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Capstone: Comedy & Racism

Updated: Oct 16, 2022

One of the last articles I wrote was about racism in the Screen Studies Department at Clark University. And today, the story repeats itself.

I am no longer coding my words and meanings with clever metaphors of Get Out, as I can no longer camouflage the tears that drip into my mask as I run out of my classroom crying. Every tear shed was due to my professor's racist and ableist statements.

But let’s focus on the repeat offender: racism.

This year, I am taking my major’s cumulative course, called Capstone: Comedy and Queerness. My white professor, code name: Dylan (they/them), intentionally incorporated stand-up acts and situation-comedies with people of color, which has only happened in Screen Studies classes when taught by the professor of color.

I know, it’s shocking; the Department actually has a professor of color.

One week, Dylan focused on Wanda Sykes and Moms Mabley. Two Black queer artists of spectacular comedic control. I was in heaven. The class was engaged in conversation, I was fascinated by the topic, probing my professor with difficult questions, challenging and bringing up new concepts in an hour's discussion, but felt like no time had slipped by.

But of course, at the very end of the conversation, Dylan began speaking of the plights of Black women and how they––but in my case, we––have to hide our truths to be more digestible to white audiences. After saying this, they turned to me, looked me dead in the eyes, and asked, “Right?”

Turning to the only Black woman in the class and double-checking their facts with my experiences is a microaggression equivalent to looking at Black students while talking about slavery.

I quickly ran out of the room, trying to hold my tears in until reaching the privacy of the big stall of the bathroom. When I returned, the class went on break, and the professor had disappeared. So, I announce to my four white classmates and a student of color. “Did anyone else notice that Dylan microaggressed me?!”

The answer was yes.

I needed to corroborate my encounter with the class, almost as if my experience in the classroom would later be on trial. As I collected witnesses to the “crime,” I wondered why none of my white peers in my three years at Clark had been willing to actively fight with people of color by speaking out. I have spoken before about how I understand why people of color stay mute as they feel othered, silenced, and can fear retribution. Especially since the Screen Studies Department relies on these techniques to systematically oppress pupils of color.

But why don’t my counterparts use their white privilege to protect their non-white classmates? Do you fear? Are you silenced? Do you feel othered? Are you uncomfortable? Do you value performative activism more than actually fighting for racial justice?

Dear White People, by leaving the activism solely to the people––or person––of color who are speaking out, you are perpetuating the cyclical nature of silencing that the Department subjects students of color to.

Dear White People, I am not asking you to speak up. I am begging you to support the people of color who are brave enough to tackle this inside the classroom. Outwardly say, “I agree,” clap, or snap, but texting, “are you ok?” after I flee my supposed safe space, shows that you are aware of how traumatizing the class was for me, but doesn’t erase the fact that I was alone in this matter.

Two weeks later, Dylan assigned Maude episodes over Fall Break, one being “Maude meets Florida.” I originally watched this episode at home with my parents, where they commented, “why is this racist crap part of your syllabus?” and “why am I paying for you to experience racism? You get that for free.”

Satirical or not, the character Maude states, “The things that come out of your culture are so, so rich, so…juicy,” when talking to her Black maid. Or with the privacy of her husband (Walter) and adult child, “That woman needs our help….Florida is not your modern Negro. She hasn’t found that new sense of— of self-respect and militancy. Walter, Florida is your pre-liberation southern Black.”

Eventually, Maude’s “Karen” behavior ends with a bang, “If you don't wanna improve yourself, I’m not gonna try to change you…for one week, I have been trying to prove to you that a Black woman can be just as proud and just as self-respecting as a white woman, but you are too darn dumb to know it.”

Despite these lines of dialogue, Dylan actively chose this episode to be part of my education. Unfortunately, this is not entirely shocking as they make students watch Birth of a Nation in one of the classes they teach yearly. For both classes, they didn’t give warning about the racial trauma that would be witnessed.

At one point in the lecture, they stated, “I understand how disturbing this sitcom is,” and they still actively wanted the class to undergo this “disturbing” material, even without a trigger warning.

But, something rare happened in this class. I wasn’t the first or last person to speak. Two peers, a person of color and a white compatriot, both brought up the racism within the show; and outwardly supported me in this confrontation. But at the end of the day, this rigorous course is composed of only seniors within the area of study. I have taken classes with every single student in the class prior to this course. And yet only 2 of my 12 peers spoke up, while the majority sat shocked and silent.

Nevertheless, despite the small percentage of us speaking out, it shows strength because three people never spoke out in unity. But, Dylan couldn’t see past their own white fragility on this matter.

For each part of my argument, Dylan responded by disparaging Black history and my experience as a Black woman in this class; every claim they chanted was just a microaggression.

For example, when I said that the jokes were racist because people of color weren't included in the process of making the show and therefore had no power in the jokes, Dylan responded, "I get what you are saying, I get that this was not fun and really awkward." Dylan didn't get what I was saying, as they discredited my racial background and the racist actions in the show by using terms like "not fun" and "really awkward."

When I voiced, “if you can see [Maude] as satirical, it is part of having white privilege and not experiencing, and not being reminded, of the history and the weight of generational trauma.” Dylan said, “I am sorry you are having that experience.” There was no acknowledgment of their own impact on me having this “experience,” no apology for their actions. And they have yet to do one.

Their comments belittled my experience watching the show and perpetuated racist commentary during the lecture. Almost as if they were ok that this comedy was at the expense of Black people, at my expense. Moreover, the satirical criticism of race in the 70s could have featured a Black sitcom, where their personal encounters with racism could have formed how the series tackled the social issues.

Beyond this, Dylan wanted us to critique the show and the character Maude as she was the only character who was unable to see how harmful and ignorant her words were, defining the show as funny because of Maude’s ignorance. Ironically, Dylan handled the situation just like Maude would. Ultimately proving that we do not live in a society where we can constructively watch white people's “satirical” comments on racism, especially not those from 1972.

I say this again: Dylan was blinded by their white privilege. This allowed them to pick a white sitcom to tackle racism despite the chosen episodes upholding the overarching racial themes the series attempted to critique. Dylan also could not see how assigning this material was harmful to not only the students of color but to all the students in the room before our class discussion. And after three students bravely spoke out, they continued to fiercely hold onto their beliefs, adding an additional layer of trauma to the already painful experience.

I fled the class once more, retreating to the comfort of the big stall. This time when I exited, I was surrounded by the two others who spoke out. We cried in each other’s arms, striving to comfort one another and to try to comprehend this abomination. My peer of color and I discussed tips on how we could survive the hour and a half left without completely breaking down.

Our solutions? Sheer hope.

As we bravely hiked back to the classroom, Dylan had disappeared, and we were alerted that they had pitched two options to the class: finishing class for the day or resuming class as if nothing had happened.

I walked out.

Before Dylan’s return, a total of seven students protested class by leaving. There were only 12 other students in the class that day. Four of us walked to the Academics Commons on campus and continued to cry, complain, and those of us of color made satirical jokes about racism in the class.

One of the students who stayed in class texted me asking if I was ok while I was in the bathroom. And gave me updates as to Dylan’s behavior; when they finally returned, they were shocked and confused to discover a nearly empty classroom. The email goes as followed:

And Professor Dylan, this blog is my response.

I am sorry that they were confused by my and others’ behavior. However, I will speak for myself to clear up any miscommunication. I walked out not because I thought the class was over, but because your classroom was no longer a safe place for me to learn. I was not treated with the respect of a student with an opinion or as a Black woman who has a better grasp of defining racism and the harm it causes. Therefore, I was no longer willing to participate.

I am assuming that Dylan had good intentions for the class, but intent without action just perpetuates the racial injustices at Clark, which makes their intent a result: an impact. Dylan microaggressed me on two separate occasions in this class alone. And they have a history of forcing the students of color in the class to be reminded of the generational trauma by making students watch traumatizing texts, such as Maude or Birth of a Nation. Their impact snowballs.

While Maude is a sitcom and therefore fits under the umbrella of comedy, I don’t understand how “Maude meets Florida,” an episode where––without the racial overtones of the dialogue––a woman hires a maid, fits the topic of queerness. The class is called Comedy & Queerness, not Comedy & Race. While more professors need to include conversations about race across disciplines, professors need to be equipped to facilitate these conversations as well as understand what materials are appropriate to assign.

In the class, we have discussed queerbaiting, when celebrities, films, and other mediums utilize queer undertones to market the material. Dylan’s behavior is racebaiting. While Merriam-Webster defines the term as “making of verbal attacks against members of a racial group.” Britannica interprets racebaiting as “the unfair use of statements about race to try to influence the actions or attitudes of a particular group of people.”

I was not “attacked,” but I was impacted by their statements. And Dylan tried to influence my opinions on the matter through the use of their authority as a teacher and as a white person, placing them above me in both societal and campus-wide hierarchy. But I wasn’t the only person in the room. Dylan attempted to influence the class on their beliefs, specifically on how satire is unable to simultaneously be racist if criticizing society.

And Just Like That, we have another blog post about racism. While I kept my promise and didn’t use any Get Out metaphors, using satire, humor, and creativity to express racism and the harm I encounter and continue to feel is something I have the ability to do as an imaginative Black thinker. It is how I am reclaiming the power they tried to subdue.

P.S. I think the most dangerous thing for the Screen Department is me and my goddamn blog.

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