Chelsea handler

‘Chelsea Does Racism’ shows why talking about race is hard

It’s difficult to keep up with what Netflix puts out these days, but in case you missed it, Chelsea Handler stars in a new, four part docu-series called Chelsea Does, which follows her as she explores four topics: marriage, Silicon Valley, racism, and drugs. Each episode is made up of interviews, round table discussions, and Handler’s musings. The third episode is titled Chelsea Does Racism and, though Handler unsurprisingly steps  in it a few times, I actually think the most important element of the show is what it misses: the existence of systemic racism.

Talking about race sucks, especially when we aren’t on the same page, but that does not mean I think we shouldn’t be talking about it. Discussions about race and our different perspectives are an essential step to making our society inclusive for people of all ethnic and racial backgrounds, so by all means, talk about race. I’m just saying, it can suck.

What Handler really showed me, however, was that when she and I talk about race, we’re talking about very different things. And I don’t think Handler and I are the only ones in this boat.

Handler seems to dive into this documentary from the perspective of the difficulties that can accompany discussions about race. In the opening round table discussion, and throughout the documentary, she defends herself and her jokes by showing off that she’s an equal opportunity hater. She spends the bulk of the first half of the documentary going around Hollywood asking folks of all backgrounds about stereotypes they hold of other races. It’s meant to be funny, but mostly serves as a justification of Handler’s narrative that the world is too sensitive and being politically correct is hampering her ability to be funny: as long as we make fun of all races, she seems to say, we’re off the hook. Any statement to the contrary, Handler complains at her round table of comedians, is derived from the overly sensitive desire to be politically correct.

If there’s one thing that I personally detest when it comes to discussing race and calling people out, it’s the way people blame “PC culture” for making the current political environment too difficult to navigate because someone might be offended. That’s ridiculous. Being politically correct just means being respectful of how language can affect others. That should not be a burden, unless there are some problematic things that you want to say and you’re wishing for the Mad Men days of old. Heaven forbid Handler listen to anyone who says her comments are hurtful. But I digress.

There are bright moments, however. The most moving sections of the episode are the conversations Handler has with the family of Walter Scott, who was murdered by a police officer as he ran away during a traffic stop, everyday people living in the south, an officer in the Israeli Defense Force, and a Native American on a reservation. If that feels like it’s a busy journey, it was. Viewers jump from hearing about slavery to spending ten minutes in Israel, earning a half condemnation of the Wall. Then we’re back to the states to hear about immigration issues, and to look at our own wall. And then we hear from a few Native Americans about harmful stereotypes. This happens in the span of 20 minutes or so.

Despite my misgivings about the structure of the documentary, the moments outlined above are truly worth watching. What was poignant about them, was not always the specific content of what happened on screen (though that was important); rather these moments highlighted the endemic and insidious nature of prejudice in our society, locally and globally. 

It is also in these moments where Handler really gets to prove that she’s not racist. Each of these scenarios shows an ugly display of racism that is easy to rebuke, allowing Handler and the viewer to distance ourselves from the spectacle of bigotry. Handler gives herself the space to justify the first half of the documentary–all the ugly racist jokes–by showing us what she isn’t racist. She therefore retroactively answering her own question about whether or not her jokes are ok (as if there was any available answer other than “yes”). And that is precisely the problem. This documentary is as much about the viewer as it is about Handler herself, and these moments, powerful as they are, provide ample opportunity for a congratulatory self-hug that we are not as terrible as these people. It’s like Jersey Shore, but for racism. Watching makes us feel better, and maybe (hopefully?) will inspire us to do more.

The problem is that each of these moments is encapsulated in an individual story with no acknowledgment that racism is a system of power built upon the backs of people of color to uphold White Supremacy. That system was left untouched by this documentary, which brings me back to my original point: talking about race is hard.

Handler skirts that conversation by seemingly defining racism has prejudice and hatred based on race. Individual prejudice and hatred are certainly byproducts of racism, but critical conversations about race need to address the structural realities that support racism. Racism, as a system of power, is not just about the specific manifestations Handler presents: the assumption that “Asians” are good at math; the prejudice that folks of color hold against one another. It is the continual conference of positive value and power to whiteness. Handler’s problem isn’t that she fails to illuminate prejudice — she totally does that — it’s that she never does any real work to connect these experiences and statements to the oppression of people of color and her own privilege at a level beyond the individual. She lets them hang there as examples of the messed up world, but by not critically examining the system, it might as well not exist.

The reality, then becomes, that she didn’t do racism at all, and in the process completely missed the point.

Header Image Credit: USA Today


Katie Barnes (they/them/their) is a pop-culture obsessed activist and writer. While at St. Olaf College studying History and (oddly) Russian (among other things), Katie fell in love with politics, and doing the hard work in the hard places. A retired fanfiction writer, Katie now actually enjoys writing with their name attached. Katie actually loves cornfields, and thinks there is nothing better than a summer night's drive through the Indiana countryside. They love basketball and are a huge fan of the UConn women's team. When not fighting the good fight, you can usually find Katie watching sports, writing, or reading a good book.

Katie Barnes is a pop-culture obsessed activist and writer.

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