What Would You Do?
Tonight, Zazzy and I went to an improv comedy show featuring the writing team behind Key and Peele (but not Key and Peele themselves). The group consisted of a white male, two black males, a Japanese male, and a white female who identified herself as lesbian. One of the bits involved one of the two black males storming off stage in response to the white male not seeing him as black enough. He agreed that he would only come back on stage if each and every one of them used the “n-word”. They agreed to. The other black male said it first with the white female saying it almost simultaneously. The white male sort of mumbled it and I didn’t hear the Japanese guy say it but the rest of the cast insisted he said it just quietly (my hunch is that he didn’t actually say it but they just went with the bit). The other black male returned to the stage and they had an ensuing conversation about how everyone saying the word could end racism. This was all part of the show, mind you. They then turned to the audience — an audience that was mostly hip, white 20-somethings (the theater was in Chelsea and this was Pride weekend) — and said they now wanted each and every member of the audience to say it on the count of three.
They played around with this for a bit, noting that the audience was mostly white so they would be safe saying it. They noticed the few black folks in the audience and implored the white folks not to look at them while saying it. At this point, two of the black folks seated near me — one male, one female, sitting separately — responded: the former raised two middle fingers towards the stage while the latter turned and glanced around at the audience; both seemed to do so in a joking matter. The white female performer joked that it was important everyone do it or they would go one-by-one through the crowd to make sure racism was properly eradicated. And you had to make sure to use a “very hard R” and “say it from the gut”.
I had zero intention of saying the word. I could tell from Zazzy’s tensing up that she had zero intention of saying the word. I assumed most of the audience would respond similarly. I was wrong. The sound was resounding. It’s hard to say, but I’d guess at least 2/3 of the audience said the word. If it was less than that, then those who did say it said it loudly. It was uncomfortable. It was also the final bit of the show, as the performers ran off stage immediately after. I assumed it was probably rehearsed. K&P pushes the envelope on a number of race-related issues. I could see this being something they find a way to get to at the end of every show. I think discomfort was intended. Still, I was shocked by how many white folks seemed to gleefully shout the word out. I think they were wrong to say it, but I can’t say so with any certainty. Generally speaking, that is a word that I don’t think I get to make any rules about outside of deciding for myself not to use it.
What would you have done? Would you have said it? Why or why not? What do you make of comedy of this form? Does it matter that two of the performers were black, three were people of color, and four were from traditionally marginalized demographic group? If you are black or a person of color, how would you have felt to be a member of the audience? Any other thoughts?