Laughing About Race in a Comedy Club

“I have never seen white people so upset since they elected Donald Trump!”

I sat there in a comedy club at the bowling alley and had no idea how to respond. It was a Friday night, and I had come to see a friend perform with his band after a long day at work. I hadn’t known that for $10 I would be handed a green paper bracelet and an evening of stress and angsty inner monologue.

When the comic uttered those words, I was hunched over my mashed potatoes, terrified that he would spot my pimples or my belly and mutter an insult that would bring me to my knees. Instead, this. I was confused and terrified in a new, murkier way.

I am a white person, and I am upset that they elected Donald Trump. Is there something wrong with that? I do not mean that in a superficial, aggressive way. I mean really, what does it mean that my opinions can be easily identified? What does it mean that I belong so securely to a group with a clear ideology and commonly held beliefs? I like to think of myself as a person concerned about the world and on the side of progress. But how else am I blind to the stereotypes I inhabit?

As a white person, I am not used to thinking of myself in terms of race. We talked about that in my Psychology of Racism class—we most strongly identify with the parts of ourselves that are oppressed by society. A white, gay man would most strongly identify as being gay. A black, straight woman would identify as a black woman. I don’t know if that’s true for everybody, but it’s certainly true for me. In my own head, I am a woman with a disability, and that is where my self-image is forged.

But those other identities, the invisible ones, guide us along our life paths and kick away barriers that arise. I like to think that I have gotten to where I am solely from hard work and a good head on my shoulders, but a persistent voice will not let me get away with that brand of thinking. What a privilege to be able to imagine that the color of my skin has nothing to do with my success!

I do not know how to have conversations about race—I don’t even know how to laugh about it in a comedy club! And I don’t think I’m unusual. Those kinds of conversations are my growing edge, and they make me very, very uncomfortable. With a fairly homogenous friend group and a Facebook feed that spits out statuses that align with my own worldview, how can I be a part of the change that needs to happen? How can I talk with people who are different from me without being offensive and saying the wrong thing?

I have decided that it’s okay to have all of these big, anxious questions when thinking about my race. In a world where whiteness is invisible, it’s really challenging to start to looking at how my life has been shaped by forces that I didn’t even realize existed until halfway through my college career.

But I have also decided that letting these anxious thoughts stop me from moving forward is not okay. Ignoring whiteness and all that it implies has made life infinitely more challenging for many, many people, and I have decided that it is my duty to do something about that, anxiety and all. I want to be a force of good in the world, and figuring out how to laugh about race in a comedy club seems like the first, murky, terrifying, desperately important step toward justice.

Something Essential

Last night I lay awake in bed worrying about the election on Tuesday, and I bet that many of you did, too.  I’m afraid for my future, for the future of my children, for my friends and family and enemies.  

And the strange thing is that people on all sides of these vicious debates are scared.  That strikes me over and over again.  I have a strong opinion about something, and then I remember that someone believes the opposite just as strongly.  Who is right?  And why do we believe such different things?  Of course, I think I’m right and on the side of justice—but they do, too!  That seems like the biggest problem we are facing in a complicated world.

I can’t help but think about our personal identities and how they shape who we are.  I am a white, cisgender, middle-class woman with a disability and a liberal arts college education.  I come from a liberal hometown and was raised in a non-religious family.  I am temporarily employed and in serious debt.  

Every single one of those identities affects the way I vote and the way I think, and if you changed one of them, I would end up a different person.  Or would I?  It seems that we come together when we see an essential part of ourselves in someone else.  I’m not sure if that means that we have an essential self or that our social circumstances somehow overlap.

But we cannot see each other clearly unless something is the same.

There are a lot of concrete things to remedy this situation (diversify our media, try to meet people different from ourselves, get involved in causes that we’re passionate about, etc., etc.).  That is all so important.

But I think another thing that is absolutely fundamental is finding something essential within ourselves that is worth cultivating.  We need to figure out what it is that is worth connecting over.  If we try to connect based on things we don’t really care about, it doesn’t get us anywhere.  It reminds me of this quote by Howard Thurman: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

As I sit here googling whether or not my candidates are predicted to win, getting more and more anxious and overwhelmed, I am also trying to figure out why the hell people on the other side are googling their candidates and feeling anxious and overwhelmed.  I am trying to think about what essential part of myself is worth connecting over.  Is it fear that our country is slowly rotting from the inside?  Anger that other people are bonding over hate and greed?  

Is it that I am a white, cisgender, middle-class woman with a liberal arts education?  I don’t think so.  Bonding over what identities make us the same gets us doesn’t completely get us where we need to be.

I think it might be that I am a musician and a writer, a thinker and a doer, someone concerned by what is going on in the world and wants to make a difference.  These are the essential parts of myself worth bonding over.  I have to keep thinking and thinking and thinking about what else is inside me that others might share.

And I think that finding those things is the most important thing we can possibly do in a complicated, hateful, greedy, loving world.