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Lena Waithe

Emmy-winning writer and actress Lena Waithe appeared at Union South Tuesday night to give the keynote address for Black History Month. 

PHOTO COURTESY OF SHOWTIME

Lena Waithe was lucky enough to attend the "Black Panther" premiere, and she felt like she “was in the land of milk and honey,” she said, running into people she knows and loves, like Snoop Dogg and Janelle Monae.

But more than the party atmosphere, the movie itself was a prime example of what she firmly believes: differences are superpowers, and Hollywood benefits from the representation of people of color.

“(The actors’) skin is like soil,” she said. “That is a revolutionary act, is to see that many brown-skinned people. And there’s like what, three white people and two of them are villains?” she said, to audience laughter.

Waithe is an writer, actress and producer. She recently won an Emmy for comedy writing on the Netflix series "Master of None," where she plays Denise.

She’s African-American and queer, and when Waithe addressed the crowd at Union South Tuesday night as the keynote speaker for the university's Black History Month celebration, she made it clear that she views neither as a barrier to her success. They’re her hard-won birthright, and she uses them to her advantage — especially in white-dominated spaces.

The talk was presented by the Black Cultural Center and the Wisconsin Union Directorate Distinguished Lecture Series. UW-Madison students Marquise Mays and Nia Scott moderated the discussion. 

Waithe said that growing up, she “always wore my blackness like a leather jacket,” and treats “my blackness, my queerness, my womanness” like “superpowers” — a sentiment she also shared as she accepted her Emmy

Standing out can be an advantage, something she quickly realized when she moved to Los Angeles in pursuit of a career in television.

“I knew that I stood out in a sea of white, but that was a beautiful thing, because that sea of white was more interested in looking at me than I was in looking at them,” Waithe said.

“My blackness and my queerness and my womanness is actually admired, it’s lusted after, it’s stared at,” she said. “They’re like, 'Whatever that is, we want a piece of it.'”

She doesn’t want to be exploited for those qualities, but said “it’s about me being the better chess player ... if anybody’s going to exploit all this otherness, it’s going to be me.”

When an African-American audience member asked a question about how to further his career in stand-up comedy, and began talking about the challenges of succeeding in a place as white as Wisconsin, Waithe cut him off.

“There’s no excuse. There’s no excuses. Excuses will keep you in the same space,” she said.

That’s why she brushes off often frequent questions about the hurdles she faces as a queer woman of color.

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“Here’s the truth, the only color Hollywood cares about is green,” she said. “So when they all see how much money ''Black Panther' has already made and then will continue to make … what they’re going to do is go, 'Oh, Monday meeting, where’s our Black Panther? Who’s going to write it?' Ain't going to be a white dude ... that’s what shifts the industry.”

She talked about the importance of media representation in her own life. As a kid in 2002, she stayed up late to watch Halle Berry win the Oscar for Best Actress on a small television in her bedroom. She remembers thinking, “if the industry can do that, if they can embrace her in that way, then maybe they can embrace me.”

Black Panther also highlights the rich heritage of African-Americans, she said. Waithe walks with confidence, because she knows she comes “from a people that was stuffed onto a boat like sardines, and were vomited onto land that was not their own.”

“Being out, I better be,” she said. “I can’t deny any part of myself because it would be disrespectful to those that fought to stay alive to get here. So that, to me, is what the movie is about. It’s about royalty is in our DNA. It’s what we come from. And when we go there we were tricked into thinking you’re not kings and queens, you’re pawns. It’s like, no. We’re kings and queens, you just can’t always see our crowns.”

That means Waithe is upfront about her sexuality. She wants to create an atmosphere where, “it’s cool to be out, it’s fly to be out,” she said. “I’d rather take a hit and save a kid's life than be closeted and be comfortable.”

She doesn’t have time for people who bristle at her authenticity. A question from the audience asked Waithe how she would respond to someone who uses religion to condemn her sexuality.

“Energy is more valuable than anything on this planet. Who I give it to, I’m very discriminatory about,” Waithe said. “So if folks want to wrap themselves up in Bible verses … and live in a space where everyone looks like them, worships like them and loves like them, that’s their prerogative. I don’t choose to live in that space. So that means our paths won’t cross. And that’s unfortunate. Because I think we all have someone to offer each other.”