Lukas Arnold talks about his life all the time; it’s central to the comedy that has earned him 1.1 million followers on TikTok. And yet, the more he talks about himself, the more of an enigma he becomes.
The 25-year-old comedian and voice actor’s dad is Ashkenazi, with ancestry in Poland. His mom is half Sudanese and half British. He grew up unvaccinated in Brooklyn, but now advocates for public health. He is tall and lanky, with a strikingly sharp jawline, a deep voice, curly hair, and white skin, and people are always guessing what his background is. “It’s just a fun little surprise sometimes, I enjoy seeing how people react,” he said.
Arnold’s comedy runs the gamut from impressions of Donald Duck and John Mulaney to absurdism; recently his videos have largely featured him making egregious puns in a sing-songy monotone (somehow it works).
And, Arnold has leveraged his comedic skills and biography to bring insight to many of the major issues, such as last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. Even in the app’s 15-60 second window, his comedic commentaries hit home.
Asked whether his Sudanese heritage gives him the “n word pass” — a hot-button issue on TikTok, where stars have frequently gotten in trouble for mouthing the word while lip syncing — Arnold posted a succinct video explaining his feelings about the issue.
“The n-word still holds a lot of violent power behind it,” he said. “But you know what I’d feel if someone said that to me? I’d be confused, I’d be like ‘get your eyes checked.’ Regardless of my heritage, I function and walk through the world very much as a white person. And in virtually all situations, it is impossible for me to receive the sting of that word, so I can’t use it as a word of camaraderie.”
The Forward spoke with Arnold about identity, comedy, politics and the way TikTok has changed his life. Highlights from our conversation are below.
On his Sudanese heritage and race in America:
Being Sudanese is something that I hold very deeply in my heart and in my identity, and I feel very comfortable owning that side of myself.
I would say a big part of the Black American experience is the fact that your history has been taken away from you because a lot of people are descended from slaves. Whereas I know exactly what my cultural and national identity is. It’s a different thing, but it is also something that we can relate on.
I remember when I was in middle school, I mentioned to a teacher like, “Oh yeah my mom is Black.” And this teacher corrected me and said, “I think you mean African American.” Which is on one side is just like, kind of shitty, but on the other hand it was also wrong! My mom is an American citizen now, but if anything that goes to show how this American viewpoint of things is a little bit myopic.
On his Jewish side
When I was maybe 2 or 3 years old, we were visiting my grandmother in Florida, and my mom had me sitting on her lap, and these friends of my grandmother started playing matchmaker for my dad. By this point my parents had been married, but they pretended that my mom didn’t exist. And my dad told me about one or two stories, about a cousin who was very clearly racist and she said that she worked at a factory but there were too many schvartzes. Even though I know that most people on that side of the family were not racist to my mom and never did or said anything to me, it did kind of sour my opinion on them.
On wading into the interfaith debate on TikTok
I told this story on TikTok, and I prefaced it by saying I’m half Jewish but I don’t know a lot of cultural stuff, is this something a lot of people go through? I guess sort of half a joke. But then the comment section was littered with people saying, “Which half Jewish is it, your mom or your dad? This matters.” Or other people saying, “If it’s your dad, you’re not Jewish at all, you can’t be half Jewish.”
It was a lot of needling arguments, it was trying to take away. It really bothered me because every now and again, I wonder if I want to like, just learn a little bit more about the culture and practices and stuff. But anytime people talk about purity or bloodlines, I just shut down, like we don’t have anything to talk about, I don’t have patience for it.
On being mixed race
I don’t look like some of my family members, I don’t immediately look like my mom’s child. We’ve had trouble going through airport security when I was a kid. We’ve even been kept from planes because they thought I was maybe her hostage.
On broaching edgy topics on TikTok
[Comments] will say stuff like stick to comedy, stick to impressions. But what’s really sweet and I find honestly kind of heartwarming is I have much nicer followers who I align more with who will say “He can do whatever he wants! This is his page!”
On one hand, I think it’s important to understand that you have the potential to hurt people with the platform you have and the things you say, so you should take measures to double-check yourself. But at the same time there are always going to be people who get offended at anything. I like to have healthy self-doubt..
I have a friend of mine on Tiktok who I’ve met over quarantine, very talented artist, and he is trans and gay, and whenever I make a video concerning the community I send the video to him and I say, “Hey what do you think about it?” And he always says “Post it, it’s awesome.”
On his newfound TikTok fame
It’s definitely changed my life a lot, it’s probably what I think about, maybe not most of the day, but maybe half of my day my mind glances to it. TikTok has opened so many doors for me. It definitely causes me stress, because the algorithm is something I’m always thinking about. But it’s just allowed me to do so much and it’s given me an audience, and given me confidence in myself in so many ways, it’s been an overwhelmingly positive experience in so many different ways.
On his identity today
Yeah I am a TikToker, I definitely do kind of have to say that now.
Mira Fox is a fellow at the Forward. You can reach her at email@example.com or on Twitter @miraefox.
Meet the Ashkenazi-Sudanese comic killing it on TikTok