About 27 minutes into “Chewed Up,’’ his 2008 special recorded at Boston’s Berklee Performance Center, the stand-up comic Louis C.K. starts apologizing for being so negative. After all, he admits, he’s got a lot going for him. “I’m healthy, I’m relatively young, I’m white — which, thank God for that [expletive], boy,’’ he says, in one of his classic bits on race. “That is a huge leg up, are you kidding me?’’
As laughter erupts, C.K. — the schlubby, middle-aged dad from Newton hailed as the funnyman of his generation — proceeds to explain to his largely white audience that, even though there is nothing about white people that makes them better, being white in America is obviously better. “Here’s how great it is to be white,’’ he says. “I could get in a time machine and go to any time, and it would be [expletive] awesome when I get there,’’ he says. “That is exclusively a white privilege. Black people can’t [mess] with time machines! A black guy in a time machine is like, ‘Hey, if it’s before 1980, no thank you. I don’t wanna go.’ ’’
And there you have it: one of the most clear-eyed analyses of white privilege ever to reach mainstream America, wrapped in a three-minute comedy routine with a Showtime premiere and 7 million-plus hits on YouTube.
I’m not a huge follower of stand-up. But I am a person who has spent a lot of time reading and writing about race. After recently stumbling onto some of C.K.’s recent routines, it occurred to me that with nothing more than a microphone and some jokes, C.K. may be doing more to raise consciousness about the subtle workings of race, power, and privilege than a conference full of academics and social justice activists.
If race scholars preach to the choir, C.K. — with his everyman persona and mass appeal — is speaking to a wide swath of America. And he’s making them laugh.
“That’s the whole goal for any comedian — to raise awareness about social issues when people are disarmed by laughter,’’ says New York comic Erin Judge, known for her biting commentary on gender. “Because you can have these awkward encounters in contrived social settings, where people of color and white people are trying to explain themselves to one another. But when you have something like stand-up as the framework, it’s incredibly disarming. Which makes it incredibly powerful.’’
Lots of comedic greats, white and black, have made race funny: George Carlin, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Sarah Silverman, the list goes on. In recent years, blogs like Stuff White People Like have used satire to reframe whiteness as a category with its own subjective lens — not an ideal against which other groups are measured. But very few humorists enjoy C.K.’s following, from urban hipsters to blue-collar hardhats, die-hard liberals to right-leaning conservatives. And perhaps no other comedian has brought the house down while borrowing the language of critical race theory.
I can distinctly remember the first time I heard the term “white privilege,’’ as a college student, reading the watershed 1988 essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,’’ by feminist scholar Peggy McIntosh. Like C.K., McIntosh puts her own privilege front and center, calling out the card-carrying benefits that come with her white skin. Like C.K., she paints the everyday, invisible advantages of whiteness in a way that makes them visible. The problem is that McIntosh reads like a 50-count indictment. C.K. sounds like he is pointing out obvious truths.
Toward the end of “Being White,’’ C.K. turns the mirror back on himself. And whether you experience the world as white or black, male or female, he makes it hard to resist his truth. “And I’m a man. I mean, how many advantages can one person have? I’m a white man. You can’t even hurt my feelings. What can you really call a white man that really digs deep — ‘Hey, cracker.’ Wow, ruined my day.’’