Race is the new sex and we have comedian Ali G, the "gangsta rapper" from Staines, to thank, says a Leeds University academic.
Richard Howells, a lecturer in communication studies, will this week tell the annual conference of the International Association of Media Historians, in Leipzig, Germany, that TV comic Ali G - among whose catchphrases is "Is it because I is black?" - may be helping to promote discussion of one of society's remaining taboos - race.
"Just as people felt afraid to discuss sex in polite company in Victorian times, it's the same with race today," Dr Howells said. "As sex has come into the open, race may be doing the same."
According to Dr Howells, rather than attracting criticism from ethnic groups, Ali G, whose humour is based largely on race and identity, has raised laughs and encouraged intelligent as opposed to knee-jerk reactions in the press.
"Here we have a white public-school boy playing a black character who promotes drugs and is obsessed with the size of his penis. Surely people should be queuing up to take offence," said Dr Howells. "But there is very little outrage. It's very hard to find anyone condemning him."
Dr Howells said this may be because Ali G is a moving target. "Sacha Baron Cohen, the man behind the character, never gives interviews so it's hard to tell what he represents - whether he's a white man pretending to be black, or a white man pretending to be a white man pretending to be black, or a white man pretending to be an Asian pretending to be black."
Dr Howells said: "The encouraging thing about Ali G is there has been quite a lot of intelligent discussion in the press. The fact we are getting better at discussing openly and even allowing ourselves to laugh at race, as we have previously done with sex, suggests there's some hope we may be breaking through the taboo."