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.

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