One of the major problems with modern conversations about race is that people rarely sit down to have an actual conversation about race. Even in the era of social media, when we’re more connected than ever, most of what we do is respond instead of listen. There’s seldom back and forth, just increasingly first draft ideas based on initial emotional responses. That’s why Yedoye Travis’s racial debate podcast Dark Tank has found a constant home in my weekly podcast rotation.
Launched in the summer of 2018 and loosely based on the similarly named reality show, Dark Tank features a panel of comedians of color listening to pitches from white performers aimed at fixing racism. The results are predictably awkward, and just as often blisteringly funny. But the magic of Dark Tank comes after the pitches, when the panel, Travis, and his white “gentripreneurs” talk out each idea.
What often start as laugh out loud absurd ideas about fixing the blind spots of racism quickly become in-depth conversations, peppered with sharp comedic riffing. While the white guests don’t get treated with kid gloves, the show isn’t set up for anyone to fail. “There’s never been a person I’ve brought on where it wasn’t me, at least mildly, assessing whether or not I think they can be on the show or if they would say something damning to themselves,” explains Travis. “That’s not what I want the show to be. It’s not for people to go on and ruin their careers. I’m not Sway.”
Part of what makes it work is the reverse in power dynamics, something Travis is acutely aware of. According to Travis Dark Tank was started, “because black people often times end up having a lot of these conversations either by themselves in an echo chamber or when white people entirely outnumber them.” In many ways Dark Tank is a safe place for people of color to speak frankly with their white peers in an elevated state of authority. When you’re riffing backstage everyone is trying to land a laugh, not hear a point. But on the podcast, listening is an essential element of survival for its white guests.
At its best, the show becomes a jumping off point for more extensive discussions, from education reform to white slavery as a form of reparations to cultural definitions of art. In an episode about dealing with Kanye West, comedian Jane Harrison suggested giving the turbulent singer a fine arts academy to focus his energy. After all, what’s less cool to kids than fine art? This then raises the question of if West is already doing fine art. Watching these conversations evolve and unfold is often uncomfortable, but they seldom end in chaos. Ultimately it opens the door for broader conversations that spotlight the often unintended grey areas that birth microaggressions.
These microaggressions are something Travis has been experiencing his entire life but attending a predominantly white private high school brought them into focus. “At that age, you don’t realize what is okay and what is not,” he told Paste. “So there was a lot of putting up with stuff for a long time and then just drawing a hard line out of the blue and my friends would be like, ‘What is going on?’ And I’d just be like, ‘No, I just realize the past few months have been really bad for me.’”
These lived experiences inform each episode, serving as the inspiration to roast particularly silly ideas (forcing white people to rollerblade so they can experience discrimination) and celebrate surprisingly solid ones. Travis’s favorite pitch so far is from Jame Hamilton, who suggested a racial credit score for white people. “It works the same as a regular credit score, but the people around you source it. Black people get a separate app where they can rate you,” Travis told us with a laugh. “And then if you want to move into a black or brown neighborhood you have to have a credit score of 700 or higher,” quickly adding, “first month’s rent, last month’s rent, and a super high racial credit score.”
It’s an idea that’s resonated with audiences, quickly building a devoted fanbase after only a few months thanks to a viral Tweet. On December 29, 2018, Travis posted the following tweet asking supporters to share.
Hey, I have a podcast called Dark Tank where I make white people pitch solutions to racism to a panel of black people. If this appeals to you or people you know, consider a retweet.— Dr. N Word Nigma (@ProfessorDoye) December 29, 2018
The response was instantaneous, but due to travel Travis didn’t immediately find out. “I Tweeted and got on a plane. When I got off, it had like 20,000 likes.” Within a few days of the Tweet, Dark Tank had received 13,000 new downloads, landing at number five on the iTunes charts. While things have cooled since the show is still steadily building its following. Currently, it resides at 153 on the iTunes Comedy Top 200 podcasts.
While Travis is the mastermind and heart of the project, the show has pulled an impressive number of guests both established and rising. Josh Gondelman, Kate Willet, PG. 99 vocalist Blake Midgette, Alice Wetterlund, Matt Braunger, and Jackie Kashian have all graced the mic offering solutions. Travis’s panelists are equally impressive, showcasing voices like Jak Knight, Dulce Sloan, Rob Haze, and Rel writer Dave Helem. Hell, Dave Chapelle himself recently dropped in a for a few minutes during a live show at The Comedy Store. Dark Tank is a constant stream of surprises.
It’s also become my most recommended podcast, particularly among white friends. Whiteness often exists in a bubble. The reason “my black friend” is a cliche is because of the sheer number of white people who honestly only know one person of color. It’s easy to pat yourself on the back and ignore the blind spots in your own life, mainly if you’ve never been made aware of them.
Dark Tank is a brilliantly, brutally, funny podcast, but it’s also a way for white listeners to check themselves in private. To spare friends of color an offhand comment you “didn’t mean that way” because you’d never realized an idea was problematic. For listeners of color Dark Tank is a chance to hear white people taken to task for their careless ideas and gleefully mocked anyway for their good ones. Whether it brings you catharsis, education, or both, depends on your background. Just don’t call it important.
“It bothers me when people say the show is important. I get that a lot,” says Travis. “I don’t think I’m really solving racism obviously, but people approach it with this attitude like I’m doing the Lord’s work. And I’m just like, ‘No, I’m just trying to make the best out of circumstances that I have.’” Interestingly it’s mostly white people who tell Travis how important it is. “There’s been a couple of black people that say it, but it feels like it comes from a different place. I do feel like it’s important to just sort of shift the power dynamic and push toward a situation where we can speak to each other comfortably.”
Travis continued, “I think there are things that seem like fixes but are really bandaids and Dark Tank sort of makes you think more critically about the real world bandaids that we’ve tried to put out.” It’s finding the lessons in these well-meaning ideas that form the show’s roots. “There are so many ways to think about it that we can explain to you without explicitly explaining.” Dark Tank isn’t a lecture, but an uproarious conversation between people sitting down to hash out difficult topics. It may occasionally make for uncomfortable listening for some people, but given the path Caucasians have burned across history, it’s a treat that our discomfort comes with so many laughs.
John-Michael Bond is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. He’s on Twitter @BondJohnBond.