is regulated by implicit rules concerning the “safe places”, social contexts, and social situations suitable for its exercise, and by a shared understanding that the use of the humor in question is to remain confined to those present and not to be shared with or relayed to one’s superiors, family members, or friends, or members of the general public (Gayadeen & Philips, 2015; Holdaway, 1988; Sollund, 2007; Uhnoo, 2013; Waddington, 1999). In this article, the focus, however, is not on police humor overall, but on a specific subtype of it, namely, ethnic police humor. Humour as such, researchers agree, is a complicated social phenomenon: it is “more readily demonstrated than described” (Hatch & Ehrlich 1993, p. 506) and remains intrinsically contradictory in its nature, relying on a relationship evincing “a peculiar combination of friendliness and antagonism” (Radcliffe-Brown, 1952, p. 91). For the purposes of this article, ethnic humor refers to a particular type of humor manifesting itself as joking that uses cultural, national, linguistic, or physical aspects of ethnicity as its material. It represents “a type of humor in which fun is made of the perceived behavior, customs, personality, or any type of other traits of a group or its members by virtue of their specific sociocultural identity” (Apte, 1987, p. 27).

The article departs from the theory of police humor developed by Pogrebin and Poole (1988), which it also attempts to develop further. Its aim is two-fold: to examine different types of ethnic police humor as encountered inside the police force, and to consider the consequences of that humor for police work and mission. The main question guiding the investigation is whether, when, and how ethnic police humor might serve the function of ethnic boundary-making, or “a process of constituting and re-configuring groups by defining the boundaries between them” (Wimmer, 2008, p. 1027). To better illustrate how ethnicity can be made and unmade in the everyday interaction between individuals within the police, a typology of ethnic police humor is developed. The focus in the examination is, however, not only on how such mechanisms for ethnic boundary-making among the police function per se: what the discussion also concerns itself with is how the analyzed ethnic police humor influences police work, both internally within the police organization and externally, in the daily work of police officers out on the street. Here, particular attention is paid to the police’s interactions with the public and, more generally, to the role ethnic police humor may have in contributing to the production and reproduction of an ethnified social order in contemporary Swedish society.

Police humor, blue humor, and racism in the police

The sort of black humor cultivated in police organizations and the police profession more in general is also known as “blue humor.” That humor has been proposed to have the function of serving as a resource or a tool that police individuals, groups, and organizations can use to facilitate the successful performance of, or even enable, their daily work (e.g., Alexander & Wells, 1991; Charman, 2013; Fletcher, 1996; Gayadeen & Philips, 2015; Kerkkänen, Kuiper, & Martin, 2004; Pogrebin & Poole, 1991, 1988; Vivona, 2014; Waddington, 1999; Young, 1995). From another angle, it has also been described as an integral part of a police culture marked by hegemonic masculinity, cynicism, aggressiveness, scepticism, unfriendliness, prejudices, homophobia, sexism, and racism (e.g., Cashmore, 2001; Holdaway, 1997; Loftus, 2009; Reiner, 1992).

Only a few studies, however, have focused on the uses and functions of blue humor. Among the exceptions is Pogrebin and Poole (1988), who, based on data from their yearlong ethnographic field research on a US American police station, identify four types of strategic use their study participants had for humor. In their study, blue humor was used for audience degradation, normative neutralization, diffusion of danger/tragedy, and jocular aggression. The first two uses concern aspects frequently addressed in critically oriented police culture research, such as on racism in the police force (e.g., Holdaway, 1997; Loftus, 2009; Sollund, 2007). As Pogrebin and Poole (1988, p. 196–197) formulate it, audience degradation refers to “humorous putdowns of complainants served to promote the police sense of moral superiority and to maintain the dichotomy between police and policed.” Normative neutralization, on the other hand, involves police’s use of humor to play down the seriousness of job-related incidents occurring, or actions committed, in the grey zones of the law when recounting them to colleagues. This type of humor is something the police are socialized to use, and it helps to define the norms that guide one’s work actions in practice: it provides “examples of informal standards and expectations for behavior by which officers may be judged” (Pogrebin & Poole, 1988, p. 202; see also Fletcher, 1996). Diffusion of danger/tragedy, for its part, involves police’s use of humour to express emotions that otherwise might be deemed as incongruent with their professional image as confident and fearless (Pogrebin & Poole, 1988, p. 197; see also Charman, 2013; Kerkkänen et al., 2004; Waddington, 2009; Young, 1995). Pogrebin and Poole’s fourth, and final, type of strategic use of humor by the police, jocular aggression, is defined as “a humorous attack against supervisory or management personnel” that provides police employees with a means to collectively and in an acceptable fashion criticize rules, guidelines, and orders from superiors (Pogrebin & Poole, 1988, p. 189; cf. Loftus, 2009). Altogether, Pogrebin and Poole’s typology presents itself as a comprehensive account of the strategic uses of police humor in the particular context of the police organization. Yet, the question remains as to whether, and how, the model may also lend itself to understanding the specific phenomenon of ethnic police humor.

Examining that question a little more closely, in this article, a suggestion will be made to the effect that Pogrebin and Poole’s model stands in need of further development if it is to be able to contribute to a sociological understanding of ethnic police humor, its particular nature, and meanings. One of the difficulties involved in applying the model to ethnic police humor is that it does not sufficiently take into account the significance of horizontal power structures among the police: the kind of internal power relations that shape interactions among police colleagues at the same level in the organization. In Pogrebin and Poole’s analysis, such colleagues form a uniform group characterized by consensus, mutual solidarity, mutual loyalty, and a shared sense of humor unifying the group internally while distancing it externally from superiors and the general public.

This image contrasts sharply with the one presented by contemporary police research, however, which shows gay, women, and ethnic minority officers and police employees in especial to work in hierarchies built around mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion, and not just of vertical but also of horizontal kind (e.g., Cashmore, 2001; Fletcher, 1996; Holdaway, 1997; Lander, 2013; Loftus, 2009; Miller, Forest, & Jurik, 2003; Peterson & Uhnoo, 2012, 2013; Uhnoo, 2013; van Ewjik, 2011). Several studies have investigated the racial/ethnic discrimination within the police force itself, exposing different forms of exclusionary practices directed at ethnic minorities (e.g., Haarr, 1997; Martin, 1994; Progrebin, Dodge, & Chatman, 2000; Stroshine & Brandl, 2011; Wilson & Wilson, 2014). Holdaway (1997, p. 30), for instance, found police humor in the British police workforce to often be directed at fellow officers who externally deviated from the standard: “officers who are overweight, religious, short in height, and others defined as deviating from what is regarded as the norm.” Also in Sweden, police employees from minority backgrounds have been found to often be met with distrust and scepticism from their co-workers, having frequently to cope with subtle forms of exclusion and discrimination along with ethnic jokes “testing” whether they can be relied on and are loyal towards their non-minority co-workers and the police agency more in general (Peterson & Uhnoo, 2012, 2013; Uhnoo, 2013). In this article, consequently, the focus is on the possibility that not just vertical, but also horizontal power structures within the police workforce might serve as the basis and topics of ethnic police jokes and humor, becoming either reproduced or challenged in the process.


This qualitative study focuses on different types of ethnic police humor as encountered inside the police force. The empirical material was collected in 2011 as part of a broader study of the working conditions of Swedish police employees with a foreign background (Peterson & Uhnoo, 2012, 2013; Uhnoo, 2013). In 2010 Swedish Radio aired a critical programme on “racism within the police.” Police employees with an ethnic minority background testified anonymously in the programme to widespread discrimination and abusive jargon directed at ethnic minorities. In the wake of the ensuing media debate, a local Police Commander in a large municipal police authority appointed an external inquiry into the situation for ethnic minority employees. Uhnoo and a colleague were contacted to conduct the evaluation, and this article draws on the data collected for this larger research project (Peterson & Uhnoo, 2012, 2013; Uhnoo, 2013).

A purposive sample of twenty-one police employees working for a large municipal police authority and identifying themselves as “a person with a foreign background” were interviewed. The study participants were recruited through a notice posted on the Swedish police's intranet system. The study participants were to share their views and experience of their own working environment within their police organization and of the working environment of this particular group of police employees more in general, and present any suggestions they might have for changes and improvements to make the police organization a better workplace for employees with a foreign background. Their anonymity was guaranteed, and the participants were invited to read the report prior to its release.

Twenty individuals responded to the call, nine of whom were women. Seven respondents worked as civilian police staff, while the rest were uniformed officers. One additional woman participant joined the project at a later stage. The interviewees formed a heterogeneous group. Some had worked for the police authority for more than 20 years, while others had significantly shorter work experience. The work roles and responsibilities varied notably depending on the police district one worked for, the department and unit one belonged to, one’s exact work position and tasks, and so forth. The “foreignness” of their background meant anything from having been born in the country from parents of whom at least one was born outside it, to having oneself been born in another country in or outside Europe or to having been adopted from abroad by Swedish parents. Only one interviewee hailed entirely from another Nordic country. The interviewees had lived in Sweden for different durations, and their religion, skin color, mother tongue, and degree of foreign accent in Swedish varied.

Semi-structured face-to-face interviews were conducted on the influence of foreign background on conditions of work in the police organization, especially concerning the role of jargon, humor, and ethnic jokes by police employees. The interviews were recorded with the subject's consent. They lasted from one to two and a half hours, and were conducted in locations of the interviewee's choosing, such as university rooms or offices, cafes, pubs/bars, and libraries, and sometimes the interviewee's workplace. Participation was voluntary, and participants could withdraw at any time without consequences. To ensure the confidentiality of the participants, all identifiers of date, time, place, the interviewee's position, and ethnicity were removed from the transcripts and other interview materials.

The starting point for the analysis of the 21 digitally recorded and verbatim transcribed interviews was a constructivist grounded theory approach (Charmaz, 2000), but the grounded theory guidelines were used “as flexible tools rather than [...] as rigid rules” (Hallberg, 2009, p. 141). In accordance with a grounded theory approach, I did not formulate any hypothesis about ethnic police humor in advance and tried to approach the data with as few preconceptions as possible. Initial open coding was carried out whereby data were examined line by line to discover and name recurring concepts or ideas and to ensure sensitivity to unanticipated data patterns (Charmaz, 2000). Tentative categories and relationships were identified from these recurring concepts. In the next phase, a core category was selected (ethnic humor), and the products of the open coding process were sorted into seven larger identifiable general codes related to the core category: police humor in general, ethnic discrimination/harassment, ethnic stereotypes, ethnic slurs, and explanations for ethnic humor, as well as experiences of ethnic humor and ways of managing incidents of it. Although open coding was used, the analyses also involved a significant deductive element with a back-and-forth movement between the data and the theoretical tools. In the final step of the analysis, the data were analyzed and interpreted with the help of sensitizing concepts (Bowen, 2006), such as Pogrebin and Poole’s categories of police humor and Wimmer’s concept of “ethnic boundary-making,” and concepts and ideas from previous research on police culture, ethnic minorities within the police force, profession-specific humor, and discrimination in working life. In this last step, I focused the analysis on types of ethnic police humor and the social functions of different types.

The result of this analytical and interpretative process was a typology of ethnic humor in the police force consisting of six categories. The first four categories are derived from Pogrebin and Poole's (1988) study, and their concepts are extended to apply specifically to ethnic police humor. The final two expand the original theory with two additional theoretical concepts grounded in the analysis of the empirical material in this study but taken from previous research on discrimination in working life and on rebellious forms of humor such as black, feminist, or queer humor. To enhance the study’s validity, the analytical codes were reviewed and revised using the constant comparison method (Hallberg, 2006). Peer review was conducted by other researchers to check the reliability and validity of interviews and interpretation. 


A typology of ethnic police humor

The analysis yielded a new typology of ethnic humor in the police force. Extending on research on organizational or profession-specific humor, police humor, and racism in the police, the typology consists of six categories reflecting the multi-faceted function of police humor at the workplace:

  • Derogatory jokes about police clients;

  • emotional labor;

  • norm-neutralization;

  • resistance to “political correctness”;

  • subtle discrimination;

  • anti-racist resistance.

In the following, each of these categories is presented, described, and discussed, before moving on to a concluding discussion about the effects and consequences of ethnic humor in the police force. The main focus in the examination is on the extent to which ethnic police humor might function as a mechanism for ethnic boundary-making among and by the employees of the police. 

Derogatory jokes about police clients

This first type of ethnic police humor identified in the data for this study is rather similar to Pogrebin and Poole’s (1988) audience degradation. It involves the telling of ethnic jokes referring to cultural, national, linguistic, or physical appearance-related aspects of ethnicity to disparage or ridicule a person or persons, in the interest of strengthening a shared sense of the moral superiority of the police and the corresponding inferiority of the police’s clients. The humor in question is often of an inclusionary nature, and it is aimed at promoting a sense of solidarity by confirming and enforcing social boundaries; thereby, it can thus also be exclusionary in nature, effecting separation through the creation of distinctions and difference between the police and those policed (Pogrebin & Poole, 1988; Sollund, 2007). It is the humor of superiority, used to position oneself and one’s kind accordingly in relation to others, typically by means of scapegoating (Charman, 2013).

Ethnic humor as practiced among the police gains its profession-specific character from the fact that it, to a large extent, consists of jokes presenting either “immigrants” in general or some individual ethnic group in particular as connected to illegitimate behaviors in society. Accordingly, it tends to be negative, often disparaging in its basic tone, serving typically as a tool for ethnic boundary-making linked to an exercise of moral demarcation. One joke recounted during the interviews for this study went: “What’s the worst thing for a Gypsy/Bosniak to run into? A bicycle with 1,000 locks.” The ethnic humor engaged in could, however, also be about naming, about jocularly calling an ethnic group by a disparaging or derisive name (cf. Finstad, 2000; Granér, 2014; Sollund, 2007; Uhnoo, 2013; Van Maanen, 1978; Waddington, 1999). Terms reported about here included “nigger,” “Arab militant,” “Taliban leader,” and other similar epithets. The last mentioned was used about a man who happened to walk by: “Hey, check out, that’s got to be a Taliban leader, right?” The officer’s intention was to sound a humorous note, but, in this case, his audience, another officer, responded with annoyance, seeing the comment as something that, if heard by outsiders, could undermine the public’s trust in the police.

While ethnic stereotypes were commonly portrayed through jokes of this kind, told among co-workers, they were also given non-verbal expression in the police’s concrete encounters with ethnic minorities. In such cases, the question was often of making fun of or ridiculing individuals from an ethnic minority background, in front of a public consisting of one’s police co-workers. One interviewee in this study recounted an incident where his colleagues from another police unit mocked a person who, speaking with a foreign accent, had called in to request information about a detained relative. Instead of providing the information, the police employees present in the room began to imitate the caller’s accent and satirized him through song. The kind of ethnic humor practiced here served to manifest the power position of the police vis-à-vis the general public and the dependency relationship in which those seeking the police’s help find themselves.

What is also important, however, is that even when the joking was aimed at others—not one’s co-workers and colleagues—it could also result in the drawing up of hierarchical oppositions between “Swedes” and “non-Swedes” within the organization itself, leaving police employees from a minority background feeling mistrusted and excluded (cf. Holdaway, 1997; Uhnoo, 2013). 

Emotional labor

This category of ethnic police humor entails the use of humor as a means for preparing oneself for, handling, or afterward working through in a shared process certain on-the-job experiences encountered in one’s profession (cf. Hochschild, 1983; Gayadeen & Philips, 2015). This definition corresponds to the dominant view, presented for example by Waddington (2009), of police humor as a functional strategy and necessary resource for the backstage handling of the tensions of police work and for dealing with emotionally charged incidents and/or emotionally stressful, even traumatic, events at work (see also Charman, 2013; Kerkkänen et al., 2004; Loftus, 2009; Pogrebin & Poole, 1991; Young, 1995). Humour is here assumed to create solidarity and facilitate the effective performance of police work. In that capacity, the kind of jocular story-telling typically engaged in by the police may indeed be considered to serve the purposes of on-going therapy and function as a social glue (Fletcher 1996).

The police employees in this study explained and sought to rationalize and legitimize ethnic police humor in similar terms. It was stated, for instance, that, compared to most other professions, the police needed to engage in “rougher” or “coarser” in-group banter in order to be able to deal with the everyday stress, fear, anger, and frustration brought by their job, especially those on patrol duty. Ethnic humor was seen to constitute an unavoidable reaction to work-related “frustration” caused, for instance, by people from a certain ethnic group who were seen as certain to have committed a crime while nevertheless managing to go unpunished. At times, this could then, the interviewees suggested, in a flare of tempers resulting from the frustration lead to expressing oneself in a biased way about ethnic minorities. As one study participant put it, “You have to keep in mind that police officers who in their work deal with that clientele all the time – I mean, you’re no more than a human being, and eventually it just gets to be a bit too much.” Many of the interviewees spoke of police employees using metaphors from mechanics such as “pressure-cookers” holding in emotions to the bursting point where they no longer can be contained, or “a boiling point” where “the steam needs to come out.” In such situations, the interviewees explained, ethnic jokes served the necessary function of a safety valve, allowing one a quick, situationally induced affective response serving the purposes of emotional discharge and relief (cf. Billig, 2005). As one interviewee stressed, officers regularly found themselves in difficult and trying situations that entailed significant risk, especially in the more outlying, socio-economically segregated areas of the cities: “to do your rounds here on a Saturday night or go out into the suburbs, that’s no joke; you’re putting your life at risk”.

The general understanding was that the reason for officers’ frequently felt need to engage in ethnically blunt joking was that, in their line of work, they frequently found themselves in emotionally trying and even hostile situations in which the (adversarial) individuals encountered were from ethnic minority backgrounds. In these circumstances, ethnic joking then offered them a way to perform the kind of emotional labor required for successfully coping with one’s everyday realities (cf. Reiner, 2000; Sollund, 2007; Uhnoo, 2013). As this manner of speaking about the causes and functions of ethnic police humor indicates, the police employees in this study had construed the nature of police work as involving stressful, high-pressure situations that nevertheless required from one unswerving bravery, even capability for heroism. At the same time, however, it also implied an image of police work as a form of ethnic boundary-making through which an ethnified view of society is created and re-created.

Norm neutralization

The police profession is known for its highly developed internal, and in some cases even internally segmented and compartmentalized, storytelling culture (Fletcher, 1991). In this study, ethnic police humor as norm neutralization implied humorous re-telling of situations involving police employees’ work-related encounters with ethnic minorities. One of the interviewed officers, for example, recounted an occasion in the station canteen where a co-worker of his joked humorously about the way he had lured a little Muslim boy to eat a piece of sausage with pork in it; the story prompted hearty laughter among the co-worker’s audience (while the interviewee felt his colleague’s behavior to have been “disgusting”). According to the interviewees, such stories were indeed typically met with laughter and amusement by the police employees listening to them. When no one present questions the jocular tone being used in their narration, the stories can, however, have the effect of making the breaches against norms, values, and even laws described in them appear less problematic as police behavior. That way, they may help legitimize the use of discriminatory practices among law enforcement officials (cf. Pogrebin & Poole, 1988; Fletcher, 1991). Accordingly, police employees, for instance, who in this study shared a laugh together over a story of a Polish truck driver made to wait for help longer than others at the reception desk of their police station might, through their participation in the ethnic humor, have helped legitimize future discriminatory behaviors of similar sort among their colleagues.

Resistance to “political correctness”

The above three types of ethnic police humor all involved police employees laughing together at people outside of their profession – ethnic minorities or “immigrants” as a group. Sometimes, however, the humor was directed at superiors in the police organization, against what one perceived as hypocrisy or excessive political correctness among police management, the media, or the general public (cf. Pogrebin and Poole’s jocular aggression). The joking or ironical commentary/sarcasm could in these cases be targeted at the official rhetoric of the police, an on-going police reform work, or the police authority’s prevailing policies and core values regarding issues such as diversity and anti-discrimination. Here the humor was rebellious in nature, and it was resorted to by individuals in a hierarchically subordinate position, to undermine what one perceived as repressive or oppressive discourses promoted by superiors (cf. Godfrey, 2016; Holmes, 2000). Since the jocular tone hid the felt dissatisfaction underneath it, ethnic jokes could safely and without public consequences be used for criticizing police leadership (cf. Loftus, 2009; Pogrebin & Poole, 1988).

Somewhat similarly, Sefton (2011, p. 10) has identified an informal practice within the Swedish police, one the police themselves unofficially call the “Core Values Timeout” (värdegrunds-timeout), in which humorous banter or language is used by police employees to “joke about that which they are not supposed to joke about.”1 In the present study, ethnic humor was used to criticize what many of the police employees either interviewed or referred to in the interviews saw as the police’s secret affirmative-action recruitment strategy favoring ethnic minority applicants. The humor in these cases consisted of jokes and sarcastic comments ridiculing the suggestion that officers with a minority background would present an asset for the police organization, as the official line on the police force diversification efforts had had (and continues to have) it. One of the interviewed officers, for instance, himself from a Finnish background, jocularly questioned the assumption that foreign-born officers with “un-police-like” looks would bring something special for the force, being, for instance, particularly well-suited for undercover surveillance operations in ethnically segregated suburbs; breaking out in laughter, his response to the suggestion was:

If that's what they want, then they could also just send me in, as I’m one of the few around here who’d actually be able to stake out a brown shirt party in Svenljunga [a small Swedish village]. I’d blend in pretty well with my face, with my hairstyle, with my personality, if that’s the type of people they’re interested in.

The jocular resistance towards perceived excessive political correctness could in this study also derive from dissatisfaction with the rules and regulations that governed the police’s actions and speech. The preferred means of expressing the resistance in these cases was irony and sarcasm, as in the case of the following officer commenting laughingly on the Swedish police’s prohibition against using racial and ethnic descriptors in crime reports:

It gets a bit ridiculous when you’re supposed to report, say, an on-going break-in or a beating and you describe the suspect … as you can’t just go out and say it’s a nigger [neger]. … If it’s people coming from Africa, you know, they can be Arabs or they can be niggers so black they’re almost blue. I mean, they all look different. […] you know, they all look different in Africa. It gets so contrived if you know what I mean.

The police employees who resorted to this kind of ethnic humor positioned themselves as underdogs in their organization, with their humor functioning as part of an informal culture of resistance. A tool by which to create solidarity among co-workers and colleagues, the ethnic humor in these cases targeted the media, police management, the public, and what was perceived as an externally or from above imposed political correctness, one, moreover, that was seen as creating injustice and inequality (affirmative action policies and practices), unnecessarily complicating police routines (crime reporting), and implicitly suggesting that individual officers or the police organization as a whole were biased, prejudiced, or even racist, needing to be “corrected”. The most problematic aspect of this humor can thus be said to be its ability to undermine the effectiveness and even real implementation of the police’s diversity policies, core values, and anti-discrimination/anti-racism measures (cf. Fletcher, 1996; Loftus, 2009). 

Subtle discrimination 

Sometimes, the ethnic humor described in this study could also serve the purposes of exclusion, through ethnic boundary-making between different categories of police employees or through the construction of in-groups and out-groups within the police organization (cf. Charman, 2013). The joking in these cases took the form of subtle everyday discrimination of certain police employees. Also in other interviews with minority police employees, descriptions of such negative effects of ethnic police humor on the psycho-social work environment have been put forth, such as a feeling of disempowerment (e.g., Holdaway, 1997; Uhnoo, 2013). The ethnic minority interviewees in this study overall felt ethnic police humor to be “tiresome,” “unnecessary,” “vulgar,” “stupid,” “unprofessional,” “annoying,” and “embarrassing.” One interviewee stated that if she wanted to be entertained, she would go and listen to a stand-up comedian, preferring not to be subjected to prejudiced jokes at her workplace. The jokes her colleagues told about certain ethnic groups left a lump in her throat along with, despite often laughing together with the others in the actual situation, “a bitter taste in the mouth” and “a knot in the stomach.”

Making fun about a co-worker’s ethnic affiliation was one way for police employees to engage in discriminatory behavior in a “safe” way, without the risk of appearing prejudiced, biased, or narrow-minded. Jokes tend to be easy to legitimize or rationalize, both by those themselves who tell them and by the members of their audience – it was all said “in jest,” “just a joke” (cf. Billig, 2001). As one interviewee in this study described his experience of such brushing away of possible criticism:

I’ve sometimes objected to them. “Oh, we’re just joking,” they counter. But for me, that joking has gone a bit too long. I don’t think [it’s fun] with all those generalizations … about darkies [blattar] here, darkies there, and so on.

The joking could, however, also be about one’s colleagues or even co-workers who were seen as deviating from the police norm. The interviewees described how their co-workers joked about and made fun of them because of their minority background. There were anecdotes such as “I’ve got this co-worker who says: ‘My wallet’s still here!’ when I come and sit down nearby” and, describing the kind of loud joking engaged in by another interviewee’s fellow police employees when seeing him, “Hold on to your wallets, here comes [an epithet for a person from a certain country]!” A third interviewee told of how he had received from his co-workers an outboard motor as a birthday present, although he did not own a boat: a popular joke in his unit was that outboard motors in Sweden are most often stolen by people from his ethnic background, so the present was now given as a preventative measure in order for him, so the presenters suggested, not to need to steal one himself. Such jokes all associated the police employees’ ethnicity with a criminal lifestyle and thus insinuated that they, too, were potential thieves.

Another interviewee, a Muslim, recounted an incident where a co-worker showed him a film clip on his mobile phone in which a Muslim person was shot to death. Throughout the film, the person showing it kept laughing while the interviewee felt it all to be extremely offensive. Yet another interviewee reported about how a co-worker of his, calling up another police unit in official matters and introducing himself, got a response that “But we’ve got no Alis here [in our unit]”, followed by a laughter and “We’ll just have to come down and take a look at you.” There were also reports of similar behavior from the interviewees’ time at the police academy. One interviewee, for instance, was instructed during boxing training that she, owing to her immigrant background, would play the part of “the Darkie” [blatten] while her sparring partner, who was ethnically Swedish, got to act as “the Police Officer.”

Such subtle discrimination through demeaning ethnic humor is often unconscious and unintended (see Van Laer & Janssens, 2011). However, even where this is so – and in some cases the jokes and humor can be thought to be funny also by those targeted by them – the use of ethnic humor by police employees can have the effect of preventing those in the organization with a foreign or minority background from feeling themselves included in the workplace or even professional community. When, in this study, police employees invoked ethnicity by positing co-workers or colleagues as “immigrants” or as belonging to some specific ethnic category, the persons in question were put forth as a deviation from the “Swedish” police norm and their membership as “immigrant officers” in the national police community was no longer so obvious and automatically accepted a fact.

Anti-racist resistance

Paradoxically enough, however, ethnic police humor could also lend itself to use as a form of anti-racist resistance by ethnic minority employees themselves (cf. Holdaway, 1988, p. 86). Some interviewees had used their own ethnic background to create and express self-ethnicizing humor (cf. Wieslander, 2014, p. 254). As police humor, this was typical of rather rebellious or subversive nature, resembling what in other contexts has been termed as black, feminist, or queer humor (e.g., Boskin & Dorison, p. 1985; Chiaro & Baccolini, 2014). Through this kind of humor, different groups endeavor to “reinterpret or change the normative principles of stratified ethnic systems” (Wimmer, 2008, p. 1037), either by displaying pride about their ethnicity or by stressing universal similarities between people (“all police employees are equally competent”). Self-deprecating ethnic humor can be geared at demonstrating the irrelevance of the prevailing ethnic categorizations in the case of some specific individual or group, through a form of ethnic boundary-making that Wimmer (2008) has termed ‘individual boundary crossing' or ‘re-positioning.' In such efforts, the question is thus not about attempts to change the way ethnic boundaries have been drawn, but rather about finding individual strategies for managing, coping, or coming to terms with the existing demarcations.

In this study, such humor was sometimes geared at highlighting the absurdity, even ludicrousness, of the ethnic boundaries drawn and assumed, but at other times it was aimed directly at racism, ethnic prejudices or biases, or a lack of ethnic diversity experienced or perceived within the police organization. One interviewee, for example, told of how a co-worker of hers drew attention to the ethnic homogeneity of her workplace, by, during a training day where also police employees from other units were present, loudly stating during the introductions that “We’re the mandatory darkie representation [blattekvoten] here today.” Just like humor as an expression of resistance to superiors more in general, ethnic humor can have the effect of creating solidary and fellowship among the excluded, subordinated police employees (cf. Holdaway, 1988). One woman police employee, for instance, described how she and her co-worker, who both came from a foreign background, together “laughed a lot at the situations” as their way to respond to for prejudices being expressed. In one case when the two, in their capacity as police officers, were to give testimony in court but were mistaken for family members of those accused, who simply happened to be originally from the same country as them.

To initiate humor, to play along, or to joke back in such cases often represented a conscious, even a deliberate strategic, choice on the part of the person in the subordinate position. Some interviewees went as far as describing that choice as a survival strategy they had to resort to in order to be able to deal with the prejudices and curiosity of their co-workers and the public. Couching one’s issues in laughter provides an opportunity for highlighting forbidden, politically charged subjects difficult to take up using a more serious tone of voice (Emerson 1969), such as precisely, racial or ethnic bias among one’s police colleagues. In one case in this study, for example, a woman police employee and her co-worker, both with a “non-Swedish” appearance, responded to criticism directed at them by a fellow police employee whom they felt to be racist, by jokingly turning to each other and noting about the latter that “he sure doesn’t like wogs”. This was a form of reverse stigmatization (see Wimmer 2008, p. 1037) whereby those from a majority background were posited as racists by those normally representing the stigmatized group.

The question, however, needs be posed here as to whether, in these kinds of setups, it is even possible for one not to play along with the prevailing rules and initiate joking or humor in similar situations (cf. Holdaway, 1988). Among the police corps in Sweden at least, there appears to be a strong norm according which police employees from foreign backgrounds are supposed to joke about themselves, laugh at their own expense, and be prepared to tolerate others making fun of their ethnic background (Uhnoo, 2013). As also evidence from this study suggests, it seems indeed more of a privilege than a right to not to have to hear ethnic jokes or humor aimed at oneself, or to resort to ethnic joking about oneself, when coming from a foreign background. Can the humor practiced then really be rebellious in nature, contributing to the building of, or genuinely expressing, a culture of resistance towards a dominant form of police talk? Or is it rather of a counterproductive kind, one that, instead of advancing resistance, ends up merely reproducing the ethnic boundaries, the differentiations, and the distinctions it initially aimed to object to?

Concluding discussion: Ethnic police humour and its effects

The above analysis of the forms and functions of ethnic police humor shows its complex, multi-dimensional, and ambivalent character. Just as other profession-specific humor, also police humor can have both an inclusive and an exclusive effect when used for the purposes of boundary-drawing, either vis-à-vis outsiders or within one's work community/organization. In this study, it could be aimed at those above or below oneself in the organization, and it could target individual persons, groups or categories of people, policies, or standards of behavior. 

Accordingly, also the potential effects and consequences of ethnic police humor were multiple and variable: it was used, for instance, to produce increased solidarity, loyalty, or mutual trust among police employees, or to provide an arena for resistance to orders, resolutions, directives, or commands issued from above. In terms of its consequences for police work, the ethnic police humor described in this article had the potential to directly affect the police in four distinct ways, either externally or internally. To begin with, as a form of ethnic boundary-making it reproduced racialized constructs of reality concerning the society with which the police employees came to direct contact in their work, in particular representations of the “immigrant” as a category over-represented among criminals and of criminality as associated with certain ethnic groups (cf. Sollund, 2007; Uhnoo, 2013). Ethnic police humor, however, can also have the effect of helping more general prejudices and racist/xenophobic attitudes and notions spread in society. When police’s in-group backstage behavior leaks into the public domain, or when police officers employ ethnic humor openly in public, there is a risk of increased distrust in police and that the social distance between the police and the public, especially ethnic minorities, grows. Diminished public trust will for its part undermine effective police work, while an image of the police force as a socially and ethnically insensitive organization can lead to problems in recruiting officers from ethnic minorities, preparing the conditions for a vicious circle to emerge (cf. Cashmore, 2001).

Secondly, ethnic police humor can be expected to cause a devaluation in practice of the police's professional norms, which then may lead to more discriminatory police practices vis-à-vis ethnic minorities. Humorous stories told about encounters with ethnic minorities in this study, too, functioned as descriptions of the informal rules and behavioral expectations at one’s workplace, influencing where the boundary line between legitimate and illegitimate behavior of the police is perceived to be. Thirdly, ethnic police humor may undermine the police’s organizational goals and objectives, formal guidelines, and reform programmes, thereby complicating the police’s core values work, diversity efforts, and anti-discrimination work (cf. Loftus 2009, p. 112). Fourth, employment of such humor can contribute to the reproduction of hierarchical divisions between different groups of police employees (e.g., “Swedish cops” vs. “immigrant cops”) and lead to ethnic boundary-making in the form of norm reinforcement concerning, as in the present case, the police employees’ expected “Swedishness”, or “white” skin color and perfect, unaccented Swedish (cf. Hansen Löfstrand & Uhnoo, 2014; Lander, 2014; Uhnoo, 2013). As a consequence, ethnic minorities may become victimized by exclusion within the police organization itself, and thus denied equal possibilities for participation (cf. Cashmore, 2001, 2002; Holdaway, 1997; Loftus, 2009; Peterson & Uhnoo, 2012).

Ethnic police humor can thus have consequences for not just the internal workings of police organizations (their psycho-social work environment and reform efforts), but also the everyday work of the police officers on the street, including their encounters with ethnic minorities out in public. The way ethnic police humor was spoken of and employed in this study suggests that humor to potentially have an ability to either reproduce or challenge both horizontal and vertical power structures. While in previous research police humor has, for the most part, been approached as an expression of an oppositional culture directed against those in a superior position in the organization (e.g., Pogrebin & Poole, 1988), the present study shows police humour as an oppositional culture to also be directed against co-workers and colleagues located at the same organizational level as oneself. Such opposition was expressed in the form of subtle discrimination, but also as anti-racist resistance whereby other police employees, through a process of reverse stigmatization, are posited as racists.

This latter kind of ethnic police humor showed potential in principle to challenge, and even bring about change in, the dominant prejudices and biases in the police organization. It did, however, also show itself to be risky, unpredictable, and double-edged as a tool adopted for the purpose. Both outside and within a police organization, humor tends to always reflect the prevailing power relations. To change the humor culture in the workplace through anti-racist resistance can be difficult, even impossible, for a police employee, since the tone of that humor, by force of tradition and sheer numbers, is set by the majority, or, in the context of this study, the ethnically Swedish police employees. When the police organization lacks diversity but has strong internal hierarchies, for which groups in it is the use of ethnic humor “strategic”? If, similarly to what Charman (2013) found among British police and ambulance crews, there is something like a mutually accepted and culturally defined joke-book in use in Swedish police organizations, who decides its content? When police employees from a minority background initiate ethnic humor, whether to highlight an incidence of racism or ethnic stereotyping, to draw attention to a lack of diversity in the workplace or the broader organization, or, simply, just to be accepted or left alone, there is always a risk that also other forms of ethnic police humor become legitimized in the process, forms that, moreover, will likely have different functions, effects, and implications.

Ethnic boundary-making is a phenomenon occurring through everyday interactions in many different social fields, but the police are not just any kind of workforce and not just one organizational actor or institution among many. As holders of the monopoly on legitimate violence, the police occupy a pivotal role in the production and upholding of social order and a sense of safety among the public and, as we have seen, ethnic police humor provides a means for ethnic boundary-making, a process for maintaining, shifting, or modifying of ethnic boundaries in the society, which then confers to the police agency a special responsibility in this regard (cf. Wimmer, 2008). The more exact or specific outcomes of ethnic police humor in terms of these processes—the creation or re-creation of groups through the demarcation of the boundaries between them—remain, however, a question for closer empirical investigation encompassing national contexts of different kinds.


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Sara Uhnoo is an associate Professor of Sociology at the Gothenburg University, Sweden. She has participated in research projects on policing ethnicity, school fires and disaster management. Specific interests of research include diversity work and ethnic discrimination within the police, governance of voluntary policing, feminist criminology, youth violence, juvenile firesetting and co-offending.


This research was supported by the Swedish Research Council for Working Life and Social Research (grant number 2009–0011).

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