Nato Green Talks About White People
Nato Green, the San Francisco-based comic and organizer, has released his latest, The Whiteness Album. Green has a long history in labor organizing. He was a co-founder of Young Workers United, the nation’s first workers center for young and immigrant workers in the low-wage service sector. He salted (getting a job in a particular workplace so that you can organize your coworkers) for the United Food and Commercial Workers International and the International Longshore and Warehouse Unions, and fought hospital closures in poor communities with the California Nurses Association.
Much of Green’s organizing experience shows up in his comedy. He was on the writing team for Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, and performed nationally with Bell and Janine Brito in the Laughter Against the Machine tour. He writes a regular column for the San Francisco Examiner and is the creator of Iron Comic, a game show spoofing Iron Chef. He also hosts FSFSF, a short spotlight on Bay Area comedy that airs every Tuesday during NPR's All Things Considered on 91.7FM KALW. The Easy Bay Express calls him "erudite and acerbic, a San Francisco-rasied father, union organizer, gastronome, bibliophile, and political sparkplug."
In The Whiteness Album, Green tackles Trump’s election, gentrification, climate change, nostalgia, hate groups and much more. The Whiteness Album is the best kind of comedy, both challenging as well as funny, while highlighting the forces that shape White identity and the choices facing White communities. Green is currently living in Cuba with his wife and their two daughters, so we conducted this interview by Skype. I asked him why he made the album, how his kids feel about showing up in his comedy, and what organizing and comedy have in common.
Why did you want to make a whole album about White people? Don’t they get enough attention?
Yes, yes, obviously the White male perspective is under-represented and we need a turn to be heard. Over many years doing hundreds of shows with Kamau (Bell), Hari (Kondabolu) and Janine (Brito), where I was the only White guy in the show, I saw that if you are not a straight White man as a comedian you are automatically read by the audience as representing your group. People who aren’t straight White guys are always aware of the audience’s reaction to them with a lens of: “I would expect a Black guy to say that, I wouldn’t expect a Black guy to say that.” They make choices about playing against it or not, but it’s a question that never goes away. At some point I decided to explicitly claim the burden of having to represent all White people on stage in the way that the audience makes comics of color represent their group. It’s ridiculous when I do it, and the audience realizes it.
This is the unfunny thesis statement behind the jokes. We’re in a moment in history in the wake of the rise of Trump and extreme Right-Wing backlash and the conversation about White supremacy. Remember a simpler time when we were arguing about whether or not we were post-racial? Facing an intense racist backlash, there was a national conversation occurring about race, racism, the state of White supremacy, and whiteness. I felt like I had something to contribute. There are more people than ever talking about “ending White supremacy,” which is definitely progress beyond things like “celebrating diversity,” but I don’t want “end White supremacy” to get flattened into an empty hashtag or meme. Trump has already ruined the word “great” and made it meaningless, he can’t have all of the words. Finally, I wanted to make an album that I could 100% guarantee would end racism if enough people bought it. The problem is that I don’t know how many that is, but we’re not there yet apparently.
Right after the election, I wrote a column called Whiteness Cooks the Planet. It’s a clumsy argument but logical—the main political opposition to responding to the imminent threat of climate change at the scale necessary is the fossil fuel industry which is most aligned with the GOP, whose voter base is primarily white and specifically motivated by racial resentment. Therefore, ipso facto, Occam’s Razor, Gordian knot, reductio ad absurdum, racial resentment of white GOP voters is responsible for the climate crisis ending civilization.
I loved your rundown of all the barbecue joints that used to exist in San Francisco. That was such a detailed that came from your actual life. What else do you miss from the old San Francisco before the current wave of hypergentrification?
For starters my own fucking family. Of my family I’m the last man standing in the city. In the first dot com boom, my dad got evicted and moved out to the suburbs. In the last year, my mom and brother had non-rent controlled houses and ended up moving to Colorado. Growing up in SF of my generation, there is a way that diversity was effortless. You had to work to not be around lots of different kinds of people and exposed to lots of different cultures and be familiar and conversant in what other people were up to. That was part of why it was so great to grow up there.
I miss people of color having an easier time taking up public space to live their lives. Often I hear White people from outside SF declare that the Mission District is dead and the Latino community is dead. We should stop fighting for the Mission because it’s too late. But there’s still a ton of Latinos in the Mission. If you’re at 24th and Mission BART after midnight, there are still immigrant workers coming home from restaurant jobs downtown, like there always were. If you stand on Valencia Street, the notorious promenade of tech conspicuous consumption, and just look up. On every single block right above the storefront levels are still rent controlled-apartments housing working class immigrant families. But they don’t get to feel and act like it’s their neighborhood anymore. They squeeze through spaces left by coders.
As the city increasingly becomes a city for the rich having carefully-curated experiences, it’s diminished your chances to encounter people who challenge the limits of your knowledge and your expectation of how the world is supposed to be. To give you a way to grow and learn. It’s easy now to stay in a bubble in a way that it wasn’t when I was growing up. There was a sense of raucousness, of insane pollination that was happening spontaneously in the streets. One of my fondest memories was of the Super Bowl, maybe ‘90 when the 49ers beat the Broncos. I found myself in the middle of a spontaneous mosh pit in the Mission that included both Cholos and skater punks. The kind of possibility that comes from that creatively, culturally, intellectually, I think it was really special and important to me. It’s vanishing. Being a San Francisco native in this day and age is unending heartbreak, you’re just constantly saying goodbye to things.
You say we can’t imagine a world without White supremacy because there’s no Amazon show about it. One of my theories about why we don’t tell more solutions stories is that they’re boring to watch. Is there a way of raising visions for racial justice and still entertaining human beings who have a need for excitement and conflict in their stories? Wouldn’t that be a boring show with no conflict? How would you make a racially just world exciting to imagine?
A couple of months ago I posted a question on Facebook asking White people if they could imagine a world without White supremacy. Facing all the alt-right marches, I kept seeing calls “to stand up to White supremacy” and so I wanted to put the question out on social media (the best place for nuanced conversations) just to see how people articulated it. “Apart from the strategic question about how the world would need to change to end White supremacy, can you imagine what it would feel like to you as a White person? How would it feel to be a White person without White supremacy, for your lived reality as a White person?”
People had a hard time imagining it. People got hung up on whether it was possible without ending capitalism and patriarchy. There were a couple people who said, I thought somewhat naively, it would be great, and then other people who said I think I would feel less comfortable.
There are certainly ways to tell stories about a solution-oriented world that are still entertaining. To some extent my time in Cuba is sharpening this conclusion for me. I was at a film festival and I saw a German horror film about a Muslim woman with Spanish subtitles shown to a Cuban audience. America’s not even involved here. Obviously I’m not arguing that White supremacy doesn’t affect other countries, but there are places all over the world where people are living and existing and telling their own stories. To me, it takes getting outside of the perspective of how White people in the United States experience being in the world.
I’ve had the good fortune in my career as both comedian and organizer to be in spaces that were mostly people of color having their own thing and … I don’t know, man, it’s better. You and I talked a bunch while I was on Totally Biased, how it had the most diverse writers room in television, and everyone in the room could feel that it was made better by the diversity of perspective, and nobody having their experience taken for granted. Someone could say, trust me I know this joke is going to work. Or I don’t know what that experience is, but I’m going to trust you. Or people could say that joke makes me uncomfortable and here’s why. To me the dominance of White supremacy and White narratives in the culture ends up protecting White mediocrity more than anyone else. I’m not afraid that people who can write better jokes will make it hard for me to fit into the world that I actually want to be in.
We could probably assemble a writers’ room and cast and crew that could come up with amazing solutions stories. The second question is how does it get made? Most of the entertainment we consume comes through capitalist media companies who are, it goes without saying, not progressive forces in the world. Solutions stories, representation, justice, anti-racism—only squeak through if someone thinks it’s profitable.
Do your daughters resent you using them for political and artistic gain?
No. I’m on a mission to raise the wokest White girls of all time. They will say, “Daddy, use my joke.” We have a rule that if I’m going to talk about something they said or did in public or on my social media that they need to give me permission. So they’re involved. They don’t necessarily understand why people laugh when I repeat the things they say but they’re not uncomfortable. They’re nine.
You’ve been an organizer as well as a comedian for a long time sometimes serially and sometimes overlapping. These are obviously different disciplines, but with common elements. Organizing is political but also creative, and comedy is creative but also political. What can organizers and comedians learn from each other? Or things you’ve learned from the two disciplines in your life.
Imagine how much more personally successful I would be if I was capable of focusing on either one. But at some point, I just made peace with the fact that the person that I am is both and I have to be both. Both roles fundamentally involve seeking out and creating ruptures of the world that people know. As a comedian, your job is to present the world that is familiar to people back in a new way.
And as an organizer, your job is to get people to imagine possibilities that seem impossible. At this point, 20 plus years in, I’m convinced that one of the biggest obstacles is that it always feels easier and more comfortable to avoid conflict, accept existing hierarchy. Giving up the awful familiar for the unknown, maybe better maybe worse, that’s a tough pitch. Sometimes the two worlds collide, like occasionally I do these humorous public comment stunts where I go to government hearings and give public comment with jokes about an issue.
I respect other approaches to comedy, but the questions I’m concerned about are the same whether I’m doing organizing or comedy. Who’s suffering, who benefits? How does power work? Why is this happening? That’s like 80 percent of the work. I follow the thread from there. Being an organizer affects the work of being a comedian in concrete ways, like I feel a sense of accountability to activists. I never wanted to be the kind of comedian that people come and hear things they agree with and they can clap at. I want to challenge people’s ideas and push them out of their comfort zone but I want to do it on purpose and not obliviously.
More than most comedians probably, I have the benefit of having relationships with lots of activists, getting the benefit of their analysis and depth of experience and insight. I’ve learned that the kinds of jokes you can write about climate change when you talk to climate organizers about climate change and learn from their experiences and perspectives are much more interesting that the kind of jokes you can write about climate change when all you’re doing is reading news headlines. For example, track 17 on the album is informed in part by experience with Culture Strike. I talked to Roberto Lovato when I was working on this material, who I met in Arizona with you.
The last line of your album reminded me of many of my political conversations with kids, where I wax eloquent and then discover they didn’t understand a word I said. Actually, not just with kids. What lessons does that moment offer progressives? In that moment where you quote a racial justice icon, and your daughter says the only thing I don’t understand is everything you just said. I feel like that happens pretty often.
I would say the biggest thing is that I’m the butt of the joke. Based on what we know about how messed up the system is, I never wanted to be a political comedian who only indicted everybody else. I want to implicate myself in what I’m critiquing. We’re all messed up by this system. I don’t see myself as the Good White Guy. That’s a social type that I’m not. The White guy who’s super into being an ally. I’m trying to be a committed anti-racist, but I’m not the Good White Guy.
The other implication of that story, something I’ve learned talking to my daughters about politics, is that we don’t talk down to them. Our daughters started learning about racism at an early age. We live in San Francisco, we walk around the Mission District and see murals about ICE raids and they ask questions. We try to as much as possible as parents avoid saying you’re too young to understand this. We avoid talking about brutality and things that will terrify them. Like they wanted to understand exactly how Mike Brown was murdered, but we’re not going to talk about that. Beyond that, it’s a normalized part of their experience that we’re going to talk to them straight up, that we’re not going to bullshit them about what’s going on in the world.
That particular quote didn’t make any sense to them because it lacked context and wasn’t explained in a way to make it accessible. The other lesson for organizers - it’s never one thing; it’s about the relationship. There’s a long-term conversation that’s happening, with many moments of both modeling and exposure to experience, asking them to reflect on the lessons they’ve learned and the choices that have to be made about the kind of community they live in, the kind of school they go to. Things get reinforced and reintroduced and developed at many points.
What new questions came up for you while you were making this album? What’s the future look like for White folk?
I recently read (to be honest, listened to the audiobook) Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. There’s a section where she talks about how it is true that there are racial disparities between working class White people and working class Black people, but those disparities are less than the disparity between the working class of any race and the rich. She talks about being aware of the differences that exist but not allowing them to be a barrier to unity. I hope I didn’t misunderstand the book.
I’ve been thinking about that a lot. In this moment when neo-Nazis and marauding fascist gangs are on the move, talking in terms of White privilege seems like not the thing.
In light of the imminent undeniable threat of climate change, to me the privileges that are associated with whiteness are becoming less and less meaningful in a material sense. Cool how I don’t get followed by security at a department store, but also there’s a never-ending drought and deadly diseases from the Mesozoic era are thawing out of arctic ice. My Whiteness isn’t protecting me from that shit.
There’s a way Trump represents an exaggerated version of the experience of all Whites, which is having stuff that you do not deserve, didn’t earn and aren’t qualified to handle while trying to justify it, involving yourself and everyone around you in your fantasy. When the survival of civilization is at stake, why are White people so uncomfortable with dismantling White supremacy? I think there’s still a material benefit, but less and less so. It’s burning up. I suspect it’s about peoples’ fear that if they couldn’t hold down the majority of humanity, they wouldn’t have a place in the world. And they would be revealed as being incompetent. I realize I’m getting really close to endorsing meritocracy. I’m not sure I’m endorsing meritocracy so much as denouncing White mediocrity.
I’ve been trying (still unsuccessfully) to articulate to the Whites why I think we’re attached to White supremacy when it is so very much not in our interest in any real, human way. Partly maybe it has to do with the difficulty of holding contradictory thoughts. If it’s true that everything I know and love is built on a pile of non-White bodies, do I still get to love my family? I think the answer for most of us Whites is yes, but we’ll need to make sure our family members who can’t get there aren’t in a position to do too much damage to others by being, say, a President or policeman.