“So often it seems to me that jokes we hear about race are designed to make white people feel better about their own racism, or prove that they aren’t racist to other white people,” says Fred Sasaki, who along with Seth Vanek curated “Racist Jokes 101: #OwnYourWords.” The hybrid stand-up show and free-form conversation—part of the duo’s entertainingly educational Homeroom series (Wu-Tang mythology, anyone?)—comes to the MCA in conjunction with the museum’s Word Weekend (7/26-7/27).
To create a space to talk about race and racism in a constructive way, Sasaki and Vanek decenter whiteness. On the bill are three young entertainers: comedians Rebecca O’Neal and Tim Barnes and culture critic Suey Park (of #CancelColbert fame). The evening starts with a short film by Nick Twemlow, a found-footage collection of white people struggling to say the keystone of American racial epithets, the N-word.
The three performers could be described as “postracial” in that they play with layers of identity that society wants buried under superficial racial categories. Park’s hashtag was meant to stamp out what she sees as ironically intended but racist humor Stephen Colbert regularly employs for laughs, particularly against Asian-Americans.
Just last week south-side resident O’Neal, dealt a hand to an anonymous Twitter troll griping about the lack of diversity—but really the lack of south-siders—at the inaugural stand-up-focused Comedy Exposition: “I’m a fat, black, queer comedian. I’m never satisfied with my representation. Northside or southside. SO TRY AGAIN.”
LA native Barnes (who like me has worked for Chicago Public Media) jokes that he grew up in “African-America,” an apt label for the disparate American experience of black people. He has a sharp bit about what the N-word connotes and what white people could do to reclaim it for their own again. The punch line is the word itself, so ugly and uncomfortable that no matter how sweetly Barnes smiles, it’s an impossible sell. Which is the point, right?