We recently released a blog piece titled “5 Social Justice Terms to Help Name and Deconstruct White Supremacy” meant to help facilitate the interruption of whiteness by those of us interested in seeing the dismantling of white supremacy. Shortly after we released that piece the clip of Chris Rock, Louis CK, Ricky Gervais, and Jerry Seinfeld in conversation and Louis CK using the N word went viral. We thought it may be helpful to analyze the clip using the 5 terms as a way to highlight examples in real life of these phenomenon taking place.
The clip begins with Louis CK naming a manifestation of racism: the belief that Black people shouldn’t be wealthy and are unable to manage wealth when they are wealthy.
prompted by Louis CK seemingly “woke” observation of the racism still experienced by wealthy Black people Chris Rock states “you are the Blackest white guy I f*cking know” and everybody laughs.
Rock continues to say “and all the negative things we think about Black people… this f*cker” to which Louis CK responds “so you are saying I’m a N word.” (with a hard R).
There are different ways to interpret Louis CKs comments. One might assume Louis CK is echoing James Baldwin's assertion of the N Word: that white people are actually the N word as they created the term and are the group that depends on its use. However, based on the rest of the conversation - this lofty interpretation is unlikely. A more likely reading of Louis CK’s comment is that it manifests from white guilt.
He doesn’t want to be white and believes that he can distance himself from whiteness by claiming blackness. This is a common mistake of the supposed “woke” white person. It is still guilt. It is a guilt rooted in ignorance and white amnesia. Those of us perceived as white are largely unaware of how we came to be white. We tend to believe that we are white because of the color of our skin and therefore must own all the shit that comes with being white. That’s not true. Whiteness is not a biological thing. It is a worldview and label prescribed and forced upon us by the ruling elite in colonial America. When we understand that fact we understand that there is a way to live honestly in the world in opposition to whiteness without having to violently appropriate Blackness. Louis CK is not at that point and therefore relishes in the “complement” paid him by Chris Rock and attempts to prove the point, fully shedding his whiteness by using the N word which ironically only demonstrates his inability to do so.
.22- Ricky Gervais begins to laugh after Chris Rock accepts Louis CK’s use of the word. When he becomes visible in the shoot it is clear he is nervous. This is a perfect example of white paralysis. Gervais knows Louis CK should not be using that word and yet he said and did nothing. He also knows that it is not Chris Rock’s job to police the racism of fellow white people, that’s his job. His failure to act is one that many of us can relate to but is still one that we must never allow to happen. It is White Paralysis and it is harmful.
.29- Jerry Seinfeld steps up to take action and says that he doesn’t think Louis CK “can do that.” Demonstrating the type of action that white folks need to take in order to disrupt white supremacy. Chris Rock attempts to defend Louis CK’s use of the word by telling Seinfeld that he doesn’t understand. He is quickly joined by Ricky Gervais and Louis CK who both again use the word. Gervais and CK engage in expert white fragility. They defend their action because they say it on stage and then they pivot the conversation away from what just happened and towards which ones of them use the word on stage. This defensiveness is a hallmark of fragility. It keeps white folks from owning our complicity in racism and leaves uninterrogated the reason why CK and Gervais feel the need to use the word at all.
1:10 CK says Rock and Seinfeld don’t use the word on stage and adds that he doesn’t believe that Seinfeld has ever used the word even in private. When Seinfeld acknowledges that he doesn’t CK states “that’s a huge difference between you and me I think.” Not only is CK admitting to the type of especially twisted racism that finds its home in the “woke” white person: the bigotry that comes out in private he is also engaging in White Amnesia. CK is of Irish decent, a group that historically experienced being other and even weren’t considered white but have since enjoyed all the privileges that come with acceptance into the club. Seinfeld is Jewish, a group that, while enjoying some benefits of whiteness, is still othered due to race, especially in this current moment. CK would do better to cite that context and history as the “huge difference between you and me.” White Amnesia facilitates this absurdity.
The clip ends with Seinfeld stating that he “hasn’t found the humor in it” and that he would not “look for it.” Louis CK then doubles down with his White Fragility and uses the N word again stating that “Jerry doing a N-word bit would be amazing.” Seinfeld then points out that Chris Rock, the only Black person involved and therefore the only one who can use the word, retired his bit in 1996.
It’s important here to point out that this analysis is about the actions of the three white men in the clip. There are lots of people of color talking about Chris Rock’s role. You can read some of those here and here. We hope that this application helps others who are positioned as white to move from a place of paralysis and fragility to action.