Entertaining Anti-Racism in About an Hour
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Personal disclosure: this guy is my first cousin. Which in no way invalidates what I’m saying below.
OK, so like many of you I’ve done my share of “diversity workshops”. Which were mostly, I have to admit, pretty good — generally because they were long enough (several days) to dig deep; hands-on and interactive; integrated into everyday practice thereafter; and run by extremely patient/knowledgeable workshop facilitators. This is one of the benefits of working in education versus the corporate world; most educators don’t expect to tackle a complex and emotional subject in a quick soundbyte.
That said, I have done some diversity workshops that reached fathomless depths of assitude. There was the one run by a very young, white, self-identified heterosexual and Christian, visibly anxious facilitator who gave me a blank look when I asked a question about privilege. (I didn’t bother asking any more questions after that; spent the rest of the session working on a short story.) There was also the one in which, after a fellow black woman shared a painful and powerful anecdote about being on the receiving end of some blatantly racist treatment as a college student, a white female participant shared her feelings about being so, so sorry “on behalf of white people” and then broke down crying, at which point everyone in the workshop started comforting her. (Except me and the other black women, who shared a deep spiritual eyeroll.) And then there was the diversity workshop that lasted only one hour out of a six-day, 48-hour training session. No matter how good that workshop was, the amount of time devoted to it sent a message on behalf of the trainers: reducing harm to non-privileged people means so much to us that we’re going to spend 2% of our time on it. Go us! (Yes, go. Please. Really.)
These kinds of workshops are a waste of everyone’s time — no, worse. They make the privileged participants feel better about themselves (for completing the workshop) without actually challenging their privilege, and they make the rest of us feel very fucking tired.
But I want to spread the word about the best short anti-racism workshop I’ve now seen: comedian W. Kamau Bell’s “Ending Racism in About an Hour”.
It’s not a comedy show. (As my aunt, Kamau’s mom, has very emphatically informed me.) It’s a solo theatrical performance… which just happens to be funny as hell. Kamau is the latest of a wave of black comedians who do more than merely exaggerate stereotypes and “keep it real”, whateverthehell that means; he openly confronts the issues of power and the status quo, and the LogicFails that allow racism to perpetuate itself. (I’ve been avidly following another comedian who does this too: Elon James White of This Week in Blackness.) Here’s an example of Kamau in action:
In his latest show, Kamau does everything I’ve ever seen in a good anti-racist workshop: he explains privilege and the power dynamics of racism; gives examples of aversive racism, objectification, and stereotyping; and doesn’t pull punches about the life-and-death impact racism has on politics, economics, health care, and more. But he does all of it without ever using the terminology, and without losing his audience. (Yeah, including Angry Black Women.) Well, scratch that — when I attended his performance on Saturday, he mentioned that a white guy once walked out on him, complaining of guilt. But one out of thousands ain’t bad.
Anyway, I’ve said all this to note that Kamau is in New York City this week for a limited run, as part of NYC’s International Fringe Festival. Most of the shows are already done — sorry, but I wanted to see it before I blogged about it, and I’ve been crazy busy lately — but he’s got one last NYC performance coming up on August 29th at 5 p.m. The one I attended was standing-room-only, so you might wanna buy tix early. If you can’t catch him in NYC, though, he’s a regular at the Punch Line in his adopted home of San Francisco (where he’s Best Comedian of 2008 according to SF Weekly).
Oh, yeah — and if you bring a friend of a different race, you get a free gift! (So if you’re stuck being somebody’s Special Black Friend, bring them to this show so you can get something out of it for a change.)
ETA: OK, I screwed up — posted a clip from a 4-year-old performance of his, which contained some problematic remarks about Condoleeza Rice. I don’t know if he’s repudiated those comments since, but I think he’s grown up a lot since then (as I have, since I started blogging here; once I would’ve found that joke much funnier than I do now). Hell, I’ll ask him. Until then, replaced the old clip with a more recent one, from the actual show. Should’ve done that in the first place. Sorry for inflicting that on ya’ll.