A Tale of Two White Privileges: Bill Maher and Stephen Colbert

White Privilege is an old phenomenon that’s getting new attention in the liberal media, but it often gets a bad rap. White privilege doesn’t always have to be used for evil, and it doesn’t always get used for evil by the “bad guys,” as two famous practitioners respectively demonstrated last week. Master satirist Stephen Colbert took his white privilege out for a spin, ran into a ditch, and did the right thing. Political comic and talk-show host Bill Maher, on the other hand, abused his white liberal street cred to reinforce a toxic white privilege trope, the old “Well, how come they get to say it?” canard.

Abusing white privilege is nothing new for Bill Maher, but usually, he’s reinforcing racial stereotypes by wishing that President Obama or Wayne Brady would be more black.

Another thing that Maher does, though, is to bolster his “teller-of-uncomfortable-truths” cred by occasionally agreeing with some dumb conservative bullshit, or to play along with the white right’s “racial grievance”complaint. On Friday night, he did both by equating Paul Ryan’s RAF “inner city” remarks with comments that Michelle Obama made at a commencement address.

Panelist W. Kamau Bell emphatically explained to Maher that Ryan’s comments were obviously racial, and Maher then dirtily attributed the following quote to Ryan: “when it comes to getting an education, too many of our young people just can’t be bothered, they’re sitting on couches for hours playing video games, watching TV. Instead of dreaming of being a teacher or a lawyer or a business leader, they’re fantasizing about being a baller or a rapper.”

He quickly reveals, to a shocked Bell, that the quote was from Michelle Obama (although Maher shortened it), and concludes that Michelle Obama and Paul Ryan are in complete agreement:

This is the same game that conservatives ran on liberals regarding quotes from President Obama, and even without context, both premises are complete garbage. While all three are clearly identifying disproportionate racial impacts, only of them is blaming an inferior culture.

But as Bell manages to point out, despite Maher’s stunning fuckery, is that context matters. “We talk to each other differently,” Bell said, which, to aggrieved white people, sounds like some kind of “black privilege.”

If that really were the rationale, it’d be fair enough, but here’s why the difference is a substantive one. Imagine if Maher had, instead, told his panel that Paul Ryan said “Just play ball or be an entertainer, ’cause niggers can’t read too well,” then revealed that it was actually Melle Mel who said that, and that Melle Mel obviously agrees with Ryan that black culture is deficient.

In that comparison, the difference is clear: Mr. Mel is referencing the limited choices presented to black people by white culture, and by the obstacles that President Obama referenced in the remarks that Ryan’s apologists point to.

Bill Maher may not have understood it, but Mrs. Obama’s audience most certainly would have gotten all of that context, and more, without having it spelled out. No matter how “down” you think you are, it is never the same thing when an outsider says something as it is when an insider says it.

The flipside of white privilege, though, is that sometimes it can be used for good. Being a part of the white, straight male majority can make for a powerful ally to marginalized people. That’s what Stephen Colbert was trying to do when he satirized Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder with his “Ching-Chong Ding-Dong” character, to illustrate the emptiness of Snyder’s Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation.

Like any good piece of satire, the piece was already right on the razor’s edge, but when the show tweeted the joke without the accompanying context, it was too much for many, and a #CancelColbert hashtag was born. While some of the outraged Twitterazzi didn’t get the satire, many of them did, but were outraged anyway.

It would be a simple matter to dismiss this protest as idiotic and/or self-righteous, and I have long opposed speech firings as a general matter, but as an outsider, as a privileged ally, it is absolutely crucial to recognize the legitimacy of the offense. Colbert did the right thing by deleting the tweet and apologizing, and hopefully, will address it on his show.

That’s because the most important thing an ally can do is to listen. As a satirist, Colbert has to weigh the competing interests of his audience, because good satire cuts, but it cuts both ways. Even if someone is completely clued-in to Colbert’s gag, watching him perform those Asian stereotypes, for example, can still sting. That sting must be measured against the benefit and necessity of the cut; is the gain worth the pain, however unintended?

It’s the same judgment writers have to make about when to censor the n-word, and when not to, because the word stings. Clearly, Colbert made the judgment that it was worth it, and when people were stung by it, he listened, instead of defensively deriding his critics.

Hopefully, though, this episode doesn’t cause Colbert to shy away from razor-sharp satire in the future. A good satirist (and Colbert is one of the all-time greats) must be willing to be misunderstood, and even willing to be cut by his own words. Let it bleed, let it scab over, and fight another day.

We will see how Stephen Colbert sticks the dismount on this controversy, but as it stands, the contrast between these two entertainers could not be more clear. Whatever you think of his execution, Stephen Colbert began by trying to use his privileged position to help, while Maher consistently uses his to help himself, and hurt others.

Update: The day after I published this, W. Kamau Bell revealed that Bill Maher had, indeed, done him dirty:

Bill read a Paul Ryan quote from a radio interview on Bill Bennett’s show. The panel had been given the quote before the show. And then he asked if it was okay to infer that Ryan was talking about people of color without saying the words. The panel had also been told that this was going to happen. In fact, I had been told right before the show taped to jump in first on this one because — and I quote — “As an African-American Bill is going to want to hear your perspective.” Anyone who knows me knows I’m a sucker for conversations about race and racism in America. Well, I got played for a sucker.

After the question came up, I basically said (FIRST!) that the quote was clearly about race, Bill read a second quote that he said was from Paul Ryan, and I snickered. And then Bill made that famous Bill Maher face that we all know (and many love). And he declared that the second quote was from Michelle Obama. Duh, duh, duuuuuuuh!

You can read the whole thing here, but I just want to blockquote Bell’s succinct, bullet-pointed rebuttal of Maher’s premise, because it’s so good:

1.Is there a difference between what Paul Ryan said and what Michelle Obama said? (Yes, it’s called context.)

2.What is the difference between “othering” and “identifying”? (In one you are outside of the group of which you speak – Ryan. In the second you are a member of the group you are talking about – Michelle Obama was raised on the South Side of Chicago. It doesn’t get much “blacker”.)

3.Does context change the meaning of rhetoric? (Yes. Dramatically.)

4.Does Michelle Obama’s quote being pulled out of the middle of a commencement address that was in front of an audience of people who likely have direct relationships to the issues she is referencing play substantially differently than two white Neo-Cons in the echo chamber of conservative talk radio? (Umm… Yes.)

5. Is Michelle Obama’s quote potentially problematic? (Sure. But let’s discuss and… Oops, Bill says we’re moving on.)

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