Seinfeld, and the Tale of the White Lunchroom
“So, you fucking with them white girls now, huh?” Laugh, laugh, chuckle, chuckle, smirk…period. The suggestiveness of the slight hung in the air, stung the conversation, strung by its ankles; the implication would run deep. Ken called me out. Ken and I were peers, him an art major, me a drama major, at the prestigious and heralded F.H. LaGuardia High School of Music, Art, and the Performing Arts, now known as LaGuardia Arts, but better known as the “Fame” school. For the younger set, Nicki Minaj, or Onika, or “Cookie” graduated from there…she was a senior when I was a junior. Don’t ask me about her. The day Ken said what he said, what prompted him saying anything in the first place, was Alexis coming into 6th period lunch, and very calmly and seductively, sitting on my lap.
Alexis and I flirted, often. And flirting in a way that didn’t involve me writing a somewhat anonymous love poem to a girl in hopes the unrequited love would make for a good Love Jones sequel starring myself and Regan Gomez-Preston (fam, her in The Parenthood? Couldn’t tell me she wasn’t the Neo to my Morpheus). But, Alexis was white. Like, really white. Not like the “nah, she could pass for Puerto Rican slash Dominican slash light-skinned” type. I mean, she couldn’t quote Martin or I’m Gonna Git You Sucka or New Jack City or any Spike Lee joints kinda White. And one BET show does not a Black person make, but still, this was super new for me. Ken had called me out. I was hanging out with a White girl….now what? That same year, when I found out this other White girl Anna liked me freshman year, my immediate thought was, “why?” The closest I ever came to being remotely attracted to a white woman came in the form of those overtly sexual Suzanne Summers Ab Roller commercials, and the secret porn stash hidden behind my momma’s headrest, under her bed. Even then, it was always surrounding some boyhood ultra-fetishized fantasy. The “Alexis” encounter” was the first time I was able to draw the conclusion that, in spite of marchings, beatings, protests, sit-ins, jailing, whippings, lynchings…lunchrooms were still segregated. And maybe, if you look close enough, so is your office space.
For some background, the incident mentioned prior was during my sophomore year — me, feeling myself following what could have been considered a successful freshman year in Marat’s acting studio class. I would spend the following summer chipping away at the former shell of me; understanding that the young Black boy who only knew White people as actors, policeman, or teachers, was now sharing classroom space, lunch tables, thoughts, ideas, and feelings, with them — as peers, as friends even. So, when I watch Seinfeld, or Friends or Sex in the City (great writing, great acting…let me live), or even more recently, a Girls or a Vinyl, the whitewashing of Black faces when the location is the melting pot of global culture that is New York City has never been surprising: ask Jerry Seinfeld.
The “show about nothing”. So good Wale created a slew of mixtapes off it. So good Hulu collaborated with an ad agency to create a replica of the show’s set to commemorate episodes being streamed on the app. So good people get coffee with Jerry in cabs and talk about comedy some decade and change later. I recently participated in a focus group on entertainment, because for some reason or another, people think my thoughts are important to be shared aloud, and the topic of the show came up — the lack of robust central characters of color was an issue but at the very least, the very bottom of the least, Black characters were shown in everyday roles: marathon runners, store clerks, retail patrons. They had speaking lines, and weren’t afforded the ill-fated “random ass Black guy/gal showing up in order to create the false illusion of a diverse cast/plot” scenario. This is success, no? I had to begrudgingly agree, because it was true. I knew tons of non-Black folks who didn’t have Black friends, who didn’t have other races embedded in their social circles. They didn’t even act like they tried to have Black friends.
And I mean, could I blame them? Who wants to be led by the hand, curtain removed, and shown the world through the eyes of a person of color? That shit is work, and not the RiRi kind of work, but the kind of work that detangles infrastructures and political ideologies. Also, could I blame Jerry Seinfeld for not taking it a step further, a lá Friends adding Aisha Tyler to the mix to add that extra element of taboo interracial love that wasn’t really discussed but rather just floated ever so nonchalantly from episode to episode? I mean, a step is STILL a step, right? But, I get it. Jerry cut his bones in all-White spaces with predominantly all-White comedians. So did Larry David. Their reverence for the legends of Black comedy is widely known — the Redd Foxx’s, Eddie Murphy’s and Richard Pryor’s of the world, and of more recent lore, the Chris Rock’s, Dave Chappelle’s, JB Smoove’s, and Hannibal Burress’ (aka the Cosby Killa) of the world. But the stories that Seinfeld and David (doesn’t that sound like a law firm?) concocted in that allotted half hour were only a reflection of the world they were inhabiting as upper crust White men. Walk around the Upper West Side, or Upper East Side, or damn near any side of any part of the five boroughs of New York City that hasn’t served as some part of early 90’s rap video, and I’ll show you a city that looks less melting pot, and more like Miley Cyrus’ high school birthday parties.
Maybe I need to read more to make my lunch room broader, bigger, deffer — affix it color codes and margins to keep those who want in easy passage and those who want out, neon red exit signage pointing them to the nearest section of a segregated pool hall, or bar, or beer pong contest. My lunchroom, both in reality and fiction, resembles an episode of Captain Planet: some WASPS, a few brown folks, a few Black folks, some mixed folks, a couple of Braman’s and Herzog’s. But, my actual lunchroom, my work lunchroom, also serves as a lunchroom that once required a coworker and I having a secret Black Alert anytime a new Black face entered the halls, because you knew how diversity tasted; and while you applaud your awesome boss for trying, you also know counting Black faces on fingers because you can, because the numbers are not more than your extremities, a sore thumb sticking out of the proverbial hand you call your office space, does not make you feel proud.
You grew up watching White counterparts interact with other White ones, and you witness what appears to be the token Asian or token Black, or token Latix with them, hanging on, hanging on to their words and choice in art and choice in fashion and their silence when those choices all feel very stolen and very appropriated. Everyone is a token here, everyone a transfer — all of us paying fares to make melting pots, to soak up a semblance of change and progress. I walk into lunch rooms as an adult and enjoy partaking in the game of Race Olympics, with tables and coffee machines and water coolers spread and scattered, a milieu of voices stretching across high vaulted ceilings, conversations fluttering about. We are all adding to the sounds, the tones of Power and Game of Thrones and The Bachelor and Emmy’s talk — we are all playing parts of ourselves in the marathon that is who can master the art of code switching?
You listen to the talk, and listen for the gaps, you listen for the awkward that ensues when you recognize the Black ones talk Power and Empire, the White one’s talk Game of Thrones and Stranger Things…the Asian ones talk Narco with the White ones. The lunch room becomes less of a room of voices, and takes leanings towards a cacophony of one sound drowning out the sound of the lesser. When the faces and voices do not resemble yours, you will either assimilate to meet the flavor of the pack or you thirst yourself to find the herd model that will fit your need for water. We will find who and what is in closest proximity to that in which is most aligned with our values, our biases, our histories.
So, my challenge to myself and you the reader, is to take your lunchroom, OUR lunchroom, disassemble the pieces, break down the tables, and flip it on its head. Reach out to someone that doesn’t look like you, feel like you. Sometimes, the color lines are just chalk ones really, easily erasable; the distance between two persons as close as a breath. The other day, I had a conversation with a coworker about hip-hop that I would have never even known was possible. Connections happen when we allow them to, when we open our pores wide enough to let the air in. Change your lunchroom, please.