Attention Must Be Paid
I love attention. Not that I don’t experience my fair share of social anxiety, but when it suits me, I relish being seen and heard. And, like many other Yalies who desire a little more external validation than they are otherwise getting, I decided to join a comedy group almost as soon as I set foot on campus. I enthusiastically maneuvered the numerous workshops, attended recruitment shows for sketch comedy, and dragged unwilling new friends to the late-night Improvaganza, where all the improv groups perform in snippets. There were five improv groups and three sketch groups, each with about nine members pre-recruitment, for a total of seventy-two performers whom I watched in various college theaters. And I didn’t see a single person who looked like me.
Let’s be blunt about it. Comedy at Yale is exceptionally white. The same criticism can probably be made for a wide range of student subsets on campus (52% of Yale’s undergraduate population identifies as white), but the drastic racial disparity within comedy groups in particular is honestly alarming. After recruitment has concluded, approximately 100 students per year participate in a comedy group — when considering the more permanent membership of improv and sketch groups, minus the fluctuating participation in stand-up. This year, less than 20% are people of color, reflecting little change from the past couple of years. This percentage falls far below the proportions predicted by student-wide demographics; if 52% of undergrads are white, around 48% of members in a given group should be people of color. The drastic difference between the “expected value” and the reality of the situation reflects a self-propagating sense of unbelonging for those who do not already see themselves represented in the group.
Two years ago, despite my freshman enthusiasm for the limelight, I reconsidered auditioning after noticing that every single group was either exclusively or overwhelmingly white, and was especially discouraged by the total absence of Asian comedians. I knew I would stick out. I worried that, if I were to join any of the groups, the other members might unconsciously hold me to a different standard or consider me the token diversity pick, and these doubts were piled on top of the baseline insecurity of any freshman in their first month of college. In the end though, I auditioned and became an enthusiastic member of The Good Show, of which I am now co-director. It gave me immense pleasure to think that a first-year might one day be heartened by seeing someone who looks like me on stage. But having now been present for two tap cycles, I realize that we, as comedy groups, are not where we need to be, and we won’t get there without actively combating the representative imbalance on a culture-wide level.
I would first like to make clear that I relish watching all the comedy groups on campus and respect each one of them for the humor they bring into our lives; Yale’s robust comedy scene is a blessing, and not one that all universities have. In fact, comedy’s role as such a distinctive part of Yale’s performance culture places a special responsibility on us to represent all of Yale. Comedy may not be college athletics, but groups have gone to competitions, performed on tours, and put content on the Internet for all to see. We are all representatives of the University, but comedy is not yet representative of all its students; this comedic form of performance is too often sequestered to one type of person, determined by the way they look instead of their interest in or enthusiasm for the activity. I am confident enough in my peers to say that the propagation of such homogeneity is not purposeful. Rather, having seen the selection process from both sides, I have concluded that the foremost cause for this lack of diversity is simply that it’s extremely difficult to stop a wheel that’s already rolling down a hill — even when many organization leaders explicitly articulate greater diversity as a goal.
Having taken on a leadership role myself, I endeavored to bring that goal to fruition. I never assumed that it would be easy, but I didn’t expect the field of auditionees to exactly mimic the conditions that we were trying to combat. Many of the people trying out were wonderful, hilarious people, but a great majority were white men — which, I would argue, does not accurately reflect the composition of the total pool of individuals who were interested in comedy, but instead speaks to the varying comfort levels that certain demographics feel in the comedy space. This year’s ethnic breakdown is not drastically different from years past, because it has been directly influenced by the dynamics of years past. This phenomenon can be observed in nearly all organizations: if a group is primarily X, they will attract more X new members. For example, if a profession is primarily female, they will attract more female applicants. The field of nursing remains 90% female, even after decades of combating the gendered stigma against male nurses. If a university is primarily of one religion, they will attract more applicants of that religion. Notre Dame, which is affiliated with the the Catholic Church, but does not mandate their students be Catholic, has been 80–85% Catholic for the last ten years. And, as in the case of comedy, if a group is primarily white, they will attract more white new members.
Is it possible, then, to slow the wheel that’s been rolling down a hill since 1984 (when Yale’s first improv group was founded)? Is it possible to break this feedback loop? The day when every single first-year feels equally comfortable audition is definitely a little ways away — it would be fallacious to expect otherwise. I can’t ask myself or any other organization to ignore prospective new members’ experiences or skills for the sake of “fixing” the problem immediately. But remedying it will only begin when we push the wheel off its path, if only by an inch. If anything, making our spaces accessible to everyone means more talent (comedy, singing, writing, coding, volunteering, and everything in between) at the table. Simply put, attention must be paid. The tide of slowly increasing diversity in the undergraduate student body is not enough on its own to diversify the comedy groups, the performance groups, or any of the other 300+ undergraduate groups at Yale. All groups, comedy or otherwise, need to consciously combat the gravity of implicit, homogenous selection bias. That might mean giving a little more exposure to the non-white members of a group. It might mean giving a little less weight to thinking someone “would just fit in better” (already a statement loaded with unconscious, unspoken prejudgment of who we identify with) when considering potential new members. It might mean going out of your way to encourage more people who are not the expected demographic to try out. This commitment is far from too much to ask. Maybe it’s just my inner narcissist talking, but I would love to see more people who look like me (and look like you) making us laugh on stage next year.