Real life is stranger than fiction. And it doesn't get much stranger than a white man in a mink fur coat crashing a panel of anti-racist comedians — Jay Smooth, Francesca Ramsey, Aamer Rahman, and Hari Kondabolu — in order to "explain" science.
As you may have heard by now, on Tuesday evening, Smooth, a friend and contributor to Fusion, went on MSNBC'S All In with Chris Hayes to discuss Starbucks's new community initiative, #RaceTogether. Appearing alongside Smooth was Nancy Giles, a contributor for the show CBS Sunday Morning. Despite about five minutes of pleasant discussion, the conversation took a turn when Giles teased Smooth about his racial identity,referencing the speaking style and cadence he uses on his popular video series "Ill Doctrine" and Fusion's "Illipsis" though she was trying to make a point about cultural appropriation and how people perceive others. She missed one simple but important fact: Jay Smooth identifies as black.
Fast forward to the next morning, when Giles' gaffe faced the brutal scrutiny of the internet. Sites like Gawker, Raw Story, New York Magazine and Vox all posted clips of the exchange and the video began trending on Facebook. Though Giles took to Twitter to defend herself, saying she knew Jay Smooth was African American, she didn't acknowledge that her assumptions about Smooth's background followed a familiar script with regards to people of mixed racial background.
(She also didn't apologize, which is sadly typical of people who make racial missteps.) Folks were amused, frustrated, and, like me, angry: Giles' inelegantly chosen words recalled any number of instances in which a person's blackness has been challenged, like my best friend from high school, whose identity has been called into question again and again for over 15 years on the flimsiest of pretenses.
Issues of identity were called into question again, less than 24 hours after his appearance with Giles. On Wednesday night, Smooth was moderating a panel at the New School Called "The Revolution Might Be Funny: A Conversation on Race and Comedy." Featuring Franchesca Ramsey (Upworthy, "Shit White Girls Say to Black Girls"), Aamer Rahman (Stand Up Comedian, Fear of a Brown Planet), and Hari Kondabolu (Stand Up Comedian, Waiting for 2042), the panel incorporated high level discussions about race and comedy, bias, and friendship. Smooth also took the opportunity to address the Giles incident from the previous evening, explaining that although that sort of teaching moment is "the most fun, theatrically," it is simulatenously depressing, because conversations about race in the US are set up to reward awkward moments and call outs, not foster actual, substantive debate.
Then it was time for audience questions. In a moment that seemed straight out of a sketch from Key and Peele, a middle aged white man stood up to inform the panelists that they were being divisive and combative, and oh, by the way, race is a fiction. "Science has discovered that there are not 7 individual races, but one," he exclaimed, oblivious to the widespread snickering and growing chorus of boos. (For some reason, the same people who believe that anti-racist activists don't understand that race has no biological basis also don't acknowledge that the truth is much more complicated, that race is what is called a social construct, a kind of lie society tells itself.) As seen in this video by tumblr user Bhupali, when Hari Kondabolu attempted to answer the man's statement, the man began to gather this things — defiantly wrapping himself in an enormous fur coat — and made a dramatic exit. As Ramsey put it later:
Such is a day in the life of Jay Smooth.
(Photo by Mona Panchal.)