Voices

Not saying the N-word doesn’t make Seinfeld a hero

Jerry Seinfeld, who has been lauded for calling out racism among fellow comedians
(Getty)

An old clip of Chris Rock, Louis CK, Ricky Gervais and Jerry Seinfeld on a 2011 HBO special of Talking Funny has recently resurfaced on social media. In the video, Chris Rock calls Louis CK “the blackest white guy I fucking know”. Louis CK guffaws and replies, “You’re saying I’m a n***** .” Chris Rock agrees, only for Jerry Seinfeld to interject, “I wouldn’t use it [the N-word] anywhere.”

Seinfeld looks increasingly uncomfortable throughout the exchange. When Ricky Gervais asks, “Who says n***** onstage? We don’t.” Seinfeld replies, “Well, you just did.”

I can’t imagine how it would feel to be a black person watching that clip. The zeal with which Louis CK and Ricky Gervais use the racial slur is chilling. It’s said with such excitement and enthusiasm; CK throws the word around with pride, as though it epitomises his irreverent comedy style.

People have been expressing their surprise that Chris Rock appeared to encourage the flagrant use of such offensive language. Seinfeld on the other hand is being widely praised for his behaviour on the show, with many pointing out that he’ll be the only participant not to have to issue an apology statement (not that anyone truly believes that the likes of Ricky Gervais and Louis CK will be clamouring for atonement).

Chris Rock is also being roundly condemned for his role in the conversation. Of course, it’s completely understandable that people will feel betrayed and concerned about the effects of a hugely prominent black comedian like Rock apparently giving white comedians a licence to use the N-word.

Black people currently bear the brunt of the responsibility when it comes to educating people about racial insensitivity

By contrast, Jerry Seinfeld is being held up as a paradigm of political correctness for his measured and appropriate behaviour. But, while Seinfeld did behave admirably (although, you only have to watch his acclaimed sitcom to see that the comedian wasn’t immune from racial insensitivity), we need to remember that white people have an increased, not a decreased, responsibility to address racism.

Obviously, people are free to praise Seinfeld’s behaviour and criticise that of Chris Rock. But, when discussing the apparently inverted approach of the two comedians, it’s important to realise that non-black people like Seinfeld have a much easier experience when it comes to calling out racism.

For one thing, we’re less exhausted. Black people currently bear the brunt of the responsibility when it comes to educating people about racial insensitivity. As non-black people, we don’t have to address these issues on a daily basis. We’re not expected to call people out, explain power dynamics or describe the political significance of racial slurs at any given opportunity. Instead, our silence is allowed. And then, when we do engage, as Jerry Seinfeld did, we’re disproportionately praised.

We also don’t have to contend with the same racial stereotypes. When non-black people condemn the use of the N-word, we never have to worry about being cast as an “angry black person” (an insidious stereotype designed to silence righteous indignation). Someone like Jerry Seinfeld – an esteemed, light-skinned comedian – can express his discomfort without having to worry about his image as a performer. This privilege is not extended to black people, whose presence is perceived as innately political, whether they choose to engage with politics or not.

Non-black people shouldn’t be lauded for holding our own accountable. Instead, this should be the expectation. Of course, this doesn’t mean shouting over a black person who is trying to explain their own experience. But it does mean calling out the behaviour of friends, colleagues and family. It means engaging with issues that don’t affect us, and supporting the arguments of people who experience oppression. It’s not particularly difficult, or particularly praise-worthy. Frankly, it’s the very least we can do.