Chelsea Does…Racism – An English Girl’s Response

Disclaimer: Don’t get me wrong, I love many, many parts of the U.S. This article, however, is not about one of those parts. I’m aware that this isn’t a problem exclusive to the U.S., however this episode was. 

Last night I binge watched Netflix’s new docu-series Chelsea Does….The four part series features comedian Chelsea Handler in a very different format than we’re used to seeing her, exploring four semi-serious issues that are a part of her life as an American.

I happily sailed through episodes one and two  – on marriage and Silicon Valley, respectively. They were both equal parts hilarious and interesting. However, episode three, Chelsea Does…Racism, got dark. QUICK. I was going to write an overview of all four episodes today but after watching the racism episode I didn’t quite make it to the finale, the one that everyone’s been talking about, Chelsea Does…Drugs. I didn’t make it because I was left stunned at just how bloody lucky I am, as both a) a white person, and b) a white British person. Or more directly put, I was left stunned at how ignorant parts of the U.S. still are. Hear me out.

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Chelsea with the civil rights activist Reverend Al Sharpton during this episode

The episode begins rather innocuously, with a round table chat full of Chelsea’s friends and colleagues, all a variety of races, followed by Chelsea and her friend Loni exploring the various subculture havens dotted around L.A. These opening gambits were largely light-hearted affairs, with some jokes peppered around for good measure. It was only when Chelsea took her exploration down South that things started to get a bit hairy – and when I say ‘a bit hairy’, I mean ‘incredibly, embarrassingly and dumbfoundingly racist’.

I’m not going to recount what happened blow-by-blow, as it would probably result in me throwing my laptop down the stairs of the Starbucks I’m currently writing this in, but I would say, you have to see this sh*t to believe it, so go watch it. I will, however, give you my Top Five Racist Moments to whet both your appetite and your anger…

  1. Chelsea goes to an ex-slave plantation that is currently used as a stately home and hotel used for ‘massages’ and ‘weddings’. I’m imagining the brochure reads something like this, “Please feel free to relax by the pool while reminiscing over the hate crimes of your white ancestors. Complimentary towels can be found in your room.”
  2. A white woman anecdotally claims that she knows of no stories where slaves were treated badly, and her pal chimes in with a tale of how a freed man stayed at the plantation he had been enslaved at, so he must have been happy. Guess that solves that then! UPDATE: White people debunk slavery, subsequently solving all racism.
  3. A charming young fellow, who happens to take part in confederate reconstructions, likens slaves to farm equipment, suggesting that if slave-owners had spent a lot of money on tractors (or, um, slaves), then treating them badly would be a waste of money.
  4. Police brutality is obviously a massive issue in the U.S., now more than ever, and it really is a sobering moment to realise that racism is not simply limited to the aforementioned people spouting the aforementioned ignorance, but that in fact that it extends to loss of innocent life on a regular basis. Chelsea’s meeting with Walter ‘Lamar’ Scott’s family in Charleston is a stark reminder of this.
  5. I can’t even deal with this Matthew Heimbach guy who is so clearly convinced he’s the smartest person in the world. “I will not insult my confederate ancestors” – classic Heimbach.

The thing that really shocked me here was the idea these people had that if slaves were treated okay,* then that made slavery okay. As far as I understood, the thing that made slavery bad wasn’t simply the fact that they were treated horrendously – a product of slavery itself – but the fact that these human beings were enslaved to another against their free will. So what if they were treated okay? They had no volition or rights, and were akin to cattle or farm equipment. I really tried to find a metaphor for this line of thinking but there’s nothing that can actually compare, so I thought it best left unsaid.

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Walter ‘Lamar’ Scott, who was fatally shot in the back by a police officer in Charleston, 2015

 

The only thing that makes this episode’s interactions bearable is the unshakeable optimism that almost all the African-Americans that Chelsea interacts with possess. It’s inspiring to see their ability to believe in so much when they’re given so bloody little to work with. Chelsea’s pointed looks to camera also provide some comic relief, highlighting the absurdity of some of the things that we’re hearing. I was also pleased to see Chelsea explore racism towards Mexicans and American-Indians, types of prejudice that I knew little about (apart from the obvious Trump reference here).

It was an infuriating, yet illuminating episode, especially for someone who doesn’t come from the U.S. Despite the ignorance and infuriation in part three of Chelsea Does…, it’s an issue that needs to be discussed, and for that reason I’m glad that Chelsea Did…Racism.

Give it watch gang! I’ll lend you my Netflix password.

 

*Funnily enough that conjecture is yet to be confirmed

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