Lately anyone who is paying attention has been thunderstruck by the stark realization that racism is not only still alive in America but flourishing. And not only is it flourishing but it is doing so with the ongoing help of systems ostensibly put in place to protect all American citizens. Some of the things that have happened in the past few years are so despicable that they hardly seem possible in the "modern day America" we like to believe we are living in. Last week, nine black people were murdered in a church in Charleston by an avowed white supremacist.
Twenty-two-year-old Kalief Browder committed suicide after being arrested at age 16 and jailed at Rikers Island without a trial for three years, two of those in solitary confinement. His death woke many up to a racist criminal justice system that is broken and perhaps more aptly described as terrorist. Hundreds more remain in Rikers right now in similar circumstances, having never been tried in court.
Walter Scott was killed by the police, shot in the back as he was running away. The officer's apparent attempt to cover it up was all thankfully caught on the cellphone camera of a passerby. It was yet another repulsive, shocking moment, begging the question "How many Walter Scotts were not videotaped? How many cover-ups go undiscovered? How many lives have been lost? How many decades has this been going on?" The realization that this is systemic and entrenched is shocking, overwhelming and incredibly upsetting. Further, the understanding that we are all complicit is becoming increasingly unavoidable of late.
"White privilege" is a term I've heard more in the past several months than in the past decade combined. With regularity I'm suddenly hearing discussions about America's entrenched system of "White supremacy." Some bristle at these terms, not feeling particularly "privileged" as they struggle to navigate their own life and career. In the past, I might acknowledge its existence on some level but I'd always give myself a pass. Sure, I could see that "white privilege" and "white supremacy" existed in some forms but it wasn't my doing. I was one of the good ones. I was part of the solution, not part of the problem.
But now I find myself examining my unwitting role in upholding America's vile and illusory system of "white male supremacy," if only by remaining silent. I am starting to acknowledge the ways -- big and small -- I have directly benefited. When I see black men terrorized by police policies and, in the most extreme cases, murdered; I never even remotely consider such an outcome for myself when I leave my home. I am a white male- free to navigate my neighborhood, my city, my life with a carefree ease (a privilege) that is not afforded my fellow citizens of color.
I have been a comedian for about 22 years. As a white male, I have undeniably been given advantages throughout that people of color and women are not afforded. Comedy clubs are largely owned and booked by white males. They decide who gets stage time, which then dictates who develops and progresses. Yes, of course you have to be funny, but white male voices are disproportionately nurtured and allowed room to grow. Additionally, bookers of TV shows are often male, almost always white. They are the gatekeepers, determining who progresses and gains exposure to a larger audience. Much of this can likely be attributed to the natural inclination to gravitate towards those who look like we do. Perhaps some of it can even be attributed to catering to certain "demographics." But it is racism/patriarchy and not calling it out allows it to continue un-scrutinized. It upholds the status quo.
When folks discuss great comedians they often reflexively mention men. I've seen many of today's top comedians ascend the ranks. I remember a time when they were not great. I remember when they were good. Over time, with lots of hard work, they became very good. With even more time and hard work, eventually they became great. Among the tops in their field. But you cannot discount the fact that their ascent and development were facilitated by a system that nurtures males- and specifically white males-at disproportionate rates.
I, too, have undoubtedly benefited from this system, consciously and unconsciously. I have been given opportunities that comedians of color and female comedians are not afforded as readily. I didn't face many of the hurdles that are placed before my fellow comedians who are female, people of color or LGBT. I can ignore my privilege and instead choose to stroke my ego with a narrative that I am special. I am some kind of superhero and I earned everything by working extraordinarily hard.
I have worked hard, but I cannot deny that as a white male I have occupied an elevated position of privilege in my field. This privilege not only facilitates the success of white males like myself, but perhaps even ensures it, to a certain extent. We all fall under its spell. Media chimes in to further the narrative, often using words like "Brilliant," "Genius" or "Renaissance man," to further convince us of how special and almost superhuman these men are.
In the past two weeks I've had the good fortune to work with two formidable and hilarious comedians. Last week I worked with Lizz Winstead (co-creator of The Daily Show) and this week I worked with Janeane Garofalo. These two comedians are giants; undeniable trailblazers with unique voices and a powerful presence. Yet the media does not fall all over itself to write stories about them or use words like "Genius" or "Brilliant" in the same way they do for their male counterparts. Women are routinely marginalized or outright ignored, not given their due. If women are written about, it's usually within the narrow narrative of "Are women funny?" It's lazy, tired and a passive form of violence.
Last week Jon Stewart was rightly hailed for his powerful reflection on the racist terrorist attack in Charleston. The clip has been shared all over social media and Stewart endlessly praised for the way he addressed the situation. But something troubled me about it. I couldn't help but wonder why, when a white male basically comes out and states the obvious, do people fall all over themselves to celebrate him? At a certain point the obsequious demonstration of praise seems overboard. Where, I wondered, are the black voices with a similar platform? The female voices? The people of color? Do we know where to find them? Do we care to look? Might this be a good time to hear from them? Have we all been conditioned to value and celebrate the white male perspective above all others, so that when he speaks up we can't stop praising him? Is what he did really so extraordinary?
Again, in no way am I discounting Stewart's considerable gifts and the fine job he did in this case and so many others. I think he is exceedingly talented and will be sorely missed when he leaves. But his should ideally be one of many voices in the media (and comedy) landscape that we are considering. Women and people of color have just as much to contribute (perhaps more at this particular time) to this vital national dialogue but aren't afforded an equal place at the table.
So it is time to look inward while processing and grieving a litany of injustices. Beyond the shadow of a doubt I am beginning to grasp the extent to which I enjoy white privilege/male privilege, and the ways that it's helped me get to where I am in life and in my career. Beyond the shadow of a doubt, it has made my path easier. I have been given opportunities to evolve and grow. Opportunities to fail. Acknowledging those truths is essential. It makes me more aware and empathic as I continue my path. It is an ongoing process, an ongoing education; and listening is always an essential part of that.
A seismic shift is afoot. We can either ignore it, deny it or examine our role in it. Many are beginning to ask "What can we do?" Perhaps we can start with a very difficult yet necessary examination of privilege, because it is the very building blocks of American racism and white supremacy. A system that results in dead black and brown bodies. I have an obligation to examine and ultimately use my privilege in ways that benefit and uplift those oppressed by white supremacy. I am one person. I want to honor those who have suffered and died by taking a hard and ongoing look at American white male supremacy and doing whatever I can to identify it, discredit it and hopefully, one day, help eliminate it.
This post was first published at TedAlexandro.tumblr.com.