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“I should really just make that the tagline for the website: ‘Fun and Depressing,’” laughed Ti, a 32-year-old Chinese-American, forced to stare deep into the Internet’s ugly, discriminatory depths several times daily for his material. “Totally out of nowhere, fun, and depressing.”
Ti launched the Wusthof-sharp Tumblr in November 2011. The format was simple: Readers lobbed anecdotes and ideas at Ti, and he told them whether or not something was racist. It was an instant success. Within 24 hours, Yo, Is This Racist? had 2,000 followers and hundreds of questions. One year later, Ti has thousands more followers, a semi-regular gig writing about race for Grantland, and podcast on the Earwolf network, probably best known for being home to comedian Scott Aukerman’s Comedy Bang Bang, not to mention a backlog of over 30,000 questions.
“I’ve stopped hoping of answering them all; it’s not even in the ballpark of possible,” he said. “I did not think anyone was going to look at the blog, honestly. I thought maybe 20 of my friends would check it out and it would be fun for a couple of weeks, and that would be it. I had no, and even still currently have no, real concrete plans for it. There’s no road map for it.
And it’s kind of mildly depressing that there’s enough material to keep it going.”
But it’s a credit to Ti that Yo, Is This Racist? is rarely actually dispiriting to read. In lesser hands, a Tumblr with its premise might be a soul-sucking slog—or an overly dry, academic take on race relations. But Yo, Is This Racist? is blunt, profane, and endlessly hilarious.
The comedy springs from Ti’s unruffled dismissiveness of race-baiting trolls, the Tumblr’s excursions into absurdism, and his casually frank responses. (“Q: Yo, why can’t we all just get along?” “A: One reason is how racist a lot of people are, but I’m sure there are others as well.”)
“I do wanna stress that I’m not at all an expert in this stuff,” Ti explained. “I’m just a guy with a slightly different perspective than a lot of people, and maybe a more succinct way of putting it. But there’s a lot of very educated people that have way more actual formal knowledge about race relations or social justice. That’s not my background.
“But also, I never say anything I don’t believe. I answer things in my own dumb goofy way sometimes, but it’s still an honest reaction, and I hope it’s helpful in some way.”
The Yo, Is This Racist? podcast has a similar modus operandi. Listeners call in—to an actual landline answering machine—with questions, and Ti tackles them, with help from a rotating cast of guest hosts that has thus far included the Sklarbro brothers and Howard Kremer of Who Charted? Ti’s answered questions ranging from whether white musicians covering hip-hop ironically is racist to whether Fruit Ninja fetishizes feudal Japan. Earwolf initially approached Ti with the idea of starting a podcast, and Ti responded by planning a show significantly more ambitious than the format he ultimately went with.
“My first idea was this concept that was horribly impossible to produce,” Ti recalled. “I wanted to this radio play-kind of thing that would be sort of a sketch show, with characters. And logistically as soon as it started to come into focus I was like ‘This is a bad idea that’s going to be impossible to do.’ The format we went with has been right for me. There’s always a new question to keep it moving, which is good for me because I can’t do that freeform talk-for-45-minutes thing that some podcast hosts can do.”
Part of why Ti struggles with that is that, well, he’s not a professional, and he’s well aware of it. Prior to starting the podcast, he’d had no real performing experience, and it’s an intimidating experience to go from never hearing your own voice to attempting to be funny alongside a crew of standup comedians. So far, though, Ti’s acquitting himself well.
“It’s actually kind of nice just to be told ‘Sink or swim,’ and I wouldn’t say I’m swimming quite yet, but I’m becoming more comfortable with it,” Ti said. “When people tell me I do a pretty good job considering I have no experience at all, I don’t take it as a backhanded compliment. People will say ‘For a non-comedian, you’re great,’ and that is true. I 100 percent agree with that. These people have been seasoned on the mic for decades. I’m at the stage where it’s just fun to make them laugh. If somebody’s been on TV and I can make them laugh, that’s very gratifying even if it’s kind of an infantile metric.”
Although the irreverence is most definitely still there, Yo, Is This Racist? the podcast is a different animal than Yo, Is This Racist? the Tumblr—partially by necessity; the longer running time means that Ti tends to be a bit more meditative and explanatory in the podcast than he does in his lightning-quick responses on the Tumblr. And the questions and anecdotes he receives tend to be more civil and friendly than the ones submitted to the Tumblr; people, it seems, are more likely to behave themselves when actually calling someone and leaving a voicemail.
To which Ti said: Don’t be afraid, would-be detractors. He’s ready to take your call—and he’d be delighted to do so.
“There’s this sense of glee that I get it, and it comes across in the writing and elsewhere, from yelling at racists. I have a great time doing it. And there is nothing that people hate more than when someone they dislike seems to be having fun. That gets under their skin a whole lot. I enjoy that.”
“So for what it’s worth, all you racists out there, if you want to call in, I don’t keep track of the phone numbers,” Ti added. “It’s all anonymous. I know how important that is to the haters.”
Illustration via @yoisthisracist/Twitter, right photo via Andrew Ti