Wanda Sykes on quitting 'Roseanne' amid the racist tweet scandal, raising her kids without white privilege

Suzy Byrne
Editor, Yahoo Entertainment

One year after Roseanne Barr’s racist tweet got her fired from the reboot of her eponymous show, her co-star Wanda Sykes reflects on how it played out

In an interview with the New York Times, Sykes — who quit the show after seeing Barr’s tweet comparing Obama aide Valerie Jarrett to an ape — said she knew Barr’s Twitter habit would be an issue years before it all went down. While working together on Last Comic Standing in 2014 and 2015, Sykes, executive producer of the show, said she noticed Barr’s posts and said, “We’ve got to get Roseanne off of Twitter. She’s going to kill us.”

The star of the new Netflix special Wanda Sykes: Not Normal said that she didn’t “even understand half of what” Barr was tweeting, but she was “retweeting a lot of stuff that sound[ed] nuts.” So they talked to her and Barr said, “‘I don’t know. I’m just reading stuff. There’s a lot out there.’ And, you know, she’s smoking weed,” Sykes said. “But whatever she’d been tweeting at that time didn’t get a lot of play.”

Wanda Sykes talks about quitting "Roseanne." (Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images)

Despite that situation, Sykes, 55, admitted she was happy to join the cast for the Roseanne reboot in 2017 — returning Barr’s favor for appearing on Last Comic —and Season 1 ran smoothly.

“Roseanne was hitting all the marks as far as the direction of her show,” Sykes recalled. “She wanted to address issues, she wanted to show both sides, and I thought it was great, because at least Roseanne might be the thing that will start a dialogue between Trump supporters and non-Trump supporters. So, great first season.” (Behind the scenes, there was drama though with ABC execs monitoring Barr’s tweets and meeting with her to discuss her posts.)

Sykes continued, “Then the morning we were ready to come back for the second season, I pick up my phone, and it’s blowing up. I’m like, ‘What is this?” I looked at the Valerie Jarrett tweet, and I was like, Aw, jeez, I can’t condone this.”

While Barr apologized and deleted the tweet, Sykes immediately emailed producers Tom Werner and Bruce Helford and quit.

“I was like, ‘Guys, I can’t be a part of this,’” she said. “I didn’t hear anything right away. They were probably busy trying to figure out what they were going to do. So then I said: “I’ve got to get ahead of this. I can’t just be silent.” That’s why I said I wouldn’t be going back” to the show on Twitter.

ABC cancelled the show the same day.

Asked whether Sykes thinks Barr is racist, she replied, “I think she has some issues. She’s said that she had some mental issues. But I don’t know. Here’s the thing. You could be a good person and a racist and not even know it. All racism doesn’t have to be nasty.”

She went on to tell a story about boarding a plane, first class, and being seated near another black woman and a white woman.

“I’m coming in, and I’m looking for a place to put my bag, and the white lady looks at me, then looks at the black lady, and then goes, ‘Did you want to switch seats so you can sit next to your friend?’” Sykes remembered. “I looked at the black woman, and the black woman looked at me. Both of us were like, ‘Can you believe this is happening?’ I just looked at the white lady and said, ‘I don’t know her.’ She never would have said that if it would’ve been two white women. Never.”

Continuing to discuss race, Sykes opened up about raising 10-year-old twins with her wife, Alex Niedbalski. They are white and as they get older, the comic thinks a lot about their understanding of race.

“You want it to be a world where they can just live and be good people and not have to think about that, but you have to have the conversation,” she said of rearing her children. “You do. When something comes up, I’ll address it. I do notice, like for their birthday parties, I look around and go, ‘Wait, you mean to tell me they’ve only got one little black friend?’ But I can’t force it.”

Asked if she teaches them about privilege, Sykes replied, “I’m just raising them how I was raised. Hopefully they won’t get a taste of white privilege. I’m putting a stop to that. When we go in the store, I tell them, ‘Don’t ask me for [expletive].’”

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