Stereotypes and Improv, or Fracturing the Backbone of Systemic Bias

Every now and then, I get an arrow to the belly. It happened the other night in class. Two improvisors in a scene unwittingly deployed a racial stereotype and it hurt. Rather than swallow it and disappear, I brought it up. Then everyone felt hurt and, for the next few days/weeks, a little sore. “Adulting” came in through the front door of improv, and improv got a lot less fun. I want to talk a little here about that arrow to the belly, and why it hurt—not in the service of lingering on the pain of racial injustice in the U.S. (!!), but rather as a way to help heal some of the injuries we all experience as denizens of an inherently (and often unconsciously) biased nation. I’ll conclude with some thoughts on how to consider bias in improv, without having to censor ourselves or walk on eggshells, and what to do if and when we mess up.

When I told my husband about the arrow to the belly, he had a lot of responses. “I’m sorry that happened,” “That’s too bad,” “Ouch.” But then, tentative, he asked, “But aren’t stereotypes what improv is about? I mean, aren’t ALL of your scenes based in stereotypes?”

Ah. Well.

Yes and no.

As improvisers, we sketch characters fast. To do that, yep,we leverage a shorthand that everyone in our culture and society already speaks. Stereotypes allow us to get to the point by raising the stakes, creating problems, and sometimes just making something funny. (For an example, see the end of this missive). It’s an important tool in our arsenal as improvisors and, let me be clear, I am in NO way suggesting we eliminate it.

But here’s the thing most of us already know: Stereotypes are a cognitive shortcut we use (and need) to make sense of the world. But deploying stereotypes on stage enforces systemic bias: that is, the belief that stereotypes are true (for more, see here). Moreover, the systemic biases we hold as a nation have real, measurable, and unwanted consequences. To name just a few: women get paid 80% less than men, clergy can refuse to marry homosexual couples, black men can’t hail a cab, and on and so on. We can all identify more (and significantly more horrific) examples of how systemic bias plays out in the daily news cycle. And when it comes to bias-in-action, the news only catches the scum at the top of the pond. Systemic bias is playing out in real time, all the time, right before our eyes, even right here in Marin (which is the county ranked first in racial disparity in the entire state of California). If we don’t see bias regularly, it is because we have the privilege of being unmarked.

For those of us who don’t have this privilege—because we are of a “marked” race/gender/sexuality/ability/religion/class, etc.—systemic bias results in a daily sufferance of slings and arrows. Frankly, it sucks.

The other day in class, I got arrowed.

(Let me digress: can we get rid of the idea of “being offended” in this kind of situation? If I say I’m offended, it sounds like I’ve heard an eight year old say a naughty word in polite company. As a matter of fact, I imagine a nun hearing an eight year old saying “fuck” and sending that child to bed without any supper. “Getting arrowed,” on the other hand, makes me think of being skewered like a chicken, which is exactly how it feels.)

Here’s what happened: In a scene, two performers unwittingly deployed a stereotype about Chinese men (that they are ugly, short, and smart), and all in an instant:

  1. I became hyper-aware that I was the only not-really-white person in the room.

  2. I got re-traumatized. I won’t go into the details, but this particular stereotype about Chinese men has had direct and painful consequences for my family and me.

  3. I wanted to disappear. I literally thought I should leave and never come back to improv again. In the past, I would have done just that. Indeed, I’ve pulled that disappearing act often, and I’m not alone. It’s something that many “othered” people (including women in dominantly male spaces) have reported as being a regular, rather then occasional, experiences.

  4. But this time, I thought: “Holy shit, mother fucker. I’m nearly 50 years old. I can’t leave, I have to speak up. Fuuuuuuuck!”  (Oops, no supper for me.)

Once the scene was over, I did bring it up and was grateful for everyone’s willingness to consider, discuss, rehash. We moved on to hugs and more scenes. Drew moved on to a week of thinking about this intensely; I moved on to a week of thinking about it intensely, and then writing this missive.

Where do we go from here? Here’s my take on how to deal with bias in improv:

  1. Don’t be a dick. And let me be clear, “being a dick” in this context means intentionally, or at least thoughtlessly, deploying stereotypes. It means always insisting that all women are highly sexualized, or that all latinos are illiterate, or that all homosexuals speak with a lisp. I have NEVER experienced anyone in Improv Marin doing anything of the sort. Ok? So don’t worry too much,it probably won’t happen. Often, we think that any reenactment of systemic bias is equivalent to invoking Hitler. This is is adamentely not true.

  2. If by accident, I arrow or in some way injure an actual or imagined audience member or classmate, I can say, “Oops. I’m sorry.” If someone brings an injurious act to my attention, I can say:

  3. “Thank you,” and “I’m sorry.” Or, “please tell me if something I’ve said or done feels bad, and thank you for letting me know.”

(For more on how this might work check out White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. Or just read the New Yorker review :))

Here’s the thing. Most of the time, in accidently reenacting systemic bias, it’s like I’ve stepped on someone’s toe,and not in the hob-nailed boots of the Third Reich. I can apologize and be just a little more mindful in the future.

In other words, don’t worry about it too much. We all make these mistakes. What hurts is when someone refuses to listen or own that mistake.

So again, “Oops, I’m sorry” goes a long way to making everything better.

  1. Try to play people who are racially, sexually, gender-ly, class-ily and ability-y diverse. Of course, given everything I just wrote above, this is more scary than ever, right?! It’s a balance: all we can do is try our best with the best of intentions. I guarantee we will all mess this up. We’ll find ourselves playing Colombian drug lords and dumb blondes and everything else. In these cases,remember #2: Oops! I’m sorry.

Ultimately, here’s the thing: when we’re willing to keep trying, we’ll also find ourselves playing severely disabled, extremely attractive people; or dumb, white male stockbrokers; or nuns conflicted about their sexuality. And that’s one of the super cool, totally awesome aspects of improv. All live performance (and maybe all art in general) can be a tool to combat stereotyping. But improv in particular (because it’s created in the moment, because it deploys stereotype shorthand, because it’s funny) can fracture the backbone of systemic bias.

Really? Can it? Isn’t that a tall order? Maybe. But I’m game. Are you?

An addendum: Here’s an example of how and why stereotypes work so well in improv:

In a scene, two people are attracted to one another. Person A says, “I’m already married to someone else.” Fine. The stakes have been raised and we’ve got a problem that needs to be solved. This is a potentially interesting scene (and one we play with often). Now imagine that instead of being already married, Person A says, “I’m a nun.” The stakes are raised even more. We’ve got a much bigger problem to solve, and the scene is much funnier. Why? Because we recognize that, stereotypically speaking, nuns are not only sexually unavailable (just like married people), or even only celibate, but that they are actually asexual. The scene could continue and explore the sexuality of this particular hastily sketched nun;or maybe the scene ends right there because the word “nun,” especially juxtaposed with sex, is often funny all by itself. However the scene progresses, the shorthand works.

© 2019 Jennifer Chan
Jennifer Chan is a human and Improv Marin community-member.

Drew Meritimprov