I’ve been performing live comedy since 2010. I’m a comedian, TV and film writer, Sundance Fellow, DJ, Mauritanian, and Muslim. I have a Bachelors in behavioral neuroscience because I was interested in prejudice, how it manifested physiologically and psychologically in the brain, and keeping my African parents happy. Here’s one of the first jokes I ever wrote:
I have a Black friend who had sex with a white woman and she started saying “yo” and “dope.” Yes, he sexually transmitted ebonics to her. At first I was mad! I was going to hop online where, you know, where justice happens. Then, I was like, “You know what, what if it happened the other way around? What if I had sex with a white woman and could finally say ‘Hello, officer’?”
I began to notice that when police brutality wasn’t in the news, that punch line was superhot fire for alabaster audiences. But when a Sandra Bland, Mike Brown, or Walter Scott was in the headlines, for white audiences, it was all “Hey bro, too soon.” We all live on a Race-Time Continuum: Black people perceive racism as barely decreasing over time, where white people dip in and out of traumatic events in the Black community in waves.
Back in 2016, following the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, I decided I wanted to make a short film about the cyclical loop of racialized violence called hashtag. Along the way, Korryn Gaines also was murdered by police in August. I set out to show white people the cycle I saw using a Groundhog’s Day format in the last moments of an unnamed Black character’s life. In the climax of hashtag, two police officers who have been tailing the main character (played by me) break into his house and shoot him dead. Then, he comes back to life only to be in the same situation, and he has to learn from the past how to survive: Don’t move too fast, comply, answer questions calmly, be tone-policed while you’re scared shitless, rinse, repeat.
I made a trailer and set up a GoFundMe to crowdfund the short. But parallel to all of this was the 2016 election which, as we all know, fucked this country up for the next Virgil years. As the soul of the country was being fought for in the voting booths, Castile, Sterling, and Gaines’s deaths faded away from public consciousness. National attention refocused on red and blue waves of white feelings, not the impending recipients for the consequences of a Trump presidency: Black people and people of color. So hashtag stalled.
The project stayed on the back burner at the beginning of 2017 when I got a job making social-justice videos for Mic. When I lost my job soon after, I was advised by industry peers to turn hashtag into a feature project; a surrealist dark comedy about police violence was apparently too dense for a short. I spent the summer of 2017 working on creating a short version, a feature version, a TV pilot version, web series version, shit, I even wrote Vines — any format that would get the idea of hashtag out. While sharing the short film version of the project I met with mad white execs and production companies, and I shared the script with many white readers and editors. The main notes? “Too radical.” “This isn’t accurate.” “Police violence isn’t in right now.” Somebody told me that I should “both sides” the story. You know, show the police officer side! (Who am I? The New York Times?) You know how many fucking TV shows about police there are? Google it, it looks like a damn Cheesecake Factory menu.
In April 2018, I decided to make my own short-film version of hashtag. I teamed up with musician Quincy Ledbetter as DP and badass producer and improviser Michelle Thomas as director to produce the film, the same month two Black men were arrested in a Philly Starbucks, BBQ Becky was making the rounds live from Oakland, and Stephon Clark was murdered in his own backyard. As I worked, the loop of police violence — the murder of Jordan Edwards, the refusal to prosecute Alton Sterling’s killers, and the acquittal of Philando Castile and Terence Crutcher’s murderers — continued, followed by the white wave of “awareness.”
But while I was making it, I forgot a lesson that I had been learning from white people my entire life: The white apathy machine would keep on churning. Once this realization hit me, I couldn’t escape the idea that my Black body was going to get thrown onto the pile of real Black bodies and these good, woke, wholesome Alabaster-Americans would look at it, get their tweets off, make hashtag an IRL hashtag, and then turn a blind eye again. As I watched the rough-cut footage, I couldn’t get the thought out of my head: They don’t care. They never will. I had set out to “make white people understand,” but in the process, all I would do is traumatize Black people who already know what they’re up against. I spiraled. For months, I wrestled with this feeling. “Maybe it can work! Look at ‘This Is America!’” “No, it’s more harmful than good.” “They need to see it. They need to be aware!” “They are. They don’t care.” After countless tweaks, fixes, and pitched workarounds, I decided to drop hashtag while watching the news cycle for Atatiana Jefferson’s murder: “They already saw hashtag. But it didn’t change them.”
Police have such a positive media narrative in this country because they control it in a way that Black people have never had the access to. Changing that starts with gaining control of our narratives at the very ground level of comedy, improv, and art spaces. Black expression is policed by white people at all levels of gatekeeping. It requires navigating a labyrinth of fragile white emotions that, when triggered, can be detrimental to your own health. The same framework of white supremacy that lives in the police lives in white people. They are the cops to Black people’s creativity.
White people who are liberal-minded still parrot white supremacist thoughts. “Oh there’s more diversity! Now there’s less jobs for white people” is just “Immigrants are taking our jobs” but with a LaCroix. “Look, we have a Black character/writer/actor/comedian on our lineup“ sounds a lot like “Look at my African-American!” They’ve created an environment where Black people who should work together are all fighting for one spot in the white space where we’re clearly a photo op.
White proximity to Blackness is cool, but Black proximity to whiteness can feel like survival. We feel very uncomfortable in all-white spaces, and the reality is that in a police state, we’re guilty until proven innocent. Within our creative power structure, Black people are afraid of retaliation due to the insidious ways in which whiteness, which hovers over every interaction, can be fatal to our careers. Being Black means we have to have receipts. But we shouldn’t have to have receipts. Having receipts means that in the moment we weren’t allowed to have a constructive conversation about damage that may have been done due to frameworks of power, a culture of fear, or weaponized fragility.
The same way white people are at the front of protests, protecting Black people, they need to have the same energy for Black people, especially Black women, in this industry. White creatives at every level of power should be asking themselves: What can I do to make Black people safer, creatively and physically? What can I do to create a no-strings-attached, no-white-promo space for Black people? How can I relinquish power and trust that a Black person knows their voice and what they’re doing?
We can’t be exploited as unpaid “diversity coordinators” like Keisha Zollar was by the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York. We can’t be powerless “Chief Executives of Not Looking Racist Even Though There Be Racism Afoot.” We can’t be asked to put on Black Lives Matter benefits like Second City did to Dewayne Perkins by guilty white institutions who want to look good and not do good. We need more leaders like Milly Tamarez of Diverse As Fuck and Who Made The Potato Salad with Shenovia and X. We need Black shows to be exactly as promoted as white ones; Southside and Netflix’s Astronomy Club deserve their day in the sun, unfettered by algorithmic obscurity. We need Black shows to not be stuck in development hell for years by a network of gatekeepers whose priorities are Q3. We need shows like Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas to be given more than two seasons to grow. We need more all-Black writers’ rooms so expression doesn’t get curbed as it does everywhere else. We need Black DPs, directors, social-media managers, and showrunners.
In life, you try and you fail, but as a Black person, you can’t fail too publicly. People always ask me “Where is hashtag?” and the only people I will apologize to are the people who worked on the project and believed in the spirit of my goal with it. The money went straight to their pockets; I didn’t take a cent home. The response from a lot of white people came off as, “Excuse me? I ordered a little bit of Black trauma for the table. I was wondering what’s the holdup?”
My short film was a failure to me — not in the sense that it was a bad film. But I had set out to make something so white people could see, feel, and understand my pain, and I missed the lesson that I should have seen way earlier: The white gaze is obsessed with Black trauma. White people already see our pain. They just look away when it makes them uncomfortable. This film would’ve become as disposable as white people view Black lives, and that truth broke me and took me to dark places. I don’t and never will want my pain, Black pain, to be fetishized or consumed by white traumavores. I’ve been too patient for too long, and that patience has run out. I’m a midwestern first-generation former seventh-grade teacher; if I’m done with you, you know you’ve been eating at my nerves for too long.
You might still want to see hashtag. That’s okay. Just look around — you’re in it. We can’t keep simply sharing Black trauma and going through the cycle. Awareness isn’t enough; we need action. This is the time we break it. This is the last time you get to go through the loop. There’s no looking away; we won’t let you.
*A version of this article appears in the June 22, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!