What East Bay Trivia Nights Say About Our Collective Knowledge (or Lack Thereof) of Non-White History and Culture 

A survey of trivia nights examines the limitations and biases of trivia in the East Bay.

click to enlarge An answer sheet at Cato's trivia night. - PHOTO BY DARRYL BARNES
  • Photo by Darryl Barnes
  • An answer sheet at Cato's trivia night.

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

It’s Wednesday night at Room 389 in Oakland — trivia night, to be exact.
Scattered throughout the dimly lit watering hole are teams of no more than six people, 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 the final round, and a team called Joanne and The Scammers is contending for the No. 1 spot. The group 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,” quips Kiana Shelton, 28, an educational statistician. Shelton used to compete on her high school’s “Quiz Bowl” team. Like the rest of her teammates, Shelton is not white — she’s Black and she’s playing with Sanjay, who’s Indian, Monica, who’s Chinese, and Alexandra, who’s also Black.

“Sailing?” asks Shelton, seeming amused rather than offended. “Uh, 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), a viral dance 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, who started laughing. “They’re all white ladies.”

Trivia in Oakland is definitely a thing. If you’re committed, you could play four nights a week. But, if you’re a person of color, you may find it hard to compete, because the majority of the questions are hella white.
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,” Shelton explained. “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.”

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 necessarily crafted for them in the first place. This despite the fact that it’s become more than a common occurrence for mainstream culture to appropriate fashion, music, and even, if only for a time, lifestyles created by people of color — a potent form of erasure that is often challenged but hardly preventable.

Chuck Butler, also known as “Trivia Chuck,” is the man who comes up with a big slice of the East Bay’s trivia questions. He hosts trivia Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays at Cato’s Alehouse in Piedmont, and Mad Oak and Room 389 in Oakland. Butler is a 50-year-old white man.

And he 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,” Butler told the Express. “That’s a constant challenge for me 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.”

Butler crowd-sources questions in hopes to diversify his line-up and asks friends from different backgrounds to give him tips for sources. 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.

“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.”

The Bay Area native has a long history with trivia that dates back to co-hosting nights in San Francisco with a friend during the Nineties. When he moved to Oakland about ten years ago, he began his solo hosting-career.

Before the internet, Butler would source his questions from books and magazines such as Time and Newsweek, and use a mix of his and his friends’ tapes and CDs for the music rounds. Now, Butler builds his lists of questions by “trolling websites,” listening to the radio, downloading new music, and jotting down interesting things he hears about. It takes him about six hours to put together a night’s worth of questions.

In his years of hosting trivia, Butler’s biggest mistake didn’t happen during a round of questions. 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 individuals among the crowd, who’d lived through the Civil Rights leader’s death. They didn’t find the name 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,’” Butler explained. “That really kind of shook me.” He says he’s the type of guy who seems like he has more friends than enemies. These players were his friends — and still are.

“I only know what I know. So, again, that’s really narrow,” he said. “I do like the challenge of opening up my mind to different points of view.”

Aleah Rosario, who 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 hot spot, complete with outdoor picnic-table seating and an indoor bar lined with TV screens, draws a big crowd for trivia (and, Warriors’ games, if they’re playing). 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 No. 1 album?”
Round one is underway.

“The questions were not culturally inclusive,” Rosario said after the event. This often occurs during the music round, when 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.

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 music round, but out of fifty questions, songs by people of color only make up a quarter. Out of the sixty total questions asked that night, only ten relate to non-white or non-European people or topics.

That same night, a few tables over, Veronica Maxam is sharing an answer sheet at Mad Oak with her friend. She’s not new to trivia — or to feelings of frustration.

Despite describing herself as “pretty knowledgeable and well-read,” Maxam, who’s Black, said she gets increasingly irritated by not being able to answer the majority of the questions. “I think it can be a little discouraging,” she told the Express. “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.”

The questions that she can answer, Maxam said, tend to be pretty stereotypical, drawing from African-American entertainers that have been consumed by the masses like identifying a picture of Ashanti or a song by Ja Rule. The same things happen with history: Most Americans could answer a trivia question about Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, or Rosa Parks, but not about Bayard Rustin, Fannie Lou Hamer, or Crispus Attucks. Maxam said 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.

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,” she said. “I don’t know if I’m going to do this here again.”

Or, as Shelton put it: “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.’”

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