“When I talk about race, I like to start with shock.”
That is precisely what Allison Williams did on Sept. 23 in KJ’s Red Pit. In front of Hamilton community members, Williams dove head-first into her pursuit of racially charged comedy as she opened her lecture with a tale of different racial preferences in inappropriate Craigslist ads.
The shock, Williams explained, introduces the topic of race in a way that sets the tone for the rest of the set. A blunt acknowledgement of this controversial subject eliminates any barrier and allows the performer to establish a connection with the audience. So, what happens if that connection doesn’t occur?
“The challenge with making jokes about race is that if one person in the audience misunderstands you, you look like a massive racist. And if that happens, I have failed as a comedian,” she said.
This acknowledgement comes from someone who has spent her career straddling the complex relationship between humor, culture, and political correctness.
As a comedian, writer, performer and world traveler, Williams holds unique expertise. Her experience includes gigs with the New York Times, the Travelers’ Tales anthology series, and on-air contributions to the National Public Radio, among others. Most recently, she contributed to a race and culture program for CBC Canada.
Williams read a series of vignettes detailing her time spent in Dubai, India, and South Africa. Among these excerpts, she noted that comedic voices can be “amplified by the culture around us.” It takes an individual to enter into the culture as an “other,” or as a minority, to truly see this. Williams’ understanding of different cultural systems has improved her ability to impact different audiences; her awareness of her role as a privileged, white female in America has made her more conscious of her writing’s impact.
Williams articulated her duty to convey “issues that I care about in a way that makes other people care about them, too,” and this passion has driven her to keep writing, performing, and educating others. The subject is not easy to navigate, and every day Williams faces the challenge of connecting with a new audience.
However, her connection to those in the Red Pit was clear. Not many college students could deny the relevance of Williams’ comparison of badly executed jokes to the diluted quality of the recent twerking phenomenon in the “We Can’t Stop” music video: “It’s kind of like twerking. Some people copy it and do it really well, and then you have Miley Cyrus.”