My name is Yedoye Travis. I am a black man, which is difficult for some people to hear. The thought of such a thing is frightening, like a ghost sitting alone at a scary movie, popcorn fluttering through its intangible features and into a comical yet spooky pile on the floor. “But why does he continue to eat if he cannot be sated?” you think aloud. “Why do the work of bringing hand to mouth if the specter’s business shall yet remain unfinished? Ah. A metaphor perhaps.”
Explaining my race to others is often quite challenging. I begin to speak and am met with vitriol—swift, but reasonable. After all, Martin Luther King invented peace with the intent that it never be disturbed. I persist, but the battle is hard fought. Maps, diagrams, color palettes—it seems as though my point cannot be made with only the tools at my disposal, i.e. the color of my skin. Yes, I am technically a shade of brown, but my people are called black. I recognize that this is cause for confusion.
To that effect, I understand that we as a people are in need of simplification. Explaining the ways in which we are different can be exhausting. I am black and I am a man. Imagine my blood pressure.
It has come to my attention that people can be different in other ways. A person can also be a woman. But should that be the case, it is in that person’s best interests to be white. This is simple math.
It is in all of our best interests to be as few things as possible. Remember the old American slogan, E pluribus unum, “Out of many, one.” Simply put, of all the many things available for us to be, it is probably safest that we each pick one. Black? Great! Black and a woman? Slow down!
I feel that now is a good point to stress that to be a man is not a thing and to be white is certainly not a thing. To be both is to spin aimlessly in a virtual closet awaiting customization. You are the default player in Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2, yearning for distinguishing features, even just a hat to set you apart.
Of course, this all goes double in storytelling. One thing that is sure to make or break a good film is superfluous detail. Stories about immigrants grow tiresome when those immigrants come from unheard of countries like Nigeria or Mexico. Who can keep up? This is why a film like District 9, for example, works so well. The immigrants are an alien bug species from another planet who live the immigrant experience without all the muddy baggage of being actual human immigrants. Of course, I’m sure you’re thinking, “Why, aren’t aliens considerably more foreign to us than human immigrants?” That’s where you’re wrong. Everyone knows aliens are the white men—the default—of space. That is why Rose Tico, an Asian human, is still a welcome touch of diversity to The Last Jedi despite there being thousands of aliens and no mention of an Asian continent in the Star Wars universe. Of course, the film loses its way when it becomes clear that she is also a woman, but again, this is math.
X-Men, one of my all time favorite comic series, triumphs in telling a story that is close to me—the story of the Civil Rights Movement—without confusing me with all the details of what actually happened or who was actually there.
The story, of course, centers on two conflicting schools of thought spearheaded by Professor X and his sometimes friend Magneto, clear allegories to Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, respectively. Now this is where our rules from before come into play. In order to tell a good story, one that isn’t overbearing and disorienting, the main characters need to be relatable, and that means white plus another thing. Dr. King and Malcolm X were white plus melanin, or black. This was their choice, and it was a good one, at least in terms of storytelling. Professor X and Magneto are white plus mutant powers. Another excellent choice! And with characters they can finally relate to, white men can now learn about the Civil Rights Movement, with their lessons scored by a chorus of “See? It can happen to us too!” Of course, X-Men does falter at times, adding less relatable characters like Spike, a black teen whose power is to have spikes. Lesser known for a reason if you ask me.
Now of course, this way of storytelling is to the benefit of those who cannot comprehend the two, three, sometimes even four-thingedness of a person. Those who meet a Spanish-speaking Muslim and get whiplash in spite of the massive Muslim presence in Spain and the rest of the world. Those people deserve the benefit of the doubt. They deserve a pat on the back as they watch police brutality toward orcs and say “Oh NOW I get it!” Because the erasure of people of color from their own narratives is not so explicitly in spite of us as it is in absolution of them. Because the distinct burden of whiteness, a burden so frequently discussed in history, and one shared in part by all men, is to find an admirable place for oneself when one’s own history has never been erased—when one is fully aware of the extent to which one’s own genealogy can destroy, and all at once, the extent to which it can bore.
Yedoye is a Bushwick based stand up comedian, writer and culture critic from Atlanta, GA. He has appeared on TBS, Netflix, and the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. His debut album, OK, was released by Comedy Dynamics in January 2018.