Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The laughter that a diverse family brings: Note for a lecture, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United"

Conner image from

WASHINGTON — As of Wednesday, Ryan Conner was no longer in the running to be NBC's "Last Comic Standing." But the 34-year-old from Woodbridge, Va., probably remains the most singular comedian in America. The opening to one of his sets tells you why:

I have a huge family and we're multiracial. I have 11 brothers. My parents got divorced when I was 2. My mom and stepdad have been together since I was 4. My stepdad is black. I have two black stepbrothers. I have four adopted brothers who are black. I have two Vietnamese brothers, one Chinese brother and two white brothers. Picture a college brochure. That's the basic look of it.

We look like a cult that's on a field trip. . . .
One time, dude told me a racist joke. I thought he was asking me a question. "A black guy, an Asian guy and a Hispanic guy are in the car. Who's driving?"
I don't know, my mom?
I was 17 years old before I realized that everyone doesn't slather their body in lotion two to three times a day. I thought we were all one nation, fighting this ashy-ness thing together.
Conner has a million of these.
Often, racial humor comes at somebody's expense, particularly "the Other." But Conner's humor has an assumption of humanity built in.
The white comic loves people who don't look like him, calls them family, so he's free to talk about his Chinese brother, or his gay brother, or his ashy brothers in a way that's smart and funny without a tinge of hurt or superiority. This is what happens when you grow up with difference. You develop comfort and ease with one another that can defang the harshest racial headlines and save us from our worst, least ambitious, most retrograde selves.
And it makes Conner seem like the really cool white dude at the party.
"Whenever people bring up anything on race, they hedge to be safe, instead of just being honest," Conner says. "It's not offensive to say people have different color skin than you."
And if, like Conner, you have a black stepbrother whose name is Brent White and a white brother with the same first name, you just call him "White Brent." Seriously, you can't make this stuff up.
As a judge on "Last Comic Standing," comedian Keenen Ivory Wayans, put it: "I love that you have such a rich life. You have points of view into worlds that no white guy is supposed to have."
Judge Roseanne Barr called Conner a "post-modern comic" who is "wonderfully American."
Conner — who lives in Los Angeles, writes for the humorous MTV series "Ridiculousness" and plans to tour doing stand-up — says the praise belongs as much to his mother, his stepfather and his upbringing as it does to him.
His mother, Debbie White — a finance officer for Prince William County, Va., public schools and a passionate advocate for adoption — says the family has lots of differences but blends together.
"Our African American boys, they're very much African American. Our Vietnamese sons are still very much Vietnamese," White says. "I just don't understand why people still have these barriers. It just makes life so rewarding and so rich to know people of different ethnicities."
She tells stories like her son. Some inspire tears instead of laughter. Her youngest four African American sons are siblings. The Whites met them at a Norfolk adoption party, where they had hoped to adopt a girl. But they started talking to a boy, Toric. Usually, siblings up for adoption have matching name tags, but Toric had torn off the bottom of his. The Whites learned that he told his social worker that, at 14, he was too old to be adopted and he didn't want people to associate him with his brothers, because nobody would take four African American boys. "He just prayed his brothers would find a home and stay together," White said.
She and her husband, Allen, a retired network engineer for Prince William County public schools, decided to adopt all four.
Someone commented online that every white person should grow up like this. Someone else corrected: Every person should grow up like this. And White agreed. It's "not just a white issue. Asians need to know everyone. And black people need to know everyone. I think if everyone had a close friend or family member who was black or Asian, you lose your racial stereotypes then, because you really know a person as a person and you realize the things you hear aren't necessarily true."
She has another story: Her Vietnamese son came home upset when other Vietnamese kids arrived at his school. If one of them does something wrong, everyone will think bad of me, he told her. Why would they think bad of you, she asked, before a realization brought her up with a start. "That's how people are. A black person commits a crime, you assume other black people are bad. As a white person, we don't think that way. We don't take all of that upon ourselves," she says. Moreover, "Nobody else puts it upon us."
If we spent more time with each other, that's one of the many things we might pick up.

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