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Jon Stewart, White Male Privilege, and the Power of Liberal Denial

By Dustin Rowles | Think Pieces | July 27, 2015 |

By Dustin Rowles | Think Pieces | July 27, 2015 |

The news a few days ago that Jon Stewart once told former The Daily Show correspondent Wyatt Cenac to “fuck off” during a heated, extended argument involving race has not sat well with many of us who have lofty views of Jon Stewart as a flawless human being. To hear that Stewart may have been on the wrong side of a progressive issue — a race issue — was hard to stomach, and I think many of us found ways to rationalize it in our minds.

In fact, I found myself listening to Wyatt Cenac’s entire WTF podcast in search of some context to ease my own feelings about the matter. Cenac spent maybe the last 20-30 minutes of the podcast discussing the argument and the fall-out, and some of what he said beyond what was initially blurbed here and elsewhere was both more comforting and much less so. The argument happened, and though Cenac stuck around for another year afterwards, it was never the same. He felt very much dispirited by it — as any of us might had we been berated by Jon Stewart — but I think the bigger disappointment for him was the fact that Stewart never really reached out to ameliorate the situation. He made overtures. He apologized for yelling. He exchanged friendly — and even funny — emails with Cenac after he left, and he even put Cenac’s name up as a candidate to replace him. But Jon Stewart never had the talk with Cenac that he had wanted and, more importantly, he never acknowledged that he was wrong.

But here’s the thing that really struck me about the situation: It was a much larger deal to Cenac than it was to Stewart. To Cenac, it was an argument with a hero, with a paternal figure, with Jon fucking Stewart. For Jon Stewart, it was a blowout with one of many employees. In Cenac’s own account, he said it was not uncommon for writers and correspondents to challenge Jon Stewart. It was what made the show so good, he said.

But this was also different. It wasn’t just a guy getting yelled at by his boss. When others challenged him, it didn’t reach the heated level that this argument did. This situation was also different because Cenac was the only black writer on the show at the time, and the only one challenging him on a Herman Cain impression that made him feel uncomfortable.

I think that Stewart should have given his opinion more respect at the time, and even The Daily Show producers have admitted — since the Maron podcast — that the program had “blind spots” with race and conceded that “there still are [blind spots] now.

Does any of this make Jon Stewart racist? I don’t think so. You need only watch his somber commentary on the Charleston shooting to understand that.

But Stewart is prideful, and when the man that some would consider the leading voice of progressives is being called out for being racially insensitive, I’m sure he felt defensive. I’m sure the overriding thought he had in his mind was, “Look at this show! How could you think that I’m racially insensitive?!”

I can imagine that’s what he might have been thinking because it’s the same thing that I was thinking a couple of months ago, when several readers here challenged my racial insensitivity for failing to call Cameron Crowe out for casting Emma Stone as a character who was half Asian and half Chinese. In my review of Aloha, I ignored the whitewashing in order to devote the review to a kind of love letter to my wife. (We were celebrating our 10th anniversary that week.)

When I mentioned to my wife the fact that some of our readers were calling me out for it, do you know what she said? She said, “It was a very sweet review, but you should’ve mentioned it. You should’ve called Cameron Crowe out.”

My wife and I, actually, ended up in a lengthy and heated debate about it, and at one point, I remember echoing the thoughts of some on this site (and elsewhere) who complain that we too often inject too much “political correctness” into our reviews. “Sometimes, I miss the way it was eight or nine years ago when I could just write a review without always taking into account the race or gender of those behind and in front of the camera.”

“That’s your white male privilege talking,” she said.

That pissed me off. Because how dare she, right? Given my upbringing, given the feminist leanings of this site, and given our devotion to discussing progressive cultural issues, and my “male white privilege” was being called out?

“Fuck off.”

But then Mrs. Pajiba-hyphenate gave me the Smith College 45-minute “white male privilege” lecture, and as defensive as I might have felt, I listened (because, in these matters, my wife does not give me a choice). I mean, I have always understood white male privilege in the abstract, but that was something that other people possessed. Not me!

But then, hearing the way it was being applied to my review, I think I finally truly understood it.

That is to say, I found it easier eight or nine years ago when I didn’t have to factor race and gender into a movie review because I wasn’t considering any other perspective but my own. Because those other voices weren’t as loud and empowered. When Jerry Seinfeld, for instance, says that he won’t do colleges anymore because it’s “too PC,” what he really means is that he doesn’t want to hear the empowered voices of non-white, non-male people object to his comedy. It was easier for him when he could get away with not considering those other perspectives.

Of course I love Cameron Crowe movies. His films reflect the worldview of white men. I don’t think it makes me a racist to love his films, but it did make me racially insensitive for not considering how others might feel about them.

Non-whites are scant in his films, and women are basically reduced to sounding board’s for Crowe’s brand of poetry, so of course, Hawaiians are going to be offended that Cameron Crowe chose to cast Emma Stone as an Asian, and they should have been. Crowe had an opportunity to provide another perspective, and he chose to relay it through the ginger-iest woman on the planet. Nevermind how great Emma Stone is, and how much we might love her or, or how beneficial she might be to the box office: Cameron Crowe should’ve considered Asians when casting an Asian character. I was dumb to deny that.

The conversation with my wife was eye-opening because it revealed that I, too, had a “blind spot.” When it comes to racial insensitivity, it is our duty to consider the perspective of those being affected and/or offended and not just our own perceptions. We cannot simply fall back on our progressive credentials and dismiss that criticism. If an African-American calls you out for being racially insensitive, you can’t dismiss it. You have to consider that perspective; you have to imagine what it might be like for him to hear what sounds like a Kingfish impression. You have to listen and acknowledge.

After all, who better to judge whether Emma Stone’s casting was offensive? Me, or a Hawaiian? And who better to judge whether Jon Stewart’s Herman Cain impression was racially insensitive? The white guy delivering it, or the black guy hearing it?

Look: I love Jon Stewart, and this incident is not going to change that. And the thing is, I also think he’s learned since his blowout with Wyatt Cenac. Listen to that editorial he gave after the Charleston shooting, a commentary that was instrumental in getting the Confederate flag taken down in South Carolina.

“In South Carolina, the roads that black people drive down are named for Confederate generals who fought to keep black people from freely driving on that road. That’s insanity. That’s racial wallpaper. You can’t allow that … the Confederate flag flies over South Carolina, and the roads are named for Confederate generals, and the white guys is the one who feels like the country is being taken from him.”

It was that editorial that flipped the switch for so many people on the Confederate flag issue, because it was no longer possible to see it from the position of a white man defending his heritage. No matter how deeply you might feel about your Southern pride, you have to consider the other perspective. There is no escaping the fact that it’s hurtful. Maybe the racists still will continue to deny it, but there were enough white people in South Carolina (and in other places around the country) who finally realized, “Hey! This is not about us. This is about considering the feelings of others, about considering how a black person feels driving down a road named after a Confederate general.”

It’s about being less selfish. It’s about checking our white, male privilege.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.