Yes, Amy Schumer Is Racist, And So Is Her Executive Producer
W. Kamau Bell likes to talk about the power of awkward conversations; in his show, Kamau Right Now!, he even devotes an entire segment to real talk that gets uncomfortable.
But last night, during the one-year anniversary of his show for KALW and City Arts & Lecture in San Francisco, things were mostly not all that awkward. After some initial talk about the horrifying conditions for those protesting the Dakota Access pipeline, he brought out a panel of three illustrious women — Anna Sale, creator and host of the podcast Death, Sex & Money; Jessi Klein, executive producer and head writer of The Amy Schumer Show; and Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter. The ensuing conversation was lively and engaging, but not particularly squirm-inducing. There was some chatter about the “Trumpkins,” banter about the current crop of quality movies and TV shows by Black creators, and laments about the travails of balancing work and family.
After the show wrapped and the on-air button shut off, the show then transitioned to a looser “after party” chat. And at this point, the show’s social media liaison, on behalf of several in the Twittersphere, asked the question that anyone following the news this week knew was going to be asked. It was directed toward Jessi: “What’s your take on Amy Schumer’s latest racist nonsense?” Behind the panelists, a screen filled up with an image from Schumer’s new, controversial “Formation” video, as well as several of her offensive tweets.
And just like that, things finally got really, really awkward.
Jessi’s immediate response was both squirrely and definitive: “No, Amy Schumer is not racist.”
The audience booed. Yells of “That’s because you’re white!” filled the hall.
It got worse.
Alicia, a leader in the most significant movement working to fight for racial justice right now, eloquently and calmly tried to explain why, yes, Schumer’s words and actions are racist and hurtful, and Jessi repeatedly prevented her from finishing by throwing up her hand and saying essentially, “I hear you, but Amy Schumer is not racist.”
As Jessi rudely interrupted Alicia, the audience screamed “LET HER TALK!”
It got worse.
Jessi weakly demurred that some of what Amy has said is “racially charged” and includes some “blind spots,” and tried to defend her own beliefs by saying she’s gotten into arguments with Amy about Black Lives Matter — suggesting Amy Schumer doesn’t support Black Lives Matter. In a terribly misguided effort to find solidarity with Alicia, Jessi claimed she got it because “I’m Jewish!”
A collective groan rattled the rafters.
At some point, San Francisco comedian Kaseem Bentley came on stage to discuss racism and comedy in the age of social media; there was talk about how the nature of comedy can lead to overstepping boundaries, and why it’s important to acknowledge when that happens. Shane Bauer, the Mother Jones investigative reporter who had earlier chatted one-on-one with W. Kamau, talked about the danger of misinterpreting the work he does infiltrating groups like right-wing border militias, because it can make it too easy to point and say, “Well, I’m not racist like that!”
At another point, Dr. Melissa Hudson Bell, Ph.D., W. Kamau’s wife, stepped out from the wings and onto the stage. To audience cheers, she said that she felt a responsibility to speak on the matter as a white person, and that not only is it clear that Amy Schumer is racist, but it’s clear that Jessi is racist too. And you know what, she said? I’m white and I’m racist too. Because we live in a racist society.
By the time the talk winded down — after Jessi repeated “Amy Schumer is not racist” probably five times and more specifically, “In her heart of hearts, Amy Schumer is not racist” at least a couple times — the stage was in a state of disarray and the audience was roiling.
So yeah, we got that promised awkward conversation. And speaking to W. Kamau’s point, we got the opportunity for the awkward conversation that comes in the wake of that awkward conversation.
Because here’s the thing: Yes, Amy Schumer is racist. Amy. Schumer. is. racist. She’s racist because we live in a society founded on racism that has afforded her racial privilege, and she’s racist because she’s said some racist shit. Last night, Jessi made it clear that she’s racist, too.
And yes, I am white, and yes, I am racist too — because we live in a society founded on racism that affords me racial privilege, and because I haven’t always fully acknowledged how I move through this world differently because of the color of my skin, and I’ve done some racist shit. I’ve thought “that cop was nice!” when I got off without a ticket, instead of “How would that have been different if I wasn’t white?” I’ve viewed black men and white men walking behind me at night differently. I’m trying to be more aware every day, but I fuck up. I’m still racist.
So if racism can happen in contexts outside white-hooded vigilantism, and if it indeed permeates our entire society, what now then? It’s not quite as simple as saying “Yep, I guess I’m racist like everyone else!” For one thing, that ignores the nuances and degrees of racism. For another, that’s not really going to affect anything.
The most important step is owning that shit. And here’s what owning that shit doesn’t involve:
• Interrupting and dismissing the words of a Black Lives Matter co-founder talking to you about their lived experiences and how racism works.
• Adopting the fallacious “one-size-fits-all” approach to oppression by acting like if you know about one kind of oppression — say, being Jewish in America — you know about an entirely different kind of oppression — say, being Black in America.
• Trying to appease those who are offended without being held in any way truly accountable by relying on BS talk of “racially-charged language,” which signals something can rely on blatantly racist stereotyping without having ill intent or being harmful. If a man says something obviously offensive to a woman, do we call it “gender-charged language”? No, we call it “sexism.” Because it is.
• Further skirting accountability by brushing it all off as the machinations of “comedy.” Yes, good comedy can tackle sensitive issues like race and be deeply uncomfortable and even controversial. But there’s also such a thing as offensive and moreover, just plain bad comedy — and this kind punches down and relies on an audience’s ugly racism to glean laughs. It’s not “okay,” and you know what? It’s not funny.
The way Jessi treated the charge of racism — deny, deny, deny — is clearly shared by Amy herself, who following blowback about the “Formation” video has only doubled down on defending it. Amy has repeatedly been given the gift of being told about her racism, but instead of using that feedback to evolve, she and her surrogates have continually claimed that she’s not racist, nope not one bit. And so, the cycle continues, and so, it undoubtedly will.
At the end of the “after party” discussion, W. Kamau wrapped things up by explicitly addressing the awkwardness and saying we need to be having more conversations like that, even though — and really, because — they’re uncomfortable.
In the wake of the fracas, as the still-groaning audience filed out of the venue, an unspoken question hung in the air. It’s a question members of the audience answered with care in the inevitable post-discussion Twitter storm.
But it’s a question both Amy and Jessi have answered in troubling ways.
If we need to be having more uncomfortable conversations about race in this country, that question is this: Are you listening?