What's So Funny About Our Racist Brains?

There’s a joke that encapsulates the current state of many American’s attitudes toward race relations. It goes like this: “How does every ethnic joke begin? With a look over your shoulder.” Even though everyone should know better, we have ample proof our knee-jerk, and sometimes uncomfortable, assumptions go deep into the national psyche. When presidents, pundits, and, sometimes, playwrights try to encourage us to have a national conversation about race, they must first ignore the myriad ways — contradictory, comic, tragic, mundane, healing, and hurtful — that Americans already discuss and live race. In her new play, Smart People, Lydia R. Diamond proves that a conversation about race can be funny, moving, nuanced, and probing.

Smart People engages in this quintessentially American dialogue by posing a question: what if we could find an inherent biological cause for racism in the brain, proof that a certain amount of bias is inevitable? One of the four characters in Smart People is Brian, a white, male academic who researches race by “ . . . bserving neurological responses the brain has to various images. How the brain is affected by race.” The rest of this funny, observant drama plays out against the backdrop of Brian’s research and its effects on and implications for him, his Asian-American lover, Ginny, and his African-American friends, Jackson and Valerie.

Inspired by research into implicit bias (the unconscious ways in which people discriminate) and set against the backdrop of the 2008 presidential election, the play acknowledges how far we’ve come in terms of biased behavior while questioning how much further we can go in eradicating biased thoughts. “Brains are idiosyncratic by their very nature. Really, they’re just weird and all work differently — this is fertile ground for a dramatist,” explains Diamond. This kind of research is difficult because, historically, race and science has often been a toxic mix. We can gather all kinds of data, but we are not great at interpreting that data without resorting to preconceived notions. In other words, it can be hard to know which is the chicken and which is the egg. When we get the results of a study, then there is the question of what to do with the information. In integrating scientific research into the play, Diamond notes, “There are balancing acts between science and how that knowledge plays out in human relationships.”

Human relationships are the crux of this play and the crux of a healthy, integrated society. These smart people in the play, living in Cambridge, graduates of Ivy League institutions, are all very aware of racial politics. They own their “difference” with a sexy bravado, and yet as human beings, they still sometimes get blindsided. Diamond is quick to assure that the play is funny and as much about contemporary relationships as about the ideas underpinning the drama. “For some time I have written about race with a sense of knowing, a presumed authority,” she explained, “Our times have humbled me. We must elevate the conversation in order to earn it; for a moment I shied away. But you know what? It is about race. Yes, we’re tired of it so let’s figure it out already.” 

— Lisa Timmel


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