Amber Ruffin is used to writing jokes. As a writer for Late Night with Seth Meyers, and now host of her own show on Peacock, Ruffin shines when mocking daily absurdities. So it probably comes as no surprise that one story that makes her laugh every time is a case of misidentification involving her older sister, Lacey Lamar.
One day, Lamar, a longtime resident of Omaha, Nebraska, was checking out at her regular grocery store. She was using a check from a set she had printed featuring important Black historical figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. And Harriet Tubman. As she handed the check to the clerk, he looked at it and said, "Wow! You have checks with your picture on 'em?"
Even years later, Ruffin can't tell it without giggling. "Every time I look at Lacey, it makes me laugh because she doesn't look like her," she tells PEOPLE. "And when you hear the story, you might think, 'Is there a picture of Harriet Tubman that I'm not thinking of?' No, it's the exact picture in your mind. There ain't but two pictures of her."
Ruffin and Lamar have decided the time is right to share the cadre of near-daily offenses she faces in a new book called You'll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey: Crazy Stories About Racism. In this week's issue of PEOPLE, the sisters talk about growing up in the mostly-white city of Omaha, and why Lamar, 46, seems to attract the lunacy more than Ruffin, 42.
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"I just always thought I was a crazy magnet, a racist magnet," says Lamar. "If it's going to happen, it's going to happen to me."
Ruffin has hundreds of texts (from just the past 12 months) detailing the outrageously offensive things people have said or done to her older sister. And she decided to share them.
"I had a meeting with some book people, and I just showed them a text she had sent me," says Ruffin. "I did not ask Lacey at all."
The publisher quickly bought into the idea. The result is a portrait of one person's struggle to maintain dignity, strength and self-respect when faced with injustices small and large — all told with Ruffin's irreverent, sardonic style.
"I hope that people read the book and they go, 'Oh, when I act like this I am wrong,'" says Ruffin. "'And when I am in the room and this behavior is happening, if I don't say s—, I'm also wrong.'"
She adds, "I hope people develop a zero-tolerance attitude toward this behavior, and most importantly, feel empowered to be like, 'Cut it out.' "
Ruffin and Lamar grew up with their three siblings in Omaha. Their parents, Theresa and James, both 78, are Air Force veterans and ran a big daycare center, until an antagonistic government worker forced it to close, according to the book. From an early age, their parents taught them how to navigate the racism they'd experience on a daily basis.
Lamar first realized how dark the world could be when she was a 12-year-old girl. She was in church as part of a youth group when a woman inexplicably "panicked" at the sight of Lamar.
"She ran and got the pastor," Lamar remembers. "The pastor took me aside to this room and said, 'Do you have a gun?' And I was like, 'What?' And he said, 'She said she saw a gun in your back pocket.' It was a comb. That's when I knew, I'm in a whole other world."
While Lamar would go on to build her career as a program director for elderly centers, her younger sister was determined to make it in comedy. In her 20s, Ruffin moved from Omaha to Chicago, where she joined Boom Chicago, an international theater group. But it was after a 2008 move to Amsterdam that Ruffin's life really changed. There, she met her future husband, Dutch artist Jan Schiltmeijer, and her future late-night boss.
Meyers, a Boom alum, recommended Ruffin for a job on Saturday Night Live. She made it to the final four, but didn't make the cut. (The other top contenders — Leslie Jones, LaKendra Tookes and Sasheer Zamata — were hired.)
"I was so sad I could have died," says Ruffin. "Then Seth called and was like, 'Do you want a job on this show?' "
"It's so crazy," she adds, "because I'm working in the same place [30 Rockefeller in Manhattan], on the same floor, doing the same thing I would have been doing."
In addition to writing, Ruffin stars in recurring segments like "Jokes Seth Can't Tell," "Amber Says What?" and "Point, Counterpoint." And now she's the star of The Amber Ruffin Show on NBC's streaming service, Peacock.
Despite their success, both Lamar and Ruffin continue to battle racism in and out of work. Ruffin says it's the lessons she's learned from her parents and grandparents that keep her strong.
"If you have Black grandparents and they've told you a story, then you can survive," says Ruffin. "Because they say some s— that is insane."
"I remember that lady survived and I'm related to her, so I'm probably going to be fine," she says. "Because if you compare these two happenings, this ain't s—. I'm going to be alright."
You'll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey: Crazy Stories About Racism is on sale now.
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