So you’ve just realized that Black Lives Matter, People of Colour have been having a rough go of it this whole time, or your comedy group is whiter than a Dave Matthews concert in a mayonnaise factory. Congratulations! This is the first step in Solving Racism™️ and being the White Saviour I Know You Were Meant To Be. Parades will be thrown for you. They’ll rename Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard after you. “Heroic” is too understated a term to describe your actions.
All of that is, of course, lies. But if you’re of the comedy persuasion, you can and should make your spaces more inclusive and welcome for people of colour 1, 2. I’m going to outline some tips of how to (respectfully) go about this Most Noble of Pursuits™️ below, but first, let’s dive into a breakdown on the demographics of the comedy status quo – because you can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you are. I’ll stick to talking about the Vancouver improv scene here, but, power structures and whiteness being what they are, I’m going to guess a similar sort of scenario is happening elsewhere as well.
Also, to be completely clear, what follows is NOT meant to be an attack on the parties listed below. It will just appear to be as such, because collectively, as a society, we’ve just realized/acknowledged that BIPOC folks a) exist, b) are people, and c) have not been afforded the same opportunities as white people have. So the rough history below features primarily white folks in positions of power, which, in retrospect (again, is new knowledge as far as white folks are concerned, People of Colour have known this forever), ehh, not so great. I mean, great for white people, not so great for everyone else. In looking to make our spaces more diverse and equitable, we need to look around with a critical eye at what we have and what we’ve had and note the discrepancies from where we are and where we should be. Onwards, to a brief history lesson! 3 4
Some (White) History
So what HAS the improv scene in Vancouver been like, demographically speaking? Since the 80’s, Vancouver TheatreSports League has been one of the main hubs of improv comedy training and performances in the city. Throughout its lifetime, the cast has been primarily white, mostly cis-straight male, which has caused issues over the years as this comment section and these articles will attest. Even looking on their instagram pages currently, there’s about as many unicorns and dinosaurs as featured BIPOC players. But it’s also been one of the highest profile improv venues in Vancouver for a long long time. It stands to reason that fresh improvisers who’ve got the bug for performing would flock there, but BIPOC never really had the opportunity to advance in the company from within, hence the issues outlined in the articles above. Improv companies like Instant Theatre (my former company) were very white over the course of their lifetimes, at least up until five or so years ago. [AUTHOR’S NOTE: A previous version of this post remarked that the history of Queerprov was very white when it was in fact very colour-conscious from its inception. Thanks to an anonymous contributor for the helpful history lesson.] Queerprov current cast skews very white. Blind Tiger, the hot new kids on the scene, started off fairly white but they’ve taken inclusion in their classrooms seriously by the looks of things (not affiliated with them but a bunch of my friends are), and the diversity of their student base has reflected that seriousness (still got a ways to go, but haven’t we all). Their house teams, last I checked, are mostly predominantly white. Also one of the premiere university-level improv clubs, UBC Improv, has had, after many years of increasing diversity in their teams, a reset this year to a majority white set of house teams. The Vancouver Improv Festival (formerly the Vancouver International Improv Festival) has made strides in recent years to improve the diversity of their roster 5, although, like most places already mentioned, they’ve had a very white past. Again, I have to reiterate 6, none of this is meant as an attack.
In summary, just by the virtue of the history of the Institutions of Improv in Vancouver (and, let’s be real, performing arts in general), the majority of students/performers coming out of these places as fledgling/experienced improvisers have been white. The relatively few BIPOC folks who come out of these places either don’t have the same opportunities to them afforded as other places and either leave the city, their original company to try to work independently, or abandon the art form entirely. A good rule of thumb is that if your history is predominantly white, straight, and male, so too will be your present. And thus white people are generally overrepresented in the collective pool of improvisers in Vancouver, relative to non-white folks.
Now why does this pervasive, persistent whiteness pose a problem? A few reasons:
White spaces are self-perpetuating
White people don’t necessarily have to engage with racism nor deal with when other people being shitty towards minorities (and can even exacerbate/normalize those behaviours, in an attempt to not “rock the boat”). POC don’t have that option. It’s not to say that white people can’t be subject to racial prejudice, but without a history, culture, and attendant power structure in society to back that prejudice up, white people aren’t subject to the same constant, societal reminders that they’re not welcome, not worthy, not powerful, etc. as BIPOC folks. White people’s material wellbeing (health, safety, financial resources, access to capital, etc.), as a group, is never threatened by the state, which is often composed of mostly white people in positions of power. As Andrew Ti from the Yo Is This Racist podcast (a highly recommended listen) once said, “It’s a good thing [for white people] that all Black people are asking for is equality and not revenge.”
BIPOC have constant, additional, external stressors in their life that white people don’t have to think about, let alone deal with. How does this relate to an improv company? Just by virtue of the fact that BIPOC improvisers have been, and continue to be, shut out from on-stage and off-stage performance and personal development opportunities (workshops, gigs, etc.), means they get less exposure, less experience, less opportunities to fail. If you don’t have the same opportunities, your personal growth and performance skills suffer. By being one of a handful (often just one or two) non-white performers on a team/company, you’re always seen as, whether you like it or not, a spokesperson and representative for your race by default. You’re held to a higher standard than your white colleagues and you’re not necessarily given the same space to try things and fail onstage (a similar phenomenon happens for women improvisers in a mostly male group).
Majority white spaces have also developed where it’s totally cool to do an accent, use a stereotype, make a snide remark, and just generally make non-white folks feel unwelcome. If you’re one of the single digit number of BIPOC folks on a roster of mostly white folks, your ability to speak up at white people making the safe unspace for you can be hindered because improv is a family and we’re all on the same team, right? 7 You wouldn’t want to upset all these people and cause a scene, just because some white guy casually made you feel less than because they referred to you with a stereotypical accent, cutting remark, casual off-colour comment, right? No, as a BIPOC person up until this point, the majority white space expects you to take another one for the team, deal with another emotional cut. What’s another one in the long lifetime of ten thousand cuts? What’s ten thousand emotional cuts for a BIPOC person compared to an entire history of BIPOC people made to feel less than?
Whiteness is seen as the default
As a white person, it’s easy to take space and actually have unlimited potential because it’s so easy to see yourself in culture at large. Most famous actors are white, as are most politicians, most major standup comedians since the beginning of time, even EVERY Jonas Brother. Whiteness is paramount. Again, to reiterate, not your fault (except you, Nick Jonas, you know what you did) 8. The white experience has been encoded in virtually all of our popular culture for the last century, and many of our examples of power in modern history. By default, non-white people have to empathize with the white experience, because that’s what we’ve been subjected to as a culture writ large. Often Black people especially have to fit themselves into white spaces at work, lest they be branded as “difficult to work with”. The defaultness of the white experience means that we don’t get the opportunity to hear stories from, and by extension, empathize and understand, other people’s experiences. We lose the ability to see more Black and Indigenous stories on stage and are worse off, as a society, for it.
From my own experiences, when I first saw the ABC show Fresh Off the Boat, a sitcom about a Taiwanese-American family as they navigate being Asian in Florida in the 1990s, I legitimately started bawling because I was so overcome at seeing myself represented on screen in a relatable and honest way. I’m not even a super emotional person in general, but something inside me was just totally overcome with emotion because I was finally shown something I didn’t even know I was missing.
The basic ethnic makeup of Vancouver according to Wikipedia(everyone’s favourite source to back up their arguments) in 2016 was ~49% European, ~23% East Asian, ~19% South + South East Asian, 3% Aboriginal, 2.6% Middle Eastern, 1.4% Latin American, and 1.2% Black. Are the improv shows you’re seeing around the city even close to being max 50% white on stage? How about improv shows that just aren’t all or mostly white dudes? Ideally, we should all strive to create spaces where all-white, all-male, all-straight shows ARE the exception rather than the rule.
But how exactly do we address all this?
Good question, author. As great as the renewed interest in making shows less-white overall is, I’ve heard complaints that it’s really hard to actually find new sets of non-white performers to invite to shows. Makes sense, due to the white-majority improv history discussed above. As such, we as a community need to course-correct this history and invest in BIPOC performers in the long haul. Currently, BIPOC improvisers are not found so much as they are made. Because we don’t necessarily see ourselves on stages around the city, improv comedy is oftentimes not even a possibility we consider for ourselves. And thus to truly balance the scales, we need to collectively support newer BIPOC improvisers as well as show non-improvisers that this is a path they can walk. Blind Tiger has a wonderful initiative ongoing this summer for non-white folks to give improv/sketch a try for free. That’s definitely a start – the financial aspect of taking classes can definitely be a hindrance for non-white folks who, on average, have access to less wealth. In the US, the New Deal gave us legendary comedian Carl Reiner. Imagine what other amazing and talented performers could emerge if given the right support. Also if you’re looking to cast more BIPOC comedians for your show, the wonderful Ronald Dario has compiled a collage of a bunch of BIPOC improvisers and standup comedians in Vancouver for reference. 9
BIPOC folks often come from backgrounds where we have less access to a history of inherited wealth, which forces us to take on extra jobs and not have as much free time if you’re in school, working, and taking care of your family. This lack of family wealth leads many non-white families to typically frown upon their children pursuing the arts because of the inherent unpredictable and unstable career paths contained therein. We’re told to become a doctor, an engineer, a lawyer, because those jobs are relatively high-paying and there’s a clear, predictable path from start to finish. Becoming a working actor? Not so much. It’s a reality of the larger cultural forces at work that have shaped our relatively lacking in diversity improv/theatre community. There’s a ton of effort that goes into putting on an improv show, and an even larger amount of effort and time that goes into training someone to be a solid improviser. You won’t be able to solve all the problems as they exist currently, but here’s how you can help.
DO’s and DON’T’s for being an improv ally
DO: Invite BIPOC folks to do your show, to take your class, to guest with or even be a part of your improv group.
DON’T: If the above is your stated goal, don’t tell the person you’re inviting that you’re inviting them on that basis! People of tend to want to be included on the basis of their talents/skills/style/perspective, not because they check a box. We’re already othered/made to feel unwelcome
DO: Try to achieve gender + white/non-white parity in your comedy shows. This should be the norm, not the exception.
DON’T: Pat yourself on the back, feel good about yourself for positively contributing, or congratulate yourself in any way. You don’t get a cookie for doing the absolute bare minimum, nor for being a good person.
DO: Broaden your perspectives. If you’ve created an all-white space, first of all, don’t panic. Second, is that because all your friends are white? Ask yourself why that is. Read a book or ten. Plenty of cool resource google doc links going around, check those out!
DON’T: Self-flagellate in front of a Person of Colour if you’ve messed up in the past with regards to inclusivity/diversity. We don’t want to hear about your own personal mistakes + subsequent redemption arc, not interested!
DO: Calmly out other white people when they do harmful racist shit, even if all of the people involved are white. Educate yourself + other white people about these issues. Normalize the process of noting stereotypes relating to race, gender, sexuality in your scenes, talking to your group about how to eliminate those elements from your scenes, and ensure that those notes are being taken by members of your group 10. It’s not weird to make mistakes and correct them, it is weird to gloss over those mistakes and repeat them until they become the fabric of your comedy so much that you don’t even notice them, that’s weird as hell.
DON’T: Make this moment about you. For the love of all that is funny, the larger cultural shifts going on that are calling attention to the active harms being perpetuated by a culture of white supremacy are not about you! White people (especially artists, amiright?) have a tendency to overestimate their importance in the stories of non-white folks. Lift up those stories, make spaces safe for non-white folks, never ever make it about you because it ain’t.
DO: Be okay with failure. Like in improv, like in life, you’re going to fuck up. Don’t beat yourself up about it. But also own your mistakes and learn from them. Mistakes are only truly mistakes if you never learn from them.
DON’T: Just share cool, pro-diversity, anti-white supremacy posts on social media and do nothing else. Social media is useful for getting the word out, but you actually have to do the hard, painful, grueling work in real life. I guarantee your non-white counterparts already are, so it’s up to you to contribute as well.
DO: Encourage the BIPOC folks in your life that would enjoy improv/standup/performing arts to give it a try. Buy them a class for their birthday! Go to their shows (even the early ones, and tell them they did great even when they’re learning). As mentioned previously, due to the lack of representation in comedy spaces + other cultural forces, POC folks are not always aware that this is even a thing that people can do.
DON’T: Treat your non-white friends/acquaintances any different than your white friends. Would you ever say to your white friend “Hey, I’m inviting you to do this show because you’re white”? or “Hey, would you be cool if I gave you money for a history of my ancestors oppressing your ancestors?”. You 100% wouldn’t. Don’t otherize, fetishize, or in general make non-white folks feel unwelcome or like their presence isn’t normal. We’re not weird delicate glass figurines that the glassblowers of racism have created. We’re people, treat us like people. Literally, if you ever have a question about how to go about how to not be weird to BIPOC folks, I’m willing to answer questions, my email is below. Hopefully this article has answered enough questions for you though.
DO: Make sure that the shows you’re asked to do have an equitable makeup in terms of gender + race. Challenge (mostly white, let’s be real) producers to do better in their casting. If they offer the opportunity to a Performer of Colour and they ask you to step aside, graciously bow out and go see and support the show anyways. There will always be other shows and you’ve likely been the recipient of a lot of institutional advantages to get to where you are thus far, so spread the love around!
DON’T: Have all-white performers on your show marketing! Much in the spirit of “demonstrate that improv is a thing that POC are able to do”, ensuring diversity in the marketing of our shows also helps us to shed the stereotype of an improv group as being a bunch of copies of one white guy wearing different plaid shirts. On this same note, for the BIPOC folks you do choose to include in your marketing, don’t pull them in just to fill a quota and then subsequently devalue their work on stage 11. Make people the stars, not props. And it should be normal for there to be a mix of faces on the show poster. Go out and make it normal.
In summary, do you part to make performers of colour feel welcome without making them feel otherized. We’ve got a long way to go if we’re ever going to correct the imbalances on our stages, and it’s going to take a long of work behind the scenes to reach that goal. But it will be worth the effort.
Some Q’s, Some A’s
I do know we’re all using BIPOC now (which I am totally behind), but know that I’ll also use People of Colour throughout this article just to keep the variety of phraseology up. Also I’m open to hearing alternative pitches to describe BIPOC folks. Scarlett Johanssons of Colour? [WHITE PEOPLE, DO NOT SUBMIT YOUR SUGGESTIONS, THIS IS A TRAP]. ↩︎
If they’re not currently, make take some time to reflect on why that is. ↩︎
A history lesson which will also be incredibly biased! ↩︎
Note: I was a part of the festival ensemble last year. Honestly it felt like last year’s festival was really the first one that focused on having members of the ensemble come from all walks of life, and we put on some really really great shows. ↩︎
Sidenote, if anyone who isn’t your actual family refers to a bunch of you as a family, they’re trying to exploit you somehow. If you hear that phrase, try to find out where you’re being exploited. ↩︎
But if you are feeling a rise, a charge, anger, sadness, whatever after reading this – know that it’s a normal reaction because there’s some part of you that has been taught that whiteness isn’t there, that the system rewards talent and hard work and skill and only those things, and that you deserve everything that you’ve achieved. But once you can get over The False Promise of Meritocracy, which has been documented in many, many, many places, you can let go of the lie that holds you and other people back. Our world can only be a meritocracy if the playing field is level for everyone, which it sadly isn’t and never was. ↩︎
Shameless plug, come to a Fistful of Kicks show whenever we reopen, probably 2021! It will make you 200% Less Racist or your money… stays with us, actually, sorry we couldn’t help you out on this one! ↩︎
If you’re one of the white improvisers who happily takes + incorporates those notes, you get to be One of the Good Ones™️. ↩︎
Sad and unrelated to improv, Soohla El-Waylly, an assistant food editor at Bon Appetit, was sent by BA to work on a Juneteenth story for the magazine – but the magazine didn’t have any black editors. She was forced to be there just because she had dark skin, being used, in her words, as a “prop” in photoshoots. More info here. ↩︎
I am a monster, yes. ↩︎