So is laughing while black an offense now?

Published 6:49 pm Wednesday, September 2, 2015

By Elizabeth Ann Thompson

Tribune News Service

The issue of “driving while black” has long been documented. But the latest social media firestorm was born from an instance of “laughing while black.”

A group of 11 women belonging to a book club, 10 of whom were African-American, were kicked off a Napa Valley wine train in California for being too loud. Lisa Johnson and her fellow club members chronicled the incident on social media, and their account went viral. The management of the wine train subsequently apologized and offered to make amends by offering a private dining car to the club and 39 of its members’ friends. (Management also claims it kicks white folks off the train at least once a month for being noisy.)

Yale professor Elijah Anderson and University of California, Berkeley professor Nikki Jones have analyzed the way white people react to people of color in so-called “white spaces” and how blacks are “policed” by other patrons and by management in restaurants, theaters and other public places. Black and brown children and adults are more likely to be shushed, stared at or kicked out of places where white people perceive that they do not fit.

After hearing about the recent incident, Norma Ruiz, a Latina, went public with her experience on the same Napa train that ejected the book club. She described how she was asked by another patron to quiet down. Her group _ all Latinas _ moved to a different area of the train and was then warned by staff, though not booted off the train. Ruiz had booked her birthday celebration on the train because when she rode it on a previous occasion, she saw a group of white women being boisterous and having fun.

As a society, we need to come to grips with the way people of color are judged and punished for behavior that is seen as harmless when performed by white people. This phenomenon is really about black and brown people having the nerve to make ourselves visible when we are still living in an era of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” It’s OK to be a person of color as long as you are not noticeable.

Let’s hope all the attention to laughing while black raises public consciousness, lifts the burden of public opprobrium and allows black and brown people to cut loose and have fun.

Elizabeth Ann Thompson is a freelance writer in Oakland, Calif. She wrote this for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues; it is affiliated with The Progressive magazine. Readers may write to the author at: Progressive Media Project, 409 East Main Street, Madison, Wis. 53703; email:; Web site: For information on PMP’s funding, please visit

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