#TriviaSoWhite: Exploring trivia culture in Oakland through the eyes of women of color

“What is the name of the type of whiskey that is named after a fast sailboat?”

It’s Wednesday night at Room 389—trivia night, to be exact. Scattered throughout the dimly-lit watering hole are teams of no more than six, some clustered at the bar and high-top tables, some standing with answer sheets in hand, and others fortunate to be sitting at a booth.

It’s round IV—the final round—and a team called Joan and The Scammers are contending for the number one spot. The team is made up of a program manager, a scientist, an educator and a web developer who collectively have degrees from Stanford, Princeton, NYU, and St. Louis University. But they are stumped.

“I’m not white enough for this,” says Kiana Shelton, a 28-year-old high-school French teacher turned educational statistician. Shelton, an Atlanta native, used to compete on her high school’s Quiz Bowl team. Like the rest of her teammates, Shelton is, in fact, not white at all—she’s Black and she’s playing with Sanjay, who’s Indian, Monica, who’s Chinese, and Alexandra, who’s also Black.

“Sailing?” says Shelton, seeming amused rather than offended. “Uhh, that’s not a thing—that’s a thing of access and wealth.”

They’d fared better in the earlier rounds, answering questions about the first African-American woman to win the Academy Award for Best Actress (Halle Berry), the latest viral video trend (The Mannequin Challenge), the Sirius Satellite Radio mascot (a dog), and naming the legal term that means “under penalty” (subpoena) with ease.

But four questions earlier, their team had been having the same issue: “Name the different three actresses who played the damsel in distress in the King Kong movies.”

“I have no idea which white women got snatched off this tower,” Shelton had said, looking around at her teammates. They burst out laughing. “They’re all white ladies.”

Now, the other teams are busy discussing and writing down their answers. A three-point question isn’t one to miss out on. The Scammers can’t come up with anything.

Trivia in Oakland is definitely a thing. If you’re committed, you could play Monday through Thursday and have your pick of spots on most nights. But, if you’re a person of color, you may find it hard to compete because of the majority of the questions are hella white.

It’s easy to write off trivia as that thing that only nerds do, but when you truly take a look around, you’re more likely to see a bar full of white people than a bar full of nerds. The inclusivity within trivia—the assumption that everyone has been entertained by the same pop culture, been taught the same lessons in school, grown up in the same kind of household, read the same books—can actually function as a means of exclusivity. Friends, Dawson’s Creek and Seinfeld were not always on every single television set across the country. Bob Dylan, The Who or Doris Day are not always household names.

“This idea of what we consider trivia is still defaulting to this really white idea of what we should know and what’s cool to know,” says Shelton. “I think most Black people—we’ve had to learn everything about white people in order to survive, like knowing about white culture and whiteness and white comportment.”

Think of trivia as a one-way street that’s easier for some to navigate than others. A Black person may be able to name a white band, author or TV show without too much trouble, but the reverse is not always the case. The same can be said with regard to other people of color as well. It’s the difference between a white person saying, “Oh, that Black quarterback?” and a Black guy saying, “Oh, you mean Tom Brady?”

***

Aleah Rosario, who self-identifies as Mexican and Filipino, is a regular at Mad Oak, where on Tuesday nights, she gathers with her friends to play trivia. The spacious downtown hotspot, complete with outdoor picnic table seating and an indoor bar lined with TV screens draws a big crowd for trivia (and, if they’re playing, Warriors’ games) each week, even though it’s been open for less than two years. The stakes aren’t particularly high—a round of free drinks goes to the winning team—but you can’t tell from the competitive spirit .

“Who was the most dangerous man in America, who was also kicked out of Harvard, according to Richard Nixon?”

“Which American band from Tennessee has the number one album?”

“The best selling ever band from Australia is what band?”

Round one is underway.

“The questions were not culturally inclusive,” said Rosario, reflecting on the night later. This had occurred to her and her friends during the music round, in which players have to name both the song and the band or the singer after listening to a quick cut. “It was always a lot of like, rock, or basically white artists or white bands,” she recalled.

In fact, that night most of the bands on the roster are the likes of the Cranberries, Frank Sinatra and the Smashing Pumpkins. Rihanna, Tupac, Whodini and Shakira tunes are played during the Halloween-themed round, but out of 15 questions, songs by people of color only make up a quarter. Out of the 60 total questions asked that night, only 10 relate to non-white or non-European people or topics.

Nearby, Veronica Maxam is sitting at a table sipping beer while playing trivia with her boyfriend. “Sometimes I’m like, why am I here again?” she asks, sounding already defeated.

Despite describing herself as “pretty knowledgeable and well-read,” Maxam, who’s Black, says she gets increasingly frustrated by not being able to answer the majority of the questions. “I think it can be a little discouraging,” she says. “It can, I think, turn people of color off or away, just because the percentage of questions that are related to non-white history or music from other cultures is limited, unfortunately.”

Rosario doesn’t think it needs to be this way, especially in the diverse Bay Area. “I think a place like Oakland, a place like the Bay Area, even California, has so much rich history around communities of color. So I think like things like that are what we think would—or, I think would—make trivia fun, we don’t hear regularly,” says Rosario. “I think when you don’t see your own cultures reflected in something, it’s not as meaningful, it’s not as important, it’s not as fun. So I would guess that maybe that’s part of why there isn’t a more diverse collection of folks that are involved in trivia.”

She recalls, on other nights, exchanging looks with other teams with players of color who couldn’t connect with the questions. Sometimes, Rosario and her friends will decide to stop playing, turning to drinking and talking instead. It’s a decision that she says doesn’t ruin her night because she frequents Mad Oak anyways, but it does make her feel disappointed and excluded.

After her last few experiences, Maxam decided she was going to take a break. “I just felt like it wasn’t for me at that particular time—like, I don’t know if I’m going to do this here again,” she says.

The questions that she can answer, Maxam says, tend to be pretty stereotypical, drawing from African-American entertainers that have been consumed by the masses: Identifying a picture of Ashanti, Halle Berry or a song by Ja Rule or 50 Cent. The same things happen with history: Most Americans could answer a trivia question about well-known figures like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X or Rosa Parks, but not about Bayard Rustin, Fannie Lou Hamer or Crispus Attucks. Maxam says she’d prefer more substantial questions about Black history and culture, rather than who’s topping the charts, making headlines or being lauded as “the first” something-or-other.

The knowledge base of trivia is a reflection of American society: the idea that whiteness is supreme—of the highest quality, degree, character and importance. And that makes people of color less likely to feel knowledgeable and welcome within a space that was not crafted for them in the first place.

“I think when non-white culture shows up in trivia, it does often time show up in the music round or the popular culture round, because I think it’s very ingrained that non-white people are sort of a source of entertainment or the source of cool,” adds Shelton. “The fact remains is that if they ever took that time to concentrate on non-white history, their whole entire audience demographic would be like, ‘I don’t know this. This is dumb.’”

And part of the problem, Shelton, Rosario and Maxam believe, is that white people are often in charge of creating the questions.

***

Chuck Butler, also know as “Trivia Chuck,” is the man responsible for coming up with a big slice of the East Bay’s trivia questions. He hosts trivia Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at Cato’s, Mad Oak and Room 389. And as you may have guessed, Butler is white.

Butler realizes that the questions aren’t as inclusive as they could be. “It is a challenge for me as a middle-aged white guy to be relevant to a younger Black person who’s coming in and didn’t grow up with the music or the TV shows that I grew up with,” said Butler, who is 50. “That’s a constant challenge for me is to have people that are not my age and not my race come in and still be able to relate to the material. And not just relate, but to enjoy it.”

The Bay Area native has a long history with trivia. During the 1990’s he used to co-host trivia nights throughout San Francisco with a friend. When he moved to Oakland about ten years ago, he began his solo hosting career. He’s coming up on eight years and nearly 400 shows at Cato’s, close to four years at Room 389, and has been hosting trivia at Mad Oak since it opened in 2015.

In his early days, before the internet was a thing, he used to cut pictures out of books and magazines to put together the sheet for the picture round, use a mix of his and his friends’ tapes and CDs for the music round, and sift through TIME, Newsweek and published “Top 10” lists for current event and pop culture questions. Today, Butler builds his lists of questions by “trolling websites,” listening to the radio, downloading new music, and, when he hears something interesting that happened, jotting it down on his list. It takes him about five or six hours over a few days to type up the questions up and create the picture sheets in Photoshop that he prints out and brings to each night.

Butler tries to crowdsource to diversify his question line-up. Over the years, he’s made a lot of friends who are younger and from different backgrounds and races than him. They’ll suggest questions and give him tips for sources. He occasionally brings in a guest host for the music round. Sometimes it works and sometimes, depending on the crowd, it doesn’t. He’s been called out for music rounds that are “too white,” which according to Butler translates to not enough rap, hip-hop or R&B. But there have also been times when he’s been told by players to “ease up” on the hip-hop.

“I don’t think they mean it in an angry way. It just gets down to, I have to represent the audience that I am with,” said Butler. “I guess it isn’t too much about really what people say, it’s just more about reading the crowd. Because I do get feedback going both ways. But I’m not doing it to please any one person or someone that made a comment to me last week. I’m doing it to please everyone.”

He often uses the scores for the music round as a barometer—there are a total of 30 points in the music round; one for the artist and one for the song. He figures a low number of correct answers means most of the teams didn’t connect with the music.

“If there’s a lot of 6’s and 7’s, then that means that I wasn’t reaching people. I was picking obscure songs or maybe genres of song that people didn’t relate to,” he says. “If the numbers are higher, like 20’s, low 20’s, then I feel like it was a good blend. The numbers don’t lie—if across the board if everyone’s score is way too low, then I messed up.”

Butler’s biggest mess-up didn’t happen during the music round. He was on a roll announcing team names—which, if you know anything about trivia, can be a mix of puns, crass combinations or clever quips—and announced one that he’ll never forget, and, to this day, won’t repeat. It was Martin Luther King Jr. Day and a team had chosen a name that Butler said insensitively referenced King’s assassination.

“I’m so used to just expecting everybody to be offended and to kind of laugh it off that I didn’t catch it,” he recalled. According to Butler, there were two older Black folks among the crowd who’d lived through the civil rights leader’s death. They didn’t find the name to be funny at all.

“They came up to me very clearly and said ‘That was offensive and you need to apologize and never do that again,’” said Butler. “That really kind of shook me.” Butler’s the type of guy who seems like he has more friends than enemies. These players were his friends—and still are.

“Being especially in Oakland and in the setting that I’m in, it’s a constant kind of kick in the pants to me, to open myself up to more sources of information,” said Butler. “I only know what I know. So again, that’s really narrow. … I do like the challenge of opening up my mind to different points of view.”

***

Lauren Baranco grew up in the East Oakland hills during the 1980s and 90’s. She described her childhood as one with a lot of “gamification of knowledge and learning” that often involved wordplay (“the antonym game”), singing about facts, and whatever else her parents could come up with.

“It felt like a very safe, celebratory space for getting something right,” says Baranco, who identifies as mixed-race. Her mother is Chinese and her father is Black.

Baranco attended Bishop O’Dowd High School, a private, affluent Catholic school, where she played sports and excelled academically. When she moved back to Oakland six years ago after living in New York, she found herself playing trivia with a group of some of her high school friends, who were mostly white men.

“I was looking for ways to socialize with a group of friends on weeknights,” she recalls. “I really was trying to integrate back into my group of high school friends.”

Their spot was The Alley—but she no longer frequents the dive bar.

“I’ve become accustomed to how segregated social spaces for young people in Oakland have become—I don’t like it but I’m used to it,” she says.

Baranco says you can’t choose your competition at a trivia night—and that can be a problem. “White men drinking and getting riled up about something competitive is not my favorite energy contribution to a social space,” says Baranco. “For me there’s kind of a fine line of when it can flip into people being really aggressive and competitive. That energy doesn’t make me want to hang out in those spaces.”

The Oakland native’s qualms with spaces goes deeper than just who’s in the room. For Baranco, it’s also about whose room it is. She attributes the shift in her level of comfort within social spaces to Oakland’s “changing demographics” and “changing built environment.” She’s referring to gentrification and an influx of white workers and residents due to the growing tech sector.

“I can get triggered in spaces that I associate with safety and home and comfort when there are people who are aggressively winning at a game but also kind of [winning at] claiming this neighborhood as their own, claiming this city as something they’ve discovered,” says Baranco.

But trivia players who are people of color have some ideas about how to make the game more inclusive. For Shelton, her Muslim American friends, who she says “don’t frequent bars,” come to mind. Trivia nights are more often than not held in spaces that serve alcohol. “I think about how it’s in all these adult, alcohol-centric spaces—which is the draw right, we all love a good drink—but I think in many ways I would like to move away from that because there are whole parts of our communities and people who maybe are precluded from enjoying this,” says Shelton.

She mused about having trivia nights at Era or Impact Hub Oakland, where there’s a bar next door but not directly in the space. “I think it’d be a good start in in just creating another safe opportunity for the multitude of different Black people and the things that we enjoy,” says Shelton.

“I also think that the bars that trivia is offered at aren’t necessarily bars that people of color my age choose to frequent,” says Baranco.

They also think there is a bigger challenge, which is exposing Americans to the history of non-white people, and making that knowledge standardized—the kind of things kids will learn at school, and which they’ll recite for fun when they’re old enough to play the pub quiz.

“Society is very white and that’s because we’ve assumed it to be, it’s our default,” says Shelton. But it doesn’t have to be that way, she says—even in the context of playing a game: “We have to demand the things that we want and I’ve never thought really until now, to demand a decentered-from-whiteness trivia.”

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