Oakland Comedian Karinda Dobbins Says What’s On Her Mind
When asked about the perspective she brings to the stand-up comedy scene, Karinda Dobbins said, “there aren’t a lot of women, there aren’t a lot of women of color, and there aren’t a lot of women of color who are also lesbians.”
She was drawn to comedy because it meant having her ideas heard.
Her first performance was a dare. Six years later, she’s a regular on the Bay Area comedy scene.
At moments, her comedy is silly and self-deprecating. In the set I saw, her sole instance of physical comedy involved getting down on one knee to show how one of Cosmo’s lesbian sex positions would cause tendinitis. In another joke, she describes her experiences with non-paying online dating services by saying “that’s just broke people winking at each other.”
Much of her material is autobiographical and inflected with what my sister calls “grown-ass womanness.” There are very few jokes about bodily functions, sexual exploits or actions that conflict with her controlled stage persona.
She does have a joke about the countless ways Nicki Minaj describes the ambrosial taste of her own vagina. But the joke’s humor is carried by the dismissiveness of a comedian who casually (and regularly) dispenses wisdom. Karinda wants to make sure we all know no-one’s vagina really tastes like that.
Though she and I didn’t talk explicitly about the role of respectability politics in comedy, its presence was there when she mentioned on-stage anger.
“People can’t take that from a black woman, I don’t care who she is,” she said. “A white man can be angry on stage and it’s never seen as a threat or not likable if their jokes are structured well.”
Part of Karinda’s comedic power comes from her way of working the pauses between jokes. She often draws out an “um” right before breaking off into a peel of half-incredulous laughter. The “um” has no veneer of indecision, no whiff of buying time; it’s a powerful dose of cultivated nonchalance, a way of reminding you that, no matter how shocked you are by what that white person said to her at work, she’s heard much worse.
At the heart of her jokes, she says, is absurdity. Watching my favorite absurdist comedians, like Kate Berlant and Reggie Watts, feels like watching a college tour guide who spends half the tour explaining how God interprets the differences between rocks and squirrels. Absurdity can render all material equally deserving of comedic attention.
Karinda’s approach is different. In her description of absurdity, she brings up the assumptions that people routinely make about her:
“I have a job. I shouldn’t have to prove to people I work with that I deserve to be in this position.” she said. “I do comedy. I shouldn’t have to get onstage and have people assume the type of comedy that I’m going to do. I’m a lesbian and people shouldn’t assume that I hate men.”
Were Karinda a college tour guide, she wouldn’t give the rock-squirrel distinction more than a passing one liner. Her sets are (mostly) focused on the stuff that has actual stakes for people’s lives.
Accordingly, a fair amount of her comedy circles around the theme of race. In the interview, I asked her to name five things she wishes white people just understood, to which she responded: “Oh my goodness. Narrow it down to five things!”
- When one black person tells a white person they can do something, that doesn’t apply to all of us.
- Don’t use the term “ghetto” as a blanket term for anything broken or not seen as correct or as a code-word for anti-black.
- Telling a black person that they’re really intelligent or speak so well is not a compliment. I’ve heard it…so many times. It’s basically saying like, “Oh you’re a good black person, not like all these other black people that I know.”
- Being an ally means “Yes I want this for you, but I want it to be in your voice.” For example, in the BLM movement, sometimes white allies want to take over the space and not let the voices be heard.
- My number one thing I wish white people knew is how much harder black people have to work to get anything. I’ve never seen a black person in any position they weren’t qualified for. Almost in every case, they’re overqualified for it. Affirmative action exists to counter racist practices so if you can’t eliminate racism, you can’t eliminate affirmative action.
I told Karinda that most of what I’ve written recently has been about how people have conversations about race. She brought up a time when, in a scathing review of one of her shows, a white woman called her a racist. Karinda chose to post the review on Facebook, because she wanted to address the frequency with which white people conflate talking about race with being racist.
“I didn’t pull this stuff [material about race] out of the air,” she said. “I’ve taken some of the worst parts of it out because it would just bum people out.”
She told me that when she’s on stage, she knows that white people’s reactions are “built into a legacy of how America wants you to talk to them” about your experiences with race.
“White people want you to tell them about your experience in a certain way,” Karinda continued. “Like you can have dogs put on you and water hoses put on you, but when you talk about it, you better not be angry.”
She described this desire for only palatable testimony as the “Fox news thing” of pretending that racism doesn’t exist. If it doesn’t exist, she said, certainly “I can’t talk about the horrors of it,” or the way that it “strips humanity from people.”
Apparently, the other frequent white person response that totally misses the point of her set is “not everything is about race.”
“Yes, but this thing I’m talking about is. And a lot of life is,” she said while laughing.
[Thanks for reading. This story originally appeared on ripple.co. If you like what you read, please check out more of Nina’s Ripple stories.]