- October 29, 2020
This past summer, a friend shared an episode of Baited with Ziwe.1 It made me laugh with nervous discomfort and cringe beyond belief. But more than that, it felt sincere in a way other comedies had not. At the time, I was living in Calistoga, California, a little Napa County bubble. There wasn’t much activity in terms of activism. There were a handful of “Black Lives Matter” signs and perhaps a small group of protestors on the main street one day in the middle of the afternoon. However, for the most part, it was as if nothing had happened. Nothing disrupted.
In this bubble, I focused a great deal of energy that summer learning; learning about Black history, learning about oppressive housing regulations, learning about systemic racism. I believe I’m not alone in wanting to be equipped with knowledge. Perhaps I hoped my education would help in some way to ward off any remotely racist thoughts and relieve me of my implicit biases. But looking at whiteness or privilege as a whole makes it challenging to carve out personal experiences and prejudices. It is difficult to see yourself lumped together with the overtly racist. It requires taking an honest inventory of your discriminatory thoughts and behaviors. I believe a lot of your work allows us to tap into those personal flaws and ask the questions that get at the heart of those flaws. I see this most prominently in your livestream interviews with famously canceled celebrities.
In June, you aired an interview with Caroline Calloway, an American influencer who was famously canceled for hosting a series of over-priced “creativity workshops,” which capitalized on her privilege and were ultimately deemed a scam. You opened the conversation with the question, “You discovered racism in 2018. What were you doing for the first twenty-five years of your life?” A hard hitter right out the gate. Calloway is visibly uncomfortable but explains herself. You immediately thank her for a thoughtful answer. It was a response I wasn’t anticipating. I expected a harsher rebuttal that might further garner criticism against her, but I then understood your guests aren’t the punchline. This show is not about chastising people nor humiliating them for being ignorant; it’s about healing and realizing their own unconscious bias through a commedic lens.
While your show is not about scolding your guests, you’re not shy about calling out their ignorance. When discussing Calloway’s promotion of Black literature via Instagram, Calloway mentions each book she purchased from Black-owned bookstores and feeling she deserved an “ally cookie.” To which you reply, “There are no cookies in this game.”2 Calloway seems stunned, but the comment sets the tone for the remainder of the conversation, which is stern but amiable.
It’s not merely the structure that allows for such honest discussions, but the fact that the show is live makes it impossible for your guests to curate their words. A few guests on your show have clearly attempted to come armed with information and prepared answers, but it is usually a futile endeavor because they inevitably say something insensitive, racist, or privileged. Knowledge itself does not prevent your guests from faltering, but the point is not to have the correct answer. If every person came equipped with an eloquent response to every question, the conversation would be unproductive and honestly not at all entertaining. It is the off-the-cut nature of your show that forces your guests to confront their biases, and being uncomfortable is an essential component of that confrontation.
What I find most intriguing about these interviews is your ability to instill such discomfort in your guests. The sight is both entertaining and terrifying. Terrifying because I can imagine myself in the hot seat, stumbling over my words the same way your guests do when asked, “Who is Marcus Garvey?” I find myself answering questions alongside your panicked guests, gauging my own naiveté. Perhaps the most nerve-racking part of each interview is when a guest says something completely ridiculous, and your response is simply an extreme close-up where the only thing in view is your expression of pure disbelief. I wonder if your guests feel the same sense of impending disaster. But disaster never comes. Your guests survive the discomfort, and so do your viewers.
Comedy is a surprisingly fitting way into a conversation about race; it breeds new discussions, ones that feel safe. There’s something disarming about overlaying a serious and candid conversation about race with comedic relief. Your show has helped me better scrutinize my own biases and behaviors while also forgoing the notion that I will always possess the “right” answer and not let that deter me from participating in the conversation. I always assumed these conversations needed to occur in a particular way. However, after seeing your show, I found that the only constant in a productive conversation is honesty, because as you examine, “Honesty is how we’ll heal.”3