This week Tina Fey’s guest spot in a SNL episode went viral. It was hilarious, it spoke truth about the administration of Donald Trump, and it also reflected a significant amount of white privilege. For some reason, people are having problems accepting that all of this can go together.
If you haven’t seen the video, I encourage you to go watch it. Not only will that make the rest of this post more meaningful, but its just a really good bit.
In the video, Fey advocates for, and participates in a practice that she labels “sheet caking.” This is the practice of drowning one’s frustration and anger at the current state of racism and governmental malfeasance in a sheet cake made by your local Jewish … or black baker.
After the video spread throughout the interwebs, protest posts started appearing noting that Fey’s approach was, let’s say, not uncontroversial.
There are a couple of components of the criticism here, but most of it comes down to her last lines in the bit: “I really want to say, to encourage all good sane Americans to treat these rallies this weekend like the opening of a thoughtful movie with two female leads; don’t show up. Let these morons scream into the empty air.”
Fey’s example, and her final recommendation, said many black Americans, revealed her own white privileged. These post were followed by a great number of white liberals counter-protesting that Fey was just being funny, and that the critics were missing the point. Comments that I read from white liberals included: “this is why we can’t have funny things,” “this is why Democrats cannot win elections,” and “this is why comedians have stopped doing shows at colleges.”
First, let me agree to a set of things that my white liberal friends have claimed about Tina Fey’s bit. (1) It is hilarious. (2) As comedy often does, it provides a medium for social commentary that has the potential to disrupt standard political discourse. (3) Fey’s attacks on the Trump administration in the bit are witty, sly, and are unflinching in saying what needs to be said about the administration. (4) We cannot expect a comedy routine to provide a realistic political program for reacting to Neo-Nazis marching in the street. To paraphrase Bill Chott, the first rule of comedy is not “always leave ’em with a call to action.”
Now, let me share with you a rule of thumb: After the election of Donald Trump, if people of color tell you that there is white privilege someplace PAY ATTENTION!
Raise your hand if a year ago you thought our country was racist enough to elect a white supremacist to the office of President. I have my hand up (ok, I took it back down to type more easily). If you are like me, you underestimated the amount of racism in our country, and it may have to do with the fact that you are not the kind of person who has to face racism on a daily basis.
Now, paying attention requires you to do a couple of things. First, get over the feeling that you have been accused of something. There are points at which the inability to see white privileged can be a moral failure, but set that to the side at this point. So long as you focus on whether you have been accused or even that you feel guilty, it’s not helpful. If you focus on the feeling of accusation, you won’t be open to learn. If you focus on the feeling of guilt, you won’t act. And what we need is learning and acting.
Back to the video. Does the idea of “sheet caking” reflect white privilege? Of course. It’s a joke based on the premise that one could react to the injustice of the Trump campaign and marching Neo-nazis in the same way that a stereotypical teenage (white) girl might react to her boyfriend breaking up with her.
This, however, is not necessarily a critique of the bit. Comedy should make us laugh then think (or both at once). I don’t know to what extent Fey had processed the multiple levels on which “sheet caking” might work comidically, or function to raise questions about how to respond to injustice. She might herself not know. Virtuosos often work by feel rather than by analytical reflection. But there is no reason that a joke can’t simultaneously embody and raise questions about a social situation. See here, the excellent SNL sketch on Black Jeopardy prior to the election.
Note here though, if we accept this way of thinking about the sketch, it SHOULD raise questions about white privilege, especially for people who identify with sheet caking. (And Lord knows that I do.)
But this doesn’t say enough. Frankly, the routine just failed in its last lines. Fey’s mistake is not that she didn’t offer a call to action. It is that her last lines sound like they are a call to action, or rather to inaction: Don’t show up.
A few days after clergy and Charlottsville residents linked arms, literally risked their lives, and stood face to face against Neo-Nazis, this was the wrong way to go. It fit with the “sheet caking” bit, and it was couched in some typically biting satire with the line about female leads in a movie, but it was a bad choice.
But more than that, it’s just the wrong message. It treats our situation as if white nationalists are children acting up for attention, who might change their attitudes if you just don’t give them what they want. But that is not our situation. Our situation is one of prolonged racism which is the de facto reality. The white nationalists rallied to elect Trump and are marching because they fear that we might change the status quo.
So what we need to do is change the status quo. You don’t do this by refusing to pay attention. You do this by confronting. This is why Martin Luther King Jr. advocated non-violence and not non-action.
Unfortunately, too many white people do not recognize this as the nature of the problem. They live their lives blissfully ignorant of the perennial racism that exists, and are only disrupted by the marches. So it seems to them that the marches are the problem. This is the deepest point of white privileged in the sketch.
Does this mean that we should throw the whole thing out? That we should treat Fey as a pariah? No. Of course not. It was for the most part a brilliant piece of comedy with one significant misstep. If we are going to make it through this period in our history, we will need to make room for mistakes, but we will also need to learn from those mistakes. Comedy opens the space for that. And the best way to take this bit is to use what it provides and learn from where it falls short.
So, what should we do? Laugh about sheet caking, then go out and get active at every level. Look for the racism that it is hard for us to see. Pay attention to local news. Go to city council meetings. Make political connections. Help elect good state senators. Use this all as a laboratory for building the movement that will change the status quo. The white nationalists are afraid. Make sure that this fear is warranted.