Here’s the problem with black men like Trevor Noah and Charlamagne Tha God
Americans are fatigued by race. More accurately, some Americans are fatigued by feeling continually, beyond their point of comfort and tolerance, “forced” to think and talk about race, while other Americans are fatigued by the maddening lack of progress coming from having thought and talked about race their entire lives. Regardless of whether your life up until this point has been largely defined by having to think about race all the time, or having the privilege of never considering race much at all, it’s undeniably true that the issue is arguably more palpable and unavoidable at this moment. This is true for many reasons, but can probably be most easily summed up by considering the escalation of the Black Lives Matter movement toward the latter end of the tenure of our first black president, all being capped off by the election of a white supremacist as his successor. Race is on the table in an especially real way right now.
And it is especially exhausting for those Americans for whom the topic of race has been something they could take or leave for most of their lives. Race is not a randomly trending topic on social media that will be edged off by some new distraction in a few days. White America is, maybe for the first time in the digital age, being confronted with the fact that Race™ has always been An Issue™ in America, even if they didn’t know it, or pretended not to know it, or didn’t know the extent to which the racial dynamics and systemic inequalities echoed throughout every part of a country that benefits them at every turn — and now that everyone knows, they can’t conscionably unknow. What a thoroughly exhausting new reality for white people. Now imagine having the weight of all that is Race In America on you for your whole life, and your parents’ lives; imagine having it woven prominently into the identities of countless generations, and you can start to understand the fatigue the people of color in America feel too when it comes to contemplating race and its implications in this country.
We’re all tired.
It doesn’t help that we are all constantly plugged into media now. You can’t turn on a late night show or log into social media or read the New York Times without broaching the topic of race in at least one of its many complexities. Race talk has inconvenienced a specific cohort who thought we’d said goodbye to all that when we elected a black president in 2008. Somehow his presidency marked — at least to the naive — that if a black man could win the presidency of the United States then blacks (and subsequently any other groups of minorities) were on an equal playing field as whites. Race was irrelevant, and anyone who spoke about it was part of the problem.
Then Donald Trump ran for president on a campaign ripe with sexism and bigotry that appealed to the fears of millions of Americans. His shocking win resulted in black male TV commentators and entertainers wasting little time cuddling up to the loud, dangerous voices on the right under the guise of healthy dialogue. To them, the racial divide leftover from hundreds of years of slavery followed by its cousin Jim Crow could be healed by reaching across the aisle to racists — racist white women, to be necessarily specific.
Filmmaker Lee Daniels (Empire, Precious, Monster’s Ball) thought it necessary to cast a white lead in his new show Star for this very reason. On Tuesday, he told The Real that Star is told by a white protagonist (played by Jude Demorest) “because I thought that instinctively, the country needed to heal. And I think that this white girl is so fabulous that black people will embrace her, and white people will embrace her.” Black people embracing a white lead actress is what Daniels thinks America needs. It’s not lost on me that he has chosen a white woman, not man, as the savior of the healing he hopes to inspire. Now is a good time to remember that 53% of white women voted for Trump. In fact, it’s worth remembering that daily for the foreseeable future. It is not black women who need to embrace white women.
While Daniels is often wrong about racism and homophobia, his reasoning for creating a white protagonist doesn’t pale next to Trevor Noah’s and Charlamagne tha God’s budding friendship with 24-year-old conservative talking head, Tomi Lahren.
Lahren appeared on The Daily Show, hosted by Noah, for a 26-minute debate on everything from Trump to Black Lives Matter. The 26-minute interview amounted to something very far from Noah eviscerating Lahren in the way most people predicted would happen. With a level head, he urged Lahren to expound on her racist views without calling her a racist. As Vox writer Caroline Framke put it:
Noah badly wanted to find some semblance of reason within Lahren’s blanket aggression toward all things liberal, but he went about it in the exact same way he proposed some should approach Trump. Yes, he expressed his opinions and challenged her on views he found confusing at best and offensive at worst. But he also just kept asking for clarity, for more information on why, exactly, Lahren thinks the way she does.
Noah rewarded Lahren for her racism by sending her cupcakes. Because racism is so delicious.
The Breakfast Club host Charlamagne tha God received backlash this week when he posted a photo of himself with Lahren to Instagram. The radio personality defended the private conversation he had with Lahren by assuring black people that she’s not racist because she said she wasn’t despite the confounding evidence (likening Black Lives Matter to the KKK, support of Donald Trump, racially-coded critique of Jesse Williams’s BET speech) that says otherwise. Charlamagne isn’t the only black man who believes her rhetoric is misinformed and dangerous, but not racist. These same men would promptly call Bill O’Reilly or Rush Limbaugh racists, but it’s totally benign and okay when a 24-year-old white blond woman upholds nearly identical viewpoints.
Flustered over the photograph that sparked the controversy, Charlamagne thought it wise to throw black women and WOC in the mix:
The backlash on social media was immediate, but that didn’t stop him from his bootstraps campaign. If only black women would do the work Lahren did was Charlamagne’s argument. If only. Because god knows, if anyone is out there being extremely lazy, it’s black women.
Black content creators exist in spades, albeit most of them are nearly invisible to mainstream media. Charlamagne knows this because he’s industry friends with at least a handful of them. Building a platform is not the problem. It’s, as Viola Davis said, opportunity that separates women of color from the same access afforded their white counterparts. Lahren, with her sophomoric, intellectually lazy analysis, can become famous. Brilliant black women like Melissa Harris-Perry are in their 40s when they finally get to host their own network show. And we all see how that played out.
But Charlamagne’s first mistake was comparing “woke black and hispanic women” to Tomi Lahren and what she’s done. Joanne the Scammer told us “you don’t compare where you don’t compete.” It’s an egregious error to compare needed black female voices to the racism Lahren profits from. The larger mistake is that Charlamagne seems to be confused about the fact that Lahren’s popularity rides on two things: anti-blackness and privilege as a young, conventionally attractive white woman. The Glenn Beck-founded site Blaze set her up for the win because she amplifies the right’s bigotry. Black women and women of color without any charged political leanings aren’t amplified in that way. Black women who challenge sexism, racism, homophobia and critique white supremacy are feared and purposely excluded from these platforms. He should ask himself why he, someone who has proven over and over and over again that he lacks the range on anything beyond music, has the platform he does. And why black women who intellectually run circles around him don’t.
Perhaps the scores of black women who took the time to educate him on Twitter got through to him because he made himself Donkey of the Day this morning. Ironically, today was the same day his interview with Trevor Noah aired. I imagine the two of them huddling in the hallway to discuss more ways they can cape and befriend racist white women. Except they probably didn’t do anything resembling that, since black men gaining superman powers for white women is not extraordinary, nor is it new. It is actually so old and tired that the predictability and near-boredom of all of this black male support of Tomi Lehren is, in some ways, the most annoying thing about it. So old. So tired.
Historically black men have had a vested interest in saving white womanhood at all costs, even at the expense of black women or themselves. That vested interest grows deeper when TV checks and the chance to gain a larger white audience are at play.
Noah’s position is informed by what he describes as his ability to “live between the lines” as a mixed South African. In a New York Times op-ed he urges us against being divided without any real critical thought or context. While Noah is forever cancelled, it’s easier to understand his ignorance as a non-American whose reality was not shaped by American racism. Charlamagne, on the other hand, is from South Carolina. The home state of the Charleston 9 massacre and where a mistrial was declared in the murder trial of the officer who fatally shot Walter Scott. He should know better. It’s inexcusable for a man who spent an hour taunting Lil’ Mama to the point of tears for no other reason than her being a black woman to have nothing but giggles and ki kis for Lahren.
No matter how much either of them define their niceness to Lahren as the ability to talk to people they disagree with, the reality is it’s just another example of black men playing savior to a racist white woman. The emphasis on understanding why Lahren is racist is futile. To do so in front of black audiences is a slap in the face and takes away from the deserving black woman and woman of color who should be amplified instead. Normalizing racists will never be the wave. And black men attempting to make the trend in vogue on the necks of black women will learn today: we are not the ones. Trying us to cape for white women won’t get you any closer to a seat at white supremacy’s table.
Thanks to black men, Tomi Lahren has been all the buzz in media for over a week. She didn’t have to do anything but cozy up with black men and let her mediocrity and proximity to them do the work. The way she hustled these fools reminds me that 13% of black men voted for Trump. As much as things change they remain the same.
Maybe it’s not the racial divide Noah and Charlamagne are interested in healing. It’s the proximity to whiteness — more TV shows, mainstream white audience, mainstream checks, white validation — that’s really the goal. I propose we let white folks have them. Because we all know that once black America withdraws their support, white folks tend to follow suit. We say it’s hot, white America jumps on the wagon. We say it’s not and your days are numbered.
It’d behoove both Charlamagne and Noah to remember that the very reason they can be in a room with Lahren is because black audiences supported them first. Long before white people even knew who they were. Alienating us to befriend racist whites will not open the doors they so desperately want to walk through.