So you're feeling weird about your all-white comedy group

A collection of three or more white guys together in a room is called an improv show

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.

Thanks to Brigitte May for your awesome input on this piece!

Some Q’s, Some A’s

Q: I'm part of an all-white comedy group currently. Do we have to disband, salt the earth beneath our feet, and then take on vows of silences at separate monasteries located in the far corners of the Earth?

A: Oddly specific, but no you don't. If you're in an all-white comedy group, first of all: don't panic. Second of all, if you're in a group with all white dudes, definitely rethink your choices up until this point. Third of all, who says that your group has to remain all-white? If you're not looking for a roster changeup, you can always use your platform to highlight existing other groups of colour. Invite a more diverse group to open one of your shows. You have options. Fourth of all, if your group is all white, ask yourself why that is. Are your friends all-white? Maybe that's something you could look into.

Q: Oh no, I've made it about me via a self-centering post or video, which several of the Do's/Don't's above told me not to do. What should I do?

A: You should probably take those down and think about where you've been putting your energy and where it's going to actually be helpful for improving the well-being of the people we're actually trying to help here (Those being BIPOC folks. If you weren't able to know who I was referring to at this point, after like 3000 words on this topic, I probably can't help you.).

Q: I lie awake at night in fear of being called out -- what can I do?

A: Don't do anything worth being called out for.

The Footnotes

  1. 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]. ↩︎

  2. If they’re not currently, make take some time to reflect on why that is. ↩︎

  3. The math lesson comes after, and it’ll probably be incredibly boring for you, but fun for me! 12 ↩︎

  4. A history lesson which will also be incredibly biased! ↩︎

  5. 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. ↩︎

  6. I have to reiterate this because of white fragility. And to some, it will still feel like an attack. It’s not, breathe. ↩︎

  7. 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. ↩︎

  8. 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. ↩︎

  9. 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! ↩︎

  10. If you’re one of the white improvisers who happily takes + incorporates those notes, you get to be One of the Good Ones™️. ↩︎

  11. 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. ↩︎

  12. I am a monster, yes. ↩︎

You don't just have a racist bone in your body, you have a whole racist-ass skeleton

I really enjoy the comedy & everything discussions in Ian Boothby’s “No And” Facebook group and I found myself going off into the weeds on the topics he’s been discussing, and I thought it’d be nice to have a place to stash my thoughts, half-baked and ill-informed as they are, about the comedy world (the little of it I inhabit). Hence, this blog. On to the content!

The original post that inspired this one discusses comedy shows involving white performers in blackface over the years. In each of these performances, the joke, of course, is always at the expense of the character involved – what a rube this dummy is! Everyone knows that blackface is wrong, that’s why this so funny, ha-ha! Ask any of these performers who’ve donned/written a scene about blackface, a caricature-ish Chinese accent, etc., about their work, many years after the fact, and you’ll get the same genre of responses:

"I'm not racist, I don't have a racist bone in my body..."

"It was a different time..."

"I didn't mean to be racist..."

"My heart was in the right place..."

"Funny is funny..."

right before hastily switching the topic to all of the cool white people things they’ve been working on since then 1.

There’s been a myriad of apologies and too many high-profile names to count over the years, like

Jimmy Kimmel, Tina Fey, Jimmy Fallon, Ol’ David Walli-eh

Greg Daniels, Sarah Silverman, Zach Braff, Seth Rogen,

…. we didn’t start the fire… 2

Clearly, we’re not lacking for examples (or apologies). But why haven’t these pinnacles of comedy withstood the test of time? Perhaps they just didn’t have the right KIND of black makeup? Maybe we’re all a bunch of sensitive snowflakes that can’t take a joke? Maybe their “I’m not a racist” chickens are finally going to lay that “immunity from criticism” egg and finally they can go back to having tons and tons of money in peace 3. (Also for the rest of this rambling post, I’ll primarily be talking about the use of blackface and its harms, but the same ideas hold for mocking accents, “asian eyes”, and other forms of caricature.)

As with all comedy, context is really important, but I find people tend to over-emphasize the current, performative context of the bit and ignore the historical and subtextual context of the performance. If you’re a comedy writer and your “gag” in all of these caricature bits over the years is “this character shouldn’t be doing blackface/a mock-chinese voice/etc.”, congratulations! You’ve managed to turn the playground taunt “Haha, psyche!” into a high-budget, 200+ year old tradition of minstrelsy.

What the fuck are you saying with this joke/sketch/character?

Caricature, like many realms of comedy, is enticing precisely because it’s forbidden. The rules are there to hold us, as comedians, back, right? The teacher says “Don’t talk in class” and I say to my friends “Wouldn’t it be funny if I made a scene during social studies?” Society says “It’s not a great idea to engage in racism”, and the white comedian says “Listen, the last hundred comedians tried this ironic racism and failed, but THIS TIME, I, and I alone, got this. Finally, your white free-speech saviour has arrived, because I have something worth saying on this topic.”

As far as I can tell, the comedic thinking on this topic tends to start and stop at “I myself am not racist. This will be funny because it’s embodying something that you’re not supposed to do, and the joke will be that my character is dumb.” Which, truly, is a first draft, bargain basement level of thinking. The improv comedy maxim of “play to the top of your intelligence” is telling because nobody ever asked the most-obvious followup question:

Why shouldn't you do blackface?

Again, as far as I can tell, no white comedian engaging with ironic racism in their work has ever, ever thought about the answer to this question. At the very worst, the answer to this question would force them to not do a thing that they wanted to, which, as we all know, would be the worst possible result for everyone. Truly the answer to this question, in no way affects the outcome of their lives – the list of comedians listed above are either still working or collecting fat stacks of residual money from reruns of their very popular, very well-regarded television shows/movies. Their material well-being has not been and will continue to not be affected. So why bother? To answer this question for a white comedian, as with all questions about race, is to risk having the security of your whiteness be at stake. Don’t open the Pandora’s Box, you won’t like what you find. (Having no knowledge of Greek mythology, I assume that people use this expression to referring to a box containing the world Pandora from the James Cameron Avatar movies, which I agree, would suckkk). Because to answer the question is to admit that something is wrong, that you did something wrong, that the world has something wrong at its core. And you couldn’t be responsible, because you worked hard and were funny and were recognized by your (mostly white) peers and got to where you were because of pure talent alone. And so the box remains closed.

The quick and dirty answer is a classic setup-punchline:

Setup: "The joke is that this character shouldn't be doing blackface/a mock-chinese voice/etc."

Punchline: "Because of a history of caricaturing performances directed at minorities/historically persecuted groups causing real harm to those groups when (mainly white) people conflate a person from that group with the caricature."

It’s a classic bit from the good ol’ vaudeville days! *tap dances under a spotlight before a giant shepard’s bow yanks me off-stage*. The apologizing comedian’s thinking here has just engaged in the setup without the historical context of the punchline. As a result, they can always fallback on the ol’ “I was just pushing boundaries, I didn’t intend to be racist” tropes without understanding really what those boundaries are there for and where they came from. The harms caused by (mostly) white people doing caricatures of non-white people has a long and sordid history. From brown kids being bullied in schoolyards with “thank you come again”, the catchphrase of the Indian character Apu 4, to the portrayal of black men as having “brute strength” being used as justification for their continued brutalization and murder at the hands of the police, the harms of depicting caricatures to people of colour, which continue to this day, cannot be overstated.

There’s also precedent for them avoiding so-called “punching down”. The comedians listed above, to the best of my knowledge, even in the “free speech heyday” of the early 90s, wouldn’t have made a Nazi joke at the expense of Jewish people in public5, because for all the failings of the education system, the general populace is at least somewhat aware of the atrocities committed against the Jewish people, and so it would be more obvious that they’d be punching down. In the case of BIPOC folks, the general population of white people isn’t necessarily aware of the history of systemic marginalization and oppression they’ve suffered at the hands of white people in power6. So white comedians, as a result, feel more empowered to push the boundaries and find where the funny is.

Presenting a “hot take” on racism when your show is mostly/all white people is also not inherently that interesting or effective. When the use of racial caricature becomes the only form of representation of a minority in your art, even if it’s for a “racism is bad” takedown, then the person on the receiving end of the art (the artee? art ingester? these are bad names) only ever gets the white side of the story. We all know the different types of white people that white people can become, because we’ve all seen Friends, Seinfeld, Arrested Development, How I Met Your Mother, Fraiser, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sex and the City, Mad Men, Dawson’s Creek, 7th Heaven, …. We all have had opportunities to empathize with the white experience, because it’s all we, as a society, have been presented with.

A caricature’s ability to dehumanize and misrepresent becomes dulled when Black people are allowed to experience things other than racism on-screen, when Chinese, Japanese, Korean and other Asian people in general get to tell stories that are presented as uniquely their own, when people who’re usually relegated to small, uninteresting roles finally get their voices heard. When was the last time you got to see/read a story from a Black or Indigenous person’s perspective? The representation for non-white folks in the media is changing slowly, but as a capitalist society, there hasn’t been as much of a value placed on non-white stories and performers. It’s an unfortunate side-effect of this system that in order for non-white people’s stories to be “worthy”, they also have to be “marketable.” Hopefully it’s “cool enough” to say “Black Lives Matter” even when they’ve always mattered, and will continue to matter even if popular trends change.

So, comedians inadvertently perpetuate the harm they’re allegedly against by saying absolutely nothing of import on the topic of racism. It’s inherently difficult to comedically engage with racism by trying to play with the mechanisms of racism, because most of the time, you just end up doing racism instead. And “Racism is bad” isn’t an inherently new or interesting comedic take, especially coming from white people. Even the best of the best can stumble, like the old Dave Chappelle anecdote goes,

... a sketch about magic pixies that embody stereotypes about the races. The black pixie—played by Chappelle—wears blackface and tries to convince blacks to act in stereotypical ways. Chappelle thought the sketch was funny, the kind of thing his friends would laugh at. But at the taping, one spectator, a white man, laughed particularly loud and long. His laughter struck Chappelle as wrong, and he wondered if the new season of his show had gone from sending up stereotypes to merely reinforcing them. "When he laughed, it made me uncomfortable," says Chappelle. "As a matter of fact, that was the last thing I shot before I told myself I gotta take f______ time out after this. Because my head almost exploded."

The remedy? Knowing that your perspective is inherently limited. You can’t be anything you set your mind to be, no matter what your mom told you when you were a kid 7. You can’t be Black/Asian/Latina/Indigenous just because you want to be. You can’t know, on a fundamental level, the struggles that BIPOC have faced, and continue to face, because we live in a society that upholds white supremancy. You didn’t create it, but we all participate in this racist society, knowingly or unknowingly, and thus are responsible for dismantling it (white supremacy, not society, but you can try to dismantle that as well if you want). Know that your own experiences as a white person moving in the world have given you a false sense of what other people experience – it’s not your fault, breathe.

Whether you like it or not, your art is inherently limited by your own experiences. What can you do about it? Read the many many wonderful books out there to get a glimpse into non-white, non-straight male’s experiences 8. Donate to all the things 9. Make sure you have something worth saying before you say it. If you don’t know what you’re talking about, shut the fuck up and listen to those that do. You don’t get to have an opinion about other people’s lived experiences. Know that everything isn’t for you – BIPOC folks sure are aware of it. Be okay with the fact that not everything is for you. Say the phrase out loud “I don’t really get why that’s funny, maybe it isn’t for me. But maybe I should try to understand it anyways.” Eat. Pray. Live. Laugh. Love. Do none of those things. Know your own strengths and play to those. Knowing your strengths can also give you the insight for when you need to step away and let someone else with a different set of experiences into the limelight. And be assured, if this whole comedy thing doesn’t work out for you the white comedian, you can always drop out and settle for being president or prime minister or whatever.

Ignorance isn’t a shield nor a particularly compelling sword. It won’t stop the tide of criticism and it won’t absolve you of your fuckery. Comedy is hard, learn more, do better, be better. And for the love of all things funny, don’t do blackface.

  1. Also, I really hate that last one the most, that is some bullshit. ↩︎

  2. Also Ted Danson, Jon Hamm, and many other non-comedians, but their names didn’t fit into the song as well. ↩︎

  3. Maybe I’ve tried to make my “bad metaphor-making, cliche-merging” horse to water, but it would not… never mind, I’ll stop. ↩︎

  4. As detailed in many places but in particular the documentary The Problem with Apu. ↩︎

  5. At the very least, a google search for “comedian apologizes holocaust joke” lists a very different set of comedians than the ones listed above. Perhaps they weren’t timely enough to read this article. Or listen to any person of colour who wasn’t on their payroll. ↩︎

  6. These most recent Black Lives Matter protests have helped wake people up to that realization somewhat, but in general, not so much. ↩︎

  7. I once got the note from an improv teacher that “You can play anyone as long as you’re coming from a place of respect.” But how can you truly respect someone if you don’t know their experiences and can never really know them? This improv teacher was white, so it stands to reason they felt like they had knowledge of All Things. Personally, I’ll just stick to playing weird gollum creatures that are off-putting but secretly want love. ↩︎

  8. Excellent resources from Black Lives Matter. Many wonderful resources in one handy dany spreadsheet, including media to consume ↩︎

  9. Many excellent charities/funds here ↩︎