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Modern Racism Can Be So Hilarious

The story behind the Times's brilliant "Off Color" video series

Channon Hodge/The New York Times and Aaron Byrd/The New York Times

“I’m Asian American… and I want reparations for yellow fever,” says Kristina Wong, one of the four comedians profiled in The New York Times’ new video series, Off Color. Launched last Tuesday, the edgy (or very edgy, by Times’ standards) segments explore race and ethnicity in ways that traditional reporting cannot, showing how humor is being used to expose the new ways that race often plays out in America today. One of the other featured artists is Issa Rae, creator of the popular web series “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl.” Another, Lalo Alcaraz, a second-generation Mexican-American who draws a syndicated comic strip, “La Cucaracha,” that often takes aim at racism and anti-immigrant hostility. The New Republic spoke with Tanzina Vega, the Times’ race and ethnicity reporter who spearheaded the project, about what’s so funny about the sometimes painful and sensitive subjects she covers.

Elaine Teng: Why did you decide to focus on comedy as a way to talk about race?

Tanzina Vega: When you look at situations like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, race comes to the surface pretty quickly. But the other thing that’s happening for a lot of people in this country is that racial issues are becoming a lot subtler. And that’s when you get into issues like “microaggressions,” the things that people say that may not be intentional but which still make the other person feel aggrieved. The more obvious racial commentary gets done, but a lot of the more subtle issues go ignored. Humor was an interesting way to get into those.

ET: How did you choose which comedians were worthy of profiling?

TV: Often times when it comes to racial humor, artists tend to use the stereotypes in their work, and to me that is not very interesting. These folks were doing work that was a lot more edgy and unique. They were really taking on issues that are not often discussed. Like I said in the thing I wrote about Hari Kondabolu, colonialism is not often used as a punchline. But he does it in this really intellectual and really funny way. That was what distinguished these four artists from what I had been seeing out there. They were not playing into the racial stereotype; they were confronting it.

ET: Can you give an example of that?

TV: One that really stayed in my mind was Kristina Wong’s work on what is known as yellow fever, which is of course the fetishization of Asian women by white men. Data had come out from this online dating site showing that all men except Asian men were interested in Asian women first. She’s really taken a magnifying glass and used humor to get into that subject and poke fun at it. Behind that, there’s a really serious issue that she also unpacks.

ET: So what’s your favorite joke from the series?

TV: There’s one where Hari talks about coming from Queens, the most diverse place in the world, and going to college in Maine, where they were saying, “Oh there’s going to be a surge of diversity on campus.” And he was the surge, right? There are a lot of people who can laugh at that either because they went to colleges that weren’t very diverse, and then there are people who were the diversity. It’s an awkward thing to be, but it’s also very funny. It’s very relatable because people on both sides of that equation can laugh at it. We’ve all been in that situation or observed it, so it’s hilarious. 

ET: An increasing number of news outlets have race and ethnicity reporters. Why do you think that’s happening now? 

TV: It has to do with the innate competitiveness that exists among us. I think it’s also reflective of the changing demographics in this country, that now there are more forums to put out this type of work. Before, you were really relegated to a TV spot or an article, but now people are having these conversations that are going beyond that. I wrote two front-page stories about Twitter campaigns [one on black Twitter activism during Ferguson, the other on racial tensions at colleges.] For The New York Times, that’s a shift. That’s saying that these conversations about race are going beyond what they used to be. Look at Off Color—it’s a web project. I don’t know if there was any print at all. This was all digital first and web only. A lot of these conversations and beats, including what NPR is doing with Code Switch, are happening on blogs and social media, not so much on traditional media.

ET: Why is it important that the Times, specifically, has someone dedicated to this beat?

TV: We’re not the only ones, but once we weigh in on a topic, the story does tend to get picked up. There’s a crazy level of responsibility for us to get it right, and with my work, I’ve tried to make sure we’re telling the full story and we’re as nuanced as possible. And I think that’s been appreciated, including with Off Color. I’ve heard a lot of people say, “You guys finally got it right.” Mainstream media often gets criticized for not doing that. We’re trying to tell the stories that aren’t as obvious to people and do have a level of nuance that perhaps get lost often, particularly when you’re a larger news outlet.

ET: I’m a young, Asian-American reporter, and one of the things that I think people like me struggle with is not wanting to be pigeon-holed into just reporting on identity issues. Do you have any advice for journalists of color who are just starting out?

TV: Young journalists of color shouldn’t shy away from reporting about race and ethnicity, but they also shouldn’t feel obligated to report about race and ethnicity. The way they do that is by entering into fields that are non-traditional fields of reporting for them, whatever that may be. If you’re interested in politics, do it. If you’re interested in business, do it. I do think political and business reporting are two areas that have historically had an underrepresentation of journalists of color. That’s where there could be some very interesting opportunities.