As a comedian, actor, writer and television host, Amber Ruffin uses her public platform to unflinchingly and candidly discuss issues of sexism and racism. Her virtual keynote address to open Women’s Week 2021 was no different. In her speech, Ruffin stressed the importance of women realizing their value, speaking out against inequities and supporting each other. She credits her career success to encouragement from other women who helped her overcome her fears and find her voice while navigating the male-dominated world of comedy.
In 2014, Ruffin joined “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” becoming the first Black woman to write for a late-night network show in the United States. In addition to hosting her own show, “The Amber Ruffin Show,” she has written for the Comedy Central show, “Detroiters,” and was a regular narrator on “Drunk History.” She also co-wrote the New York Times bestseller, “You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey: Crazy Stories about Racism,” with her sister Lacey Lamar.
During her keynote address, Ruffin related how she got her start in local theater and with an improv troupe in her hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. While performing in Chicago, an improv theater owner encouraged her to move there to pursue a full-time comedy career. She considered declining the opportunity, but her friend Shannon packed her bags and pushed her to go.
After an internship and completing classes in Chicago, she moved to the Netherlands to work as a writer and performer at Boom Chicago Amsterdam. The first year in Amsterdam was “extraordinarily terrible,” Ruffin recalled.
“It was lonely and hard," said Ruffin. "I spent a lot of time without encouragement, so I had to hold on to Shannon telling me you are great at this. I squeezed all of the encouragement you could possibly get out of that statement. I literally clung to those words to survive.”
Following a two-year stint in Amsterdam, she got a job at The Second City theaters in Denver and Chicago, where half of the cast members were women. She immediately noticed a difference in the workplace environment.
“I was encouraged," said Ruffin. "My ideas were taken seriously. All of a sudden, my ideas were great. I really came into my own. The difference between your workplace being half women and almost zero women is huge. I went from needing encouragement to being encouragement.
Ruffin put those newfound powers of encouragement into action when she returned to Boom Chicago Amsterdam and was in charge of new actors. Recalling the pressure she felt her first time there, she strived to give the new cohort a more positive work environment.
Three years later, she moved to Los Angeles, working as a nanny to make ends meet while focusing on her creative endeavors. Ruffin said she wrote musicals “for fun” and landed a writing job with the “Late Night with Seth Meyers” show.
“Seth Meyers was the first boss I had who was a guy who didn’t treat me differently because I was a woman,” said Ruffin. “And once I got a whiff of it, I was off to the races. I was listened to. I was encouraged and given total creative freedom.”
“I say all that to say, try to be like those women who helped me,” said ruffin. “I try to do that. And I want to create a great environment where people want to work and are appreciated for working. I hope each of you finds such a place to work. But if you can’t, I hope you create that place for other people wherever you end up.”
Ruffin also spoke to students about ways they could help to create an equitable future, regardless of their major.
“If you’re an accounting or finance major, maybe commit to looking at financial practices that uphold White supremacy,” said Ruffin. “If you’re an education major, make sure you’re learning a curriculum that doesn’t center Whiteness.”
With regard to misogyny and white supremacy, Ruffin noted, “intersectionality is real.” Reading excerpts from the book that recounts her sister’s experiences with workplace racism, Ruffin urged everyone to speak out on inequities. She suggested ways that men could amplify marginalized voices in meetings, classrooms and boardrooms, and encouraged women to speak out when they experience racist and misogynist incidents.
Ruffin also addressed racism among White women.
As the nation marks Women’s History Month, she noted that Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are celebrated for their contributions to women’s rights. The women also strongly opposed the 15th Amendment, voicing outrage that Black men would receive the right to vote before white women did.
“Our history is complicated," said Ruffin. "Tell the truth so that we can grow. This is not the land of the free and the home of the brave. It was stolen by thieves and built by slaves.”
In discussing the Women’s Week theme, “Inspiring a Movement,” Ruffin said, "It is not a one-woman show. It takes all of us."
While there’s a lot for women to celebrate and be angry about, Ruffin expressed hope for the future. "Equity takes work and moving toward an equitable future also means telling the truth about our past," she said.
“USA should stand for the United States of Amnesia," said Ruffin. "At best, we approach our so-called American history with selective memory. What’s the saying? Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”