A Seat at the Table: Why Representation Matters by Jasmine West

Spssst. Let me whisper in your ear like the Ying-Yang twins and let you in on a not so kept secret. Representation matters.

If a 10yr old black girl said she wanted to be a successful comedian when she grows up, who would you point to in 2019 for her to watch?* Now, imagine the same scenario with a 10yr old white boy. In under 0.00076 seconds, you would have numerous comedians to recommend him. For people to believe they can do something, it's crucial they see people who look like them doing it.

My first-time stepping foot into Dallas Comedy House was for a reception held for recipients of the DCH Diversity Scholarship. This means when I proudly chasséd into the lobby of 3025 Main St. I saw individuals who I quickly and easily found relatable. As a black woman I met other black women in comedy. I was matched with a mentor who looked like me and had a successful career in comedy accomplishing goals that were like mine. As a pansexual, I mingled with other members of the LGBTQIA+ community and laughed while sharing similar experiences around dating and life in general. It was a beautiful evening of laughs, cultural references and networking. The representation displayed that night gave me a much-needed confidence boost going into my first term at DCH.

Photo Credit: Jason Hensel

Photo Credit: Jason Hensel

This is the part of the blog where ‘The Twilight Zone’ theme music starts to play and the handsome Rod Serling steps out from the depths of the shadows of wherever you’re reading this to narrate, “For Jasmine, it would be months before she would witness that level of representation during the day to day activities at DCH again”.

As dramatic of an experience as that was for you to read, that's how dramatic it sometimes felt for me at the beginning of taking classes. Sure, I would catch glimpses and blurs of a black person while going to class. I would see my stand-up teacher Paulos every Sunday and that counted, but that’s the problem. I was counting. I was counting because I felt underrepresented. There was a quiet voice in the back of my mind calmly reminding me, “There are other black people here.” Some days it played like a record on repeat, some days just once. I knew for a fact there were others, I just couldn't manage to find them when I needed them.

On the rare occasions I do run into a group of 3 or more black people, we excitedly huddle in a corner to laugh, joke, and be near one another. Mostly because we understand that it isn't every day we all just so happen to occupy the same space at DCH at the same time. I needed to see more POC because I needed to know that I was not alone in the discomfort and isolation I sometimes felt as a result of being black amongst a plethora of non-black faces, no matter how kind they were. Thankfully these run-ins serve as chicken n’ dumplings for my spirit when I need it most.

Photo Credit: Jason Hensel

Photo Credit: Jason Hensel

You might want a crumpet to pair with the following tea. POC are not the only people who benefit from representation in creative spaces. By including diversity in spaces where original content is created, you allow for accurate portrayal to take place. Without POC included the door is blown off the hinges thus paving the way for offensive characters on stage that endorse these trifling stereotypes that for some reason are clinging onto dear life in this, the year of our Lord Michelle Obama, 2019.

Example: A non-POC steps out to play a gangster or drug dealer. They walk like they’ve been shot in the leg with a BB gun, grabbing their crotch like they have an itch, and inexplicably butcher the English language with the overuse of slang expressions.

This is incredibly insensitive and offensive to watch. Representation is crucial because often, the stereotypes linked to minority groups are negative. This is more dangerous than not holding your ear down whilst getting your edges straightened with a hot comb. As a POC I would much rather see an actual POC on stage still being true to their culture, but without being a negative stereotype for the sake of comedy. I hope you haven’t finished your crumpet because I have more tea: if representation of a POC on stage is a white person portraying an offensive caricature, it isn’t true representation and it’s hurtful to the POC in the community.

Spssst. Hey, I’m here to whisper in your ear again. Guess what? Lack of representation is sooo fixable. Here’s a 3-pointer:

  1. Take initiative! Make an effort to authentically include POC in your conversations, events, teams, and social circles.

  2. When you’re involved in a community, look for a lack of diversity. Then speak up about it.

  3. If you have a seat at the table, actively make an effort to include minority voices (yes, plural) by offering them a seat at that table.** Remember, decisions made at the table impact POC regardless of whether they had a seat.

Representation encourages POC to continue when we feel like giving up. Seeing another POC succeed is like seeing ourselves succeed. This is why we often use the hashtag ‘For The Culture’. It’s reserved for moments like Uncle Jordan (Peele) announcing that he’s renewing and producing the iconic ‘Twilight Zone’. This means that some precious little black boy who wants to be a producer and screenwriter can look at people like Uncle Jordan and believe in himself. Jordan Peele is serving us #ForTheCulture realness and yes, it’s a big deal.

*Jessica Williams, Phoebe Robinson, Issa Rae, Maya Rudolph, Dallas Comedy Festival-alum Sasheer Zamata, Michaela Coel, and Marsai Martin. Just to name a few!

**A seat at the table: A phrase referencing individuals holding a position of influence or power. Having a seat at the table, means having the capability and the platform to evoke change. To cook these collard greens down for you; influence is the table and your seat is a ticket to inclusion.

Jasmine West is currently enrolled in level six of Improv at Dallas Comedy House and member of the former Ewing Improv team, ‘Mahogany’. You may have also seen her Stand Up comedy here and there. She enjoys champagne, fangirling over David Bowie, and talking about race. She looks to Michelle Obama, Phoebe Robinson and Beyoncé for spiritual guidance.