Ziwe Fumudoh isn’t trying to get anyone canceled, although the guests on her popular Instagram live show consistently run that risk. Since quarantine started, the comedian and “Desus & Mero” writer has adapted her YouTube series “Ziwe: A Race-Baiting Series” into must-stream TV where thousands of viewers tune in each week to watch her goad guests into a game of verbal ping-pong — and usually results in them making a racial faux pas.
“There’s an element of performance of coming from me, as a host, and coming from my guests, as people who are answering for their racial biases,” Fumudoh, who goes by Ziwe professionally, says. “I’m not there to judge their performances. I’m just there to critique why they feel the need to perform the fact that they have 4.5 Black friends.”
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Once a guest is in Fumudoh’s crosshairs — or split-screen, rather — it’s a rapid-fire barrage of incisive questioning, occasionally punctuated by her own penetrating stare. The lineup has included notoriously internet-canceled personalities, like food media’s Alison Roman and influencer Caroline Calloway. With Roman, who appeared on the show after making controversial remarks about Marie Kondo and Chrissy Teigen, Fumudoh asked what the former senior editor of Bon Appétit did to change the publication’s environment to include more Black people (Roman’s answer: “I didn’t do anything to change that”). She also quizzed Roman on civil rights leaders.
With Calloway, Fumudoh asked what the prolific Instagram caption writer had been doing “the first 25 years of her life” before she says she “discovered” racism in 2018. Other recent guests include actor/activist Rose McGowan and actor/playwright Jeremy O. Harris.
It’s a game that Fumudoh, 28, is particularly adept — she can call out an answer as “performative” with icy aplomb — and one she still isn’t sure why her guests choose to play with her.
“At the end of every interview, I ask my guest, ‘Why did you come on the show?’ because I’m genuinely curious. I’m curious why you would want to volunteer yourself to talk about such a sensitive topic as race in front of 20,000 people who are commenting about how you’re answering your five favorite Asians too slow, ” she says, referring to one of her exchanges with Roman.
Perhaps, for some white women at least, it’s an effort to rehabilitate their public images, a form of penance in the Internet age.
“I don’t know if I have that power,” says Fumudoh, with a laugh. “I think it would be really funny if I became the Ellen DeGeneres of race relations, and if you ever did anything problematic, you have to talk to me. You’d have to go to ‘Ziwe the Principal’s Office’ to reconcile whatever problematic thing you tweeted or said in your interview.”
Frank discussions about race, though, are nothing new for Fumudoh. She remembers having those same talks in the dining hall at Northwestern University, where she entered as a math major and ended up studying African American studies, film and poetry. It’s the latter she fell in love with, after a professor told her writing “is how you’ll have power as a Black woman.”
“And then I very quickly realized poets don’t get paid,” she remembers. “I didn’t know if I could be destitute. I couldn’t tell my parents like, ‘I’m going to be a poet laureate. Thank you for all your sacrifices and for what you’ve done.’ Like, good luck.’”
Fumudoh toyed with the idea of earning joint law and doctoral degrees and becoming a civil rights lawyer. She recalls her mother driving her back to college senior year and saying it wasn’t too late for her to decide to become a doctor.
But she eventually found her comedic voice, interning and contributing to “The Colbert Report” and “The Onion” and through performing stand-up comedy. A few years ago, she performed her first set ever at Brooklyn’s Union Hall. It touched on childhood traumas and was completely improvised. “People laughed. It was like, ‘Oh my God. This is awesome,’” she recalls.
Fumudoh joined Showtime’s late night show “Desus & Mero” as a writer last year. The culture of the Bronx, where hosts Daniel Baker and Joel Martinez are from, reminded her of her own hometown of Lawrence, Mass., a mostly Latinx community where Fumudoh grew up the daughter of Nigerian immigrants and middle of three children.
She attended Phillips Academy, the predominantly white prep school in nearby Andover, where her name was a constant source of embarrassment during roll call. Fumudoh remembers reminding her teachers and peers that it was phonetic — “zee-way,” rhymes with “freeway.”
“They would literally treat it like it’s foreign, although they could pronounce ‘Dostoyevsky,” she says. “You could pronounce ‘Cherkovski,’ but ‘Ziwe’ for some reason is much more difficult.”
She refers to another unusual name, often pronounced with little trouble: “‘Sigourney Weaver.’ Like, that name is made up,” she says, laughing.
Being a first-generation Nigerian American is an experience Fumudoh holds dear, one that she writes about “all the time” and is even crafting a pilot around.
“Being the child of immigrants, you are instilled with a work ethic that is unparalleled, right?” she says. “Because you’ve watched your parents really struggle in this nation. But then there’s also a lot of stress and trauma that comes from feeling like you have to carry the torch for not just yourself and your parents but an entire bloodline of people from a different continent.”
Her parents, while proud of her, still don’t exactly know what she does, other than work in entertainment. “They don’t have the jargon of ‘multi-hyphenate’ in Yoruba,” she jokes.
But Fumudoh has managed to become an entertainer who understands the language for discussing race in America by embracing the discomfort of the subject in a way that inspires introspection. She says she gets messages from her white audience members saying how they have asked themselves the same questions she asks her guests and thanking her for illuminating their racial biases.
“So, that? I love that,” she says. “That is extremely what I’m doing.”
And after a lifetime of navigating mostly white spaces — from college to comedy — she’s feeling extremely herself doing it.
“There was a time where I was ashamed of having these interests, of having this sense of humor because it’s like when you move through these institutions, it’s kind of beat out of you, this individualism,” she observes.
“I don’t know if you’ve heard of this theory that finding yourself is finding who you wanted to be when you were a kid. It’s like you’re returning to that inner child and what they actually wanted. So, right now, I feel like I am finding the version of Ziwe when I was 5, 6, 7 years old before I was influenced by external forces. I’m learning to celebrate who I am.”
She’s heartened by members of Gen-Z, who seem much more comfortable with engaging in discussions about race, and by K-pop fans for leveraging the Internet for their activism.
“I think they are so cyberpunk,” Fumudoh says. “To see the way that this fandom is mobilizing to fight tyranny — that is beautiful.”
She’s a BTS fan herself. But when asked if she has a favorite member, Fumudoh uncharacteristically keeps her thoughts to herself.
“Hmmm,” she says. “That’s a good. But wait — I don’t want to say something that will get me canceled.”