How should a white person talk about racism?
More specifically, how should a wealthy, famous white woman talk about white privilege? In Chelsea Handler's new Netflix documentary, Hello, Privilege. It's Me, Chelsea, she makes a go of it using an uncharacteristic amount of self-conscious confessional mixed with her signature bawdy humor and, most effectively, a generous amount of silence. She interviews disparate groups of black students, activists, and comedians, as well as conservative Republicans and white liberals, all in pursuit of her well-documented quest: "I'm clearly the beneficiary of white privilege, and I want to know what my responsibility is moving forward in the world that we live in today where race is concerned."
Hello, Privilege. It's Me, Chelsea | Official Trailer | Netflix youtu.be
If the documentary were marketed as the story of Handler's personal evolution from the low-brow comedian who wrote the New York Times #1 Bestseller titled Uganda Be Kidding Me to a civically-minded and socially conscious Woke™celebrity, then Hello, Privilege. It's Me, Chelsea would work. The 64-minute runtime would be candid exploration of one white woman's privilege and how she found American fame and success through a nuanced blend of excellent luck, a loud mouth, and hard work.
And to be fair, that story comprises about one-third of Handler's documentary. The rest affirms the obvious, which Dr. Laura Smith of Columbia University describes simply: "One of the parts about being a white ally is realizing that every single thing that you have to say about racism, all the people of color you know already thought of it a long time ago, and they've lived it out." Handler travels between the high and low ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, meeting with professors, activists, students, working class people, Bel Air Republicans, a white southern rapper, other comedians, the young, and the old all in pursuit of answers: How can she be a better white person? What should a conversation about white privilege look like? Who should be having those conversations?
Handler faces her own discomfort asking those questions early on, when she's "put in [her] place" by a group of USC students. She attends an open mic coordinated by Jody Armour, a law professor who invites her to participate in their discussion and performances of spoken word about the topic of white privilege. In the first reminder of many throughout the documentary, one audience member points out that the solution is "deeper than a documentary," while another holds Handler accountable for her self-promotional intentions and her privileges as a successful, white comic. "Feel free to edit this out, because I'm embarrassed to be here with you," the student says, "because this is just another example of white privilege. What are you going to do with it other than come into this space and take?"
Handler calls the exchange "intense" but welcomed based on her approach to race and privilege these days, which is simply: Chelsea Handler is one lucky b*itch. The documentary opens with clips of Handler's comedy over the years, including plenty of short-sighted commentary, from fetishizing black men to saying "political correctness is the handicap of any real conversation and I hate it" in her generally maligned 2016 Netflix docuseries episode, Chelsea Does Racism. Handler reckons with her past problematic takes in candid interviews filmed throughout her Bel Air mansion. Her progress can be summed up in her opening words: "I was white, I was pretty, and I had a big mouth and for some reason, that was rewarded in Hollywood." In other words, she got away with a lot—and was even rewarded for it—because of her white privilege.
The most compelling part of the documentary is her delve into her past. "Until doing this film, I didn't realize all the things that I'm guilty of that I've never been arrested for, that black people do get arrested for," she says. At 16, she found herself flunking out of high school and living with her black boyfriend, Tyshawn, who began dealing drugs and with whom Handler was pulled over multiple times while she was also in possession of drugs. She recounts how each time he was arrested she was let go. After becoming pregnant twice, Handler's middle class family forced her to stabilize her life, putting her into an alternative high school which allowed her to graduate "right on time." In the span of the documentary, Handler ends up visiting her ex-boyfriend for the first time in decades; she finds out that after his arrests he never regained his promising future from when he was a teenager with multiple offers to attend college on football scholarships. Instead, he spent 14 years in jail for armed robbery.
Handler is clearly well-intentioned in this special. She earnestly seeks out open discourse with people of color and white people to flesh out the reality of white privilege: "We need to talk to people who are white and stop asking Black people to solve our problems because it's a white person's problem." And when confronted with less informed white people who would only utter the phrase "white privilege" with air quotes around it, she shows genuine frustration. A young woman in a man-in-the-street interview says, "It's not something I see very often," to which Handler responds, "But would you see it if you're white?"
So is Chelsea Handler woke now? Absolutely not. Among other things, she exclusively interviews black and white people, as if to reaffirm the false binary that racism is only an issue between black and white people. As an aspiring "white ally," Handler has continued to promote and discuss civil rights activism, taking to Twitter to promote "Chelsea Handler's Action Center" run by Countable, "the first digital platform that activates, engages and retains your [company's] audience...not once, but every day, on your terms."
She recently posted, "Will you join me in showing up for racial justice? Learn more about @WP4BL, a white anti-racist collective and the Los Angeles affiliate of Showing Up for Racial Justice, and start taking action!"
But despite her good intentions, Handler mostly re-affirms that a demoralizing amount of ignorance exists in America. As she told Jimmy Kimmel while promoting the special, "It's not about how you mean it, it's what that person takes it as." She was speaking about the sensitivity training she had to undergo after a woman at the USC open mic complained about her behavior during filming. She apparently touched the black woman's butt while hugging her after an impressive performance. As Handler told Kimmel, she had no intention of offending the woman, who later enlightened the comedian that black women have been fetishized for their hair and asses for too long and Handler had no right to touch her body. It's a prime example that Handler had little to no understanding of white privilege before filming. "I always thought it was a certain group of people that get into Harvard or Yale or that have rich parents," Handler admits to Kimmel. "It's a privilege just to have white skin in this country, it's a privilege just to go into a grocery store and not be stared at, it's a privilege to get pulled over and not worry if it's a life or death situation."
That anecdote echoes one of the special's flashes in the pan of near-enlightenment. When speaking to wealthy, white, self-described conservative Republican women, Handler gives a simple example of white privilege: She's never been pulled over and felt in danger from the police officer. One woman, a Republican political consultant, is silent for a moment before commenting that she's never considered that before; in fact, only moments prior she had denied the existence of quote-white privilege-unquote. In that new light, the woman admits that "it is a problem" and even says "I don't think there's any way we could deny that." But in a telling moment, her friend asks her if by "it" she means "white privilege" and she says no; she means "black dis-privilege."