Before I began my career as a standup comic, I spent 23 years cloistered away in middle school classrooms. I naively thought that racism was a thing of the past in America. That was my hope, and it was easy to hold onto that delusion since I taught in a mostly white school, and live in a mostly white neighborhood. I’ve been on the road for three years now, traveling all across America, Canada, and beyond. I’ve seen a lot of amazing scenery, met a lot of nice people, done a lot of cool things. But what I wasn’t prepared for was the harsh reality that there are still people in our great country who are racist. It’s kind of a dirty little secret. Not out in the open, where people can see it and defend themselves or fight against it. Secret. Hidden away. Alive.
I was about to perform in a little bar out in the back country of Michigan. The emcee was a deejay from their local radio station.
“Before I bring up our first comic, there aren’t any bruthas in the audience are there?” Pause, while people looked around and verified that there were no black people in the crowd. Then he proceeded to tell a racist joke. The room filled with laughter, while I stood there silently on the sidelines, shocked at what had just taken place. I wanted to walk out. Seconds later, he gave my introduction and I went up to the stage. My first impulse was to tell them all that I didn’t find what had just happened to be funny. Instead, I did my usual act. My silence about what had just taken place may have been an act of self-preservation – I wasn’t sure what that crowd would have done if I had chastised them. But I wasn’t proud of myself. I was ashamed that I had done nothing.
Weeks later, I had a show in Detroit. A local comedian invited me to the St. Patrick’s Day parade the following day. As a mostly African American high school band marched by, I commented on how talented they were, and that they were my favorites in the parade so far. My host mumbled something I didn’t hear.
I said, “What?”
He smirked, “I’m racist!” and seemed to be proud of it. He appeared to be sharing a secret with me and seemed to assume I would laugh along in agreement.
I said, “I’m not.”
“Wh – what?? You’re not married to one, are you??” was his shocked reply.
“Yes, I am.” I’m not, but I just wanted to make him feel as uncomfortable as possible.
I’m saddened by how often white men, upon discovering that I’m a comedian, want to share a racist joke with me. (So far, no white women have done this.) I tell them, “I don’t want to hear it. I don’t like racist jokes.” They usually try to tell it to me anyway, as I’m walking away.
If a black person doesn’t hear the joke, doesn’t see the ridicule – if the comments are made only among fellow Caucasians – does it really hurt anyone? Absolutely. This insidious, cowardly form of hatred needs to be addressed and called out for what it is. My not responding during that first incident was just as bad kids standing by watching a bully beat up a victim. I’ll never let it happen again. Please join me.