In Chelsea Handler’s new documentary series on Netflix, the comedian and talk show host begins her discussion of racism with a story from her childhood. Although the episode opens with Handler bouncing between California and New York, eventually ending up overseas, a large portion of the show is spent in South Carolina, namely Charleston. Seated at a table with an ethnically diverse group of entertainers, who each touch on their own experiences with prejudice, Handler recalls screaming and running away in fear after meeting her swim teacher — a black man. Looking back, she is appalled by her actions as a toddler, but Handler then describes how the story affects her behavior today.
“That gets embedded into your psyche in such a deep way that you spend your whole life trying to show black people that you like them,” she says. “I mean, it’s awful. I’m embarrassed of the things I’ve done to overcompensate for that.”
This story is important in a few ways. First, it allows the host to deflect a large amount of criticism by sharing an unflattering personal story and acknowledging that she is not above the very subject she plans to investigate. That point becomes even clearer when Handler gathers representatives from the NAACP, the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, the Anti-Defamation League, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, the Council of American-Islamic Relations, and American Indians in TV and Film to answer for her jokes that were deemed racially insensitive. It’s a smart move because it helps dismiss the easy critique of the episode, which is, “What does this rich, white lady know about racism?”
The other vital part of Handler’s confession is that it shows the importance of perspective when thinking about race. In the first season of Chelsea Does, Handler devotes four hour-long episodes to four different topics: marriage, Silicon Valley, racism, and drugs. Obviously Silicon Valley is the outlier, so we can go ahead and remove it from the discussion. Out of the three remaining topics, racism stands out because it’s a big part of our lives — especially in Charleston — whether we’re aware of it or not.
While marriage may begin with a proposal and drug use may start with someone offering you a joint, no one asks if you’d like to be racist. People can usually figure out if they’re married, and you can be tested for drugs, but there is no way to quantify hate. That’s why perspective is so important.
Looking back on her childhood swim class, it’s easy for Handler to acknowledge that her reaction to a black man was racist, but she is also able to recognize that race has affected her behavior throughout life. Like with Handler’s story, it’s easy for a society to point to something horrific in its past and acknowledge that a problem existed. For South Carolina, it’s slavery and segregation. The hard part comes with continuing to see that the underlying cause of those atrocities doesn’t diminish with time. You may become more aware of your faults as you grow older, but that doesn’t mean you’ve outgrown them.
And that’s why watching Chelsea Handler come to South Carolina during 2015 was interesting to me — not because she’s especially well-versed in the politics of race or because she has her own show, but because I was able to see someone from outside of the state grapple with the understanding of South Carolina’s more distant past, while also facing everything that happened here in the past 12 months.
Almost 25 minutes into the episode on racism, Handler leaves New York and reaches the South. This change in setting is represented by stereotypical bluegrass music and multiple shots of Confederate flags flying outside of general stores. Handler then takes a tour of Middleton Place during which she learns of the landmark’s history. It is her first time on a former slave plantation, and she responds with a mix of confusion and condemnation for what has become a wedding destination and tourist attraction. She responds similarly to a group of Civil War re-enactors she also encounters in the episode, but the next South Carolina stop Handler makes isn’t quite as nostalgic.
At the Slave Relic Museum in Walterboro, Handler says she had a difficult time locating a museum dedicated to the South’s history of slavery. Museum co-founder Gene Peters informs her that there aren’t many. The show gives no mention of Old Slave Mart Museum in downtown Charleston — nor the yet-to-be-built International African-American Museum. Instead Handler and Peters talk through the specifics of shackling and shipping human beings across the Atlantic.
While speaking with the museum’s founders, Handler brings up the topic of police brutality. This is the transition from understanding the horrors of the past to recognizing the problems that reverberate into the present. We are then shown footage of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, being shot to death as he fled from former North Charleston Police Officer Michael Slager. Like you, it’s a video I’ve seen repeatedly.
I’ve sat in court behind Slager and his family and listened to them swear to his innocence. I’ve also watched as Scott’s father stood and asked for justice for his son. I know how I’ve experienced those events while living in Charleston, but I haven’t seen the situation through the eyes of someone from the outside. During an interview with the Scott family in their home, Handler asks why he ran that day following a traffic stop. Scott’s mother shakes her head and says she doesn’t know why he ran. They talk about racism and forgiveness and death before the show cuts to black. Text then appears on the screen, reading, “Two weeks after our interview with the Scott family in Charleston... nine people were killed in one of the city’s historic black churches by a white supremacist.” It’s a striking transition because it reminds you that there was a time before the shooting at Mother Emanuel. It’s a dramatic moment, but not the most disturbing. That moment comes soon after.
In an ice cream shop in Columbia, Handler sits down with Matthew Heimbach of the Traditionalist Youth Network, a well-spoken young white man who promotes segregation. Heimbach argues for a nation divided up based on race and denomination — white Christians claiming Appalachia and the Midwest, while the black population sticks to the Deep South. He does take the time to say his commune would exclude atheist-communist hipsters of all races, which would most likely cut me out of the party, but so be it.
Heimbach laughs as he tries to support his plan with just the right amount of light-hearted banter, but his role in the episode is to show what a fear of open-mindedness can do to a person. Here is a man so terrified of considering another group’s point of view that he chooses to ignore anyone different from himself. Heimbach offers an interesting counterpoint to Handler’s own insecurities. If Handler’s fear is that an awareness of her own possible racism has made her overly friendly and apologetic to other ethnicities, Heimbach shows what happens when a person is unable to acknowledge the very idea of racism, not to mention see their own prejudices.
While the remainder of the episode moves on from South Carolina and the events of 2015, we are still shown the power of perspective — and that keeping your eyes closed doesn’t make you colorblind.