KJ Whitehead, a black genderqueer performer (who prefers the pronoun "they"), takes pride in being able to go into the "straight white men's lair" of the Chicago comedy scene and introduce a new perspective. At a recent open-mike night, after sitting through an evening of racial jokes all made by white comics, Whitehead got onstage and turned the tables. "I don't want you guys to feel left out," the 25-year-old said, and performed a set making fun of white people.
This month Whitehead premieres their new comedic political talk show, America's Dead. Let's Party!, and in March the comedian will teach a new class at Second City called "Radical Comedy: Straight White Men Welcome," a course outlining how performers who are women, people of color, or LBGTQ can safely navigate Chicago's comedy scene without sacrificing their identity.
"I've been discouraged to go out to comedy shows in my skirt and heels and makeup only because if I get on stage like that, I'm going to have to explain it," Whitehead says. "It's turned some audiences off to me, but I've also gotten a whole new fan base. And then I get in touch with a whole new group of gender-fluid performers."
But Whitehead's goal isn't to shut out white men completely—it's to start a conversation. Part of the class is about how to clearly establish lines of racism, sexism, misogyny, and homophobia that shouldn't be crossed in comedy, lines that Whitehead says many performers are just unaware of. And the monthly lineup of America's Dead. Let's Party! isn't restricted to politically and socially like-minded people like inaugural guests Matt Brown, Jillian Ebanks, and Prateek Srivastava—an open invitation stands for any conservatives to come on and safely discuss their point of view.
"I'm clearly black and I'm clearly fabulous, and people already look at me like I'm not even human," Whitehead says. "Why am I going to do that to someone else? Sure, their logic could be flawed or their facts are flawed, but at the end of the day they're still human beings."
The most important thing, Whitehead says, is to foster an environment of support and acceptance, both in the political world and in the comedy scene.
"I fear getting harassed, not just for my skirt but for the color of my skin, especially with who our president is now," Whitehead says. "As a straight white person, especially if you're male, you won. The least you can do if you already have the privilege is to let people know that 'Hey, there are other people who don't look like us because they were born a certain way. Let's listen to them.'" v