As anyone with a social media account knows, white privilege is everywhere. It’s in the air we breathe, the water we drink, and now it has reared its ugly head in the most unlikely of places. The beloved Jon Stewart apparently displayed his privilege in a foul-mouthed rant at a young black comedy writer. The black comedian was left shaken—in fact, in tears—over the encounter. If we had any doubt before that white privilege is amorphous and everpresent, surely this display by a liberal poster boy removes that doubt.
Or does it? In answering that question we have to take a hard look at race in both comedy and the workplace.
The story begins with Stewart being attacked, by Fox News and others, for his allegedly racist impression of Herman Cain on “The Daily Show” in 2011. At a meeting of the show’s writers where a comedic response was being discussed, the only black writer, Wyatt Cenac, made it clear that, like Fox News, he was uncomfortable with Stewart’s bit. He compared it to a character from “Amos ‘n Andy,” basically accusing Stewart of engaging in black face voice. Perhaps not surprisingly, the allegation of racist behavior rankled Stewart, who Cenac says responded by yelling, “F*** off, I’m done with you” repeatedly.
Look, nobody likes being called a racist. The New York Times’ Jason Zinoman pointed out on Twitter that Stewart shot right back at Cenac:
When Cenac said he had issue with Stewart’s Herman Cain impression, Stewart said: “You never had a problem with my Chuck Schumer."
— Jason Zinoman (@zinoman) July 23, 2015
To which Cenac replied:
“Well I’m not Jewish…I represent my community, my people and i have to be honest if something seems questionable.” Cenac to Stewart
— Jason Zinoman (@zinoman) July 23, 2015
Yikes. Stewart seems to be arguing that he is an equal-opportunity offender, willing to poke fun at anyone, or any voice, including those of his own tribe. But for Cenac, who nominated himself as the racial referee of “The Daily Show,” that excuse just didn’t cut it.
As it turns out this isn’t the first time that Stewart has cursed out a person of color over his disapproval of racially discomfiting humor. Writing for Salon, Alison Kinney describes a 2008 taping of “The Daily Show” she attended where the warm-up comic—you guessed it, a white guy—told jokes involving race. When Stewart came out and chatted with the crowd, Kinney says:
“So I raised my hand and asked, ‘Why does your warm-up comedian use ethnic humor?…’ Stewart’s face creased with annoyance. He said, shortly, loudly, glaring at me, ‘BECAUSE. IT’S. FUCKING. FUNNY.’ The [mostly white] audience erupted into wild applause.”
Comedians Joke About Race Because It’s Uncomfortable
So what’s going on here? Is Stewart, in these instances exposing the racist id of all white Americans? Or is he simply frustrated by attempts to shut down legitimate comedy in the name of political correctness? It’s complicated, and it depends on your worldview. With Amy Schumer and Jerry Seinfeld (again by Salon) both recently accused of racist humor, are we finally exposing the horrid belly of the comedic beast, or is this all a lot of pointless and damaging redaction of solid jokes?
In terms of raw racism, what white comedians say today is paltry compared to old timers like Don Rickles. The use of race in humor is as old as stand-up, probably almost as old as humor, and has always been a staple for comedians of every color. This in large part owes to the fact that what makes us uncomfortable also makes us laugh—or, as Stewart put it, it’s f**ing funny. But now, enlightened as we are about how such jokes reveal the privilege of its tellers, can we or should we still laugh at them? The answer to the first question is demonstrably “yes.” The answer to the second question has become dicier.
Ideally the question of whether we should be laughing at jokes dealing with race is one we can all answer for ourselves. Those of us who think we can handle it can choose to watch or listen, those of us who don’t can just tune in to “Prairie Home Companion” (hopefully). But the crux of the matter here isn’t really about comedy. It’s about the workplace environment Cenac faced as the only black writer at “The Daily Show.”
So Jon Stewart Owed Cenac an Apology
Television writing rooms are notoriously chippy work environments. Writers are competing with each other to land plots, jokes, or ideas on air. In comedy writing rooms, the line between funny and offensive is being skirted constantly. If a member of the team feels he or she isn’t free to express a dangerous idea, it can hurt the work product. But, based on his account, Cenac wasn’t really censoring the room. He was raising a concern, one many others in the media had raised, and one he might have had a unique angle on.
In response to this criticism, Stewart apparently acted like a jerk. We should not take lightly the fact that Cenac, a professional comedian accustomed to racial jokes, left the building and broke down in tears after Stewart’s berating. It’s clear that he took his boss’ reaction in a deeply personal and hurtful way. For this, Stewart apologized.
Most of us face important interpersonal issues in our workplace environments regarding race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. There is always a danger of hurting somebody’s feelings. The progressive answer to this problem is rules, lists of ways in which we microaggress those more oppressed than us to avoid. Whether imposed by us or our employers, these rules are meant to reduce the risk of uncomfortable incidents. But it is a crude tool, and one that limits the freedom that coworkers, or friends feel to express ideas.
The better answer is just to try not to be a jerk. And to apologize when we are. Instead of constantly examining ourselves and others for hidden motivations, we should assume people are acting in good faith, unless they give us evidence that they are not. It sounds like Stewart felt attacked, and reacted badly to it. It’s not some life lesson on white fragility, it’s a bad day at the office. I don’t think most people believe Stewart harbors deep racist sentiments. Maybe some do. Either way, this incident is not evidence of it. It is simply a reminder of the minefield we have constructed between ourselves and racial accord.