Shamir on How White People Need to Pass the Mic

Revisiting his review of Chelsea Handler's special Hello, Privilege. It’s Me, Chelsea.

Today we’re revisiting this review by Shamir, which originally ran in October 2019 as part of his Ratchet TV column. Here, he writes about comedian Chelsea Handler’s Netflix special Hello Privilege. It’s Me, Chelsea, in which she attempts to tackle the subject of her own white privilege. As a Brooklyn-based outlet, we encourage you to donate to COVID Bailout NYC, as well as the Homeless Black Trans Women fund and the Minneapolis Sanctuary Hotel fund. We also urge you to check out and write to your local council members about reallocating police budgets — be sure to personalize the sample letter with more than just your name, as some offices have automatic filters in place to weed out generic email scripts. Make them hear you!

I can’t seem to go too long on to any social media platform these days without seeing something about Greta Thunberg, the remarkable and extremely smart young girl who, at the tender age of 16, has dedicated her life to fixing climate change and securing a future for her generation. She recently voiced her concerns in front of the UN and has been met with ravenous praise. She miraculously made it there via a four million dollar, zero emissions boat, which I assume was gifted to her seeing that a trip like that is not yet available for commercial consumption. While Thunberg’s work has been extremely effective and important, the potency, frankly, lies in her whiteness. Part of me wishes that that same trip was given to someone more directly affected by the environmental crisis — maybe Helena Gualinga, for example, an Indigenous Ecuadorian of the Sarayaku community who helps protect the Amazon from corporations. But indigenous tears are far too common to start a movement, so for now, Greta will have to do, because it’s easier to ignore that pesky privilege thing when everyone‘s life is on the line, right?

Being a long time fan of Chelsea Handler has alway been met with its own set of challenges, especially as queer Black American. Luckily, I was raised with a decent amount of privilege that most Black and queer kids are not blessed with, therefore I never really had to critically think about my Blackness. (Not to say I didn’t at all, because it was a constant conversation seeing that I was raised in the Nation of Islam, but I never had to think about my Blackness in a socio-economical way until I was a contributing adult.) Growing up, even when Chelsea’s jokes were too crass for comfort, I always looked up to her for simply being a woman who spoke her mind. Never did I stop to think about how differently her career would come across had she been a Black woman, and as she admits in her new Netflix special Hello, Privilege. It’s Me, Chelsea, she hadn’t either, at least not until now. Sure, maybe a loud mouth Black girl could’ve become just as popular, but her career probably wouldn’t have been lucrative enough for her to afford a Bel Air mansion.

Leaving a mostly POC USC student open mic event, Chelsea laments to her Black personal driver how she felt after opening the floor for students to talk about white privilege (for the documentary that Netflix gave her money to make). She utters something that I wish every newly barely woke white liberal would realize: “I got the impression that Black people are sick and tired of being asked questions about white people’s problems.” A painfully true sentiment, but also a double-edged sword. On one hand, part of me is absolutely tired of always being the go-to person for my white friends when they have social and racial questions; but on the other hand, I don’t trust them to have these conversations on their own. The average person of any race doesn’t possess that level of self awareness. I don’t expect white people to successfully band together to figure out a substantial end to white privilege as much as I don’t expect Black people to understand that we can’t effectively progress as a community until homophobia within the community is completely eradicated — the same homophobia that is a direct result of white supremacy, mind you. So, where does it end?

Hello, Privilege. It’s Me, Chelsea isn’t groundbreaking, nor is it bringing something new to the conversation. It does, however, display the ignorance white people have when it comes to white privilege. Chelsea goes to an Oktoberfest in Georgia — a mostly white event — and asks if white privilege exists. Almost everyone blindly answers no, except for when one man who states, “I can’t identify with that because I’m white, so I don’t know.”

This is what Chelsea seems to be highlighting throughout the whole documentary: How can white people know? How can white people do better if Black people are tired of preaching? A start would be what Chelsea does throughout the whole documentary: listen. Listen to Black people, listen to people of color. But that can only go so far when someone like Chelsea is holding the mic. In the grand scheme of things, is a white comedian who reached the New York Times bestseller list with the book title Uganda Be Kidding Me the best fit to make a documentary about white privilege? In some ways, yes, seeing that she’s one of the biggest beneficiaries of white privilege, and if she of all people can distinguish her white privilege, anyone can. But is it gonna bring real change?

This is why the conversation on white privilege, much like this documentary, ends with no real solution. I used to always think that a white person taking advantage of their platform to speak on important issues was a good use of privilege; its not. Passing on your platform to the disenfranchised is where real change happens, and we won’t see a real shift until white people get off the stage and pass the mic, instead of always having the disenfranchised heckle them from the audience.

Shamir is Shamir and remains Shamir through and through, no matter what the universe puts him through. You may know the singularly named artist (think—Madonna or Cher) from his 2015 debut hit record Rachet, beloved by NPR listeners and club kids alike. After quickly rising to underground fame with his Northtown EP in 2014, the DIY pop star made a sonic splash with Rachet’s lead single “On The Regular,” a poppy banger that had extensive commercial usage. But how to follow all that up? Shamir, who came from the dusty dunes of Las Vegas, to Brooklyn’s Silent Barn, to the Philly indie scene (and all over the world in between), wanted to go back to what had inspired him from the beginning. Outsider music, country & punk. Raw and vulnerable tunes, stripped down to their emotional core. 2017’s Revelations explored a new avenue of guitar driven hooky indie rock and was widely critically praised in the US and overseas.

Shamir’s most recent releases, the brilliant Room 7” on Father/Daughter, and his self-released limited edition album, Resolution, are pinnacles in the catalog of the increasingly fascinating artist’s career. Room and its b-side Caballero celebrate Shamir’s love of country music, while Resolution is a deeply introspective look into the fabric of society and the artists’ own mind.  With these two releases he has refined his craft exponentially and done so in less than six months from the release of Revelations.