Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Hari Kondabolu on Racism vs. White Guilt

This is a guest post by Gus, otherwise known as Allison McCarthy.

Hari Kondabol: "I can’t be arrogant enough to say that comedy will lead to social change. It can aid in the process of changing people’s minds and at least questioning in a way that’s more comfortable. It can be less aggressive. I’m aggressive on stage, but I still need to make people laugh. Being around laughter is cathartic. For other people, it’s a moment of, “Man I didn’t think about that before. I’d never questioned that. I don’t want to, but I’m laughing so there’s something to think about.” I know enough people doing amazing activism, so I won’t say that what I do in stand-up is equivalent to organizing. I’m at least bringing certain questions up publicly with my art that generally are not brought up because I have experiences and perspectives that are relatively new to standup."  


So I went to a prestigious small liberal arts college in Maine.  And like other people of color, I think, who have gone to prestigious institutions of higher learning, I had a lot of white liberal friends.  And I am sick of some of these white liberal friends telling me how guilty they feel all the time, how their whiteness makes them feel bad.  "I feel guilty, I have so much white guilt."  Y'know, I'm not impressed.  'Cause if I had the choice between white guilt and racism, I'd take the white guilt every time.  White guilt sounds GREAT, are you kidding me? 
Imagine this:  you're on a line, right?  You're about to board an airplane.  And all of a sudden, security shows up.  They pull a sick man with a beard and a turban off.  They search his bags again.  You're watching and what do you think to yourself? 
"Oh, this is terrible.  I feel terrible.  This again?  Racial profiling?  That man's done nothing wrong.  How about they search me?  They should search me.  I'm a white man, I could be the next Timothy McVeigh.  They don't know that.  Why don't they search my bags?  'Cuz I'm white.  I feel terrible.  I feel so terrible -- I mean, I'm still gonna board the plane.  But I'm gonna feel bad about it.  I'm gonna sit in my chair and feel -- oh, I can, I'll write Rachel Maddow an e-mail!  That's what I'll do!  And I'll tell Terry Gross.  And I'll read my bell hooks on the plane.  Yes!  Then, then everything will be better.  I'll feel better.  I'm a good white liberal, I'm a good white liberal, I'm a good white liberal.  Okay."
So, by any chance, there are white liberals watching this video, remember this: your white guilt is a part of your white privilege.  Enjoy it while it lasts.
A couple of really interesting things about this video:
1.  Hari Kondabolu using comedy to illustrate points about racism, xenophobia, and social justice in performing stand-up and creating online videos.  I sometimes wonder if the frequent medium of the message that is Social Justice 101 -- academia -- isn't enough to bridge the gaps for those who don't have access to critical theory or, conversely, those who do and treat it as an abstraction rather than a reflection of reality.  Kondabolu's comedy, which has been compared to the work of Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce, makes audiences laugh and think critically at the same time. 
2.  The point about bell hooks is especially compelling for me as a white feminist.  It's too easy to cite her writing and think, "See?  I examined my privilege.  All better!"  Her work is not intended to act as a salve on the conscience; it provokes, critiques, and draws connections.  It can't be a means to the end of white guilt. 
3.  "Your white guilt is a part of your white privilege" should be a mantra for white people who want to ease the burden.  If solidarity with communities of color ever means something more than an abstraction for white liberals, it has to start with owning that guilt and using it to promote real change.