Grey answers to black and white questions
It’s funny when a topical theme serendipitously swerves into your line of vision.
This was the case for me last Tuesday when I started my commute as per any other day – with a podcast. That morning I opted for the latest WTF podcast from Marc Maron. He was talking to Wyatt Cenac who I’d never heard of before, but I felt like getting out of my comfort zone. I’m glad I did too. Wyatt’s story started with his dad being murdered in Harlem, growing up with an overbearing mother, trying to make it in the comedy world, subsequently making it onto the Daily Show before things sadly soured via an argument he had with the show’s host Jon Stewart.
He spoke incredibly candidly of how Jon did an impression of a black person on the show which made him, as an African American, feel uncomfortable. Fox News also picked up on the questionable comedy bit and drew – albiet sensationalised – attention to it. Jon didn’t want to back down, Wyatt recommended he let it go and tensions rose to boiling point. As in shouting ‘Fuck Off’ boiling point. It was a fascinating account and I was so enthralled at how honest and raw Wyatt was about everything.
Once at work I looked up the podcast online to find out more background. I’d never heard of Wyatt nor seen the Jon Stewart impression he was referring to. Once on the site I was dumbfounded to find a barrage of negative comments about Wyatt. Phrases like ‘ego trip’ and ‘pity party’ reflected the common sentiment. How could people be so dismissive after sharing an intimate hour with this guy? Was I missing something? Were they all just staunch Jon Stewart fans? Or was their something bigger at play here? Is this what happens when the race card is dealt?
Soon after, I spied the confronting headline by NY Magazine on Twitter. Yes, White people, it is About You it shouted. Headed with an image of Taylor Swift, it proceeded to dismantle the recent Taylor vs Nicki Minaj, white girls in film clips win awards vs black girls don’t, twitter tiff (apparently there was one), and dove down deep into the murky waters of race in popular culture and the privilege of being white. The article also referred to the the recent MTV documentary White People in which young people (many of them white) where asked to discuss issues of racism in America.
When confronted with the notion that more white Americans receive scholarships than people of colour, Ann Friedman recounted that the people in the documentary ‘struggled to understand that white privilege is something that is both bigger than they are and also something they are actively involved in.’
Combined with the Wyatt podcast and subsequent comments, I found myself contemplating my place within the modern world’s racism stew. As a white woman from a predominantly white country, with mostly white friends, I feel incredibly unequipped to enter into any dialogue. But is that in itself part of the problem? And if so, what should I be saying?
“It’s not about how hard you’ve worked for what you have, how you personally feel about people of other races, or how good your intentions are. It is about the fact that you benefit from white privilege (and, in this case, from a culture that privileges skinny white women’s bodies). So it is about you — just not in the way you thought it was,” writes Ann.
To many, this could be deemed a confronting theory. You are a part of the problem no matter how good your intentions. And I can definitely see the validity in Ann’s sentiment. While I might not be as skinny at Taylor, we do both enjoy the privilege of being white girls. As Louis CK once mused on being a white man “how many advantages can one person have?” It’s something we have no control over but at the same time, we play a part, no matter how unwillingly, in the problem of white privilege.
With that said, it’s hard to imagine a solution. If just by plain luck of genetics Taylor and I play a role in modern issue of race, then how can we possibly solve it?
According to Ann, Taylor has the platform and thus responsibility to bring more diversity to the forefront of the mainstream media. “as a powerful public figure with a devoted following, she can choose to turn her discomfort into something more meaningful than an acknowledgment and apology. And hopefully, in doing so, push other white people to do the same.”
It’s a similar call to action that was also brought to Lena Dunham and her all-white first season cast of Girls. And one I’m sure many of the casting agents in Hollywood are understandably promoted to do each day.
It’s a positive step to take but what of the average person? If I’m a part of the problem, how do I become part of the solution as well? By laughing at Jon Stewart impressions? By not laughing? By agreeing with Fox News? (surely not) By voicing my opinions? By not voicing them? By liking and respecting other cultures and ethnicities? Or could this be perceived as fetishising others? As a person of white privilege, is it wrong for me to have an opinion? Or is it ignorant for me not to have one at all?
It’s a moody grey area for a black and white issue. One that I doubt can be solved in a tweet or a NY Magazine article, an online comment or a Taylor Swift lyric. Perhaps now that the dialogue has reached even MTV mainstream, answers will come to fruition. Until then I’ll keep a conscious lookout in my line of vision and in my podcasts.