About 27 minutes into “Chewed Up,” his 2008 special recorded at Boston’s Berklee Performance Center, the stand-up comic Louis C.K. starts apologizing for being so negative. After all, he admits, he’s got a lot going for him. “I’m healthy, I’m relatively young, I’m white — which, thank God for that [expletive], boy,” he says, in one of his classic bits on race. “That is a huge leg up, are you kidding me?”
As laughter erupts, C.K. — the schlubby, middle-aged dad from Newton hailed as the funnyman of his generation — proceeds to explain to his largely white audience that, even though there is nothing about white people that makes them better, being white in America is obviously better. “Here’s how great it is to be white,” he says. “I could get in a time machine and go to any time, and it would be [expletive] awesome when I get there,” he says. “That is exclusively a white privilege. Black people can’t [mess] with time machines! A black guy in a time machine is like, ‘Hey, if it’s before 1980, no thank you. I don’t wanna go.’ ”
And there you have it: one of the most clear-eyed analyses of white privilege ever to reach mainstream America, wrapped in a three-minute comedy routine with a Showtime premiere and 7 million-plus hits on YouTube.
I’m not a huge follower of stand-up. But I am a person who has spent a lot of time reading and writing about race. After recently stumbling onto some of C.K.’s recent routines, it occurred to me that with nothing more than a microphone and some jokes, C.K. may be doing more to raise consciousness about the subtle workings of race, power, and privilege than a conference full of academics and social justice activists.
If race scholars preach to the choir, C.K. — with his everyman persona and mass appeal — is speaking to a wide swath of America. And he’s making them laugh.
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