Chelsea Handler on White Privilege : It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders Last year, comedian Chelsea Handler made a documentary on Netflix called, Hello Privilege. It's Me, Chelsea, where she explored the idea of white privilege. Which happens to be a thing that a lot of people are talking about again... right now, in 2020.

Sam talks to Chelsea about what she's learned since then, her latest book — Life Will Be the Death of Me...and You Too! -- and coming to terms with both her own white privilege during the protests... and herself, in therapy.
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Chelsea Handler On White Privilege

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Chelsea Handler On White Privilege

Chelsea Handler On White Privilege

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CHELSEA HANDLER: I was on the phone - I mean I wasn't on the phone. I was in person. I was at a friend's house the other night. We were all at our social distance Friday night dinner. And my friend was saying - she's like, I just read "White Fragility." And she's like, and, you know, we were talking to somebody at the office. And, you know, this Black woman worked at the office, and she was giving us feedback, and I just feel so terrible. Like, I just don't get it. I just - and she starts, like, really getting weepy. And I was like, whoa, what are you doing right now? You just said you read "White Fragility." You cannot talk about...

SAM SANDERS, HOST:

You can't cry.

HANDLER: ...Reading "White Fragility" and start to cry.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

HANDLER: I was like, this is exactly what the problem is. And she was like, no, I'm just telling you. I go, don't. No, you can't talk to me about it either anymore. No more white people should be talking about how sad they are. Like, now we know we [expletive] up. Let's fix the problem.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Sam Sanders. Today, race and whiteness with the one and only Chelsea Handler. Chelsea is a comedian known for her brash humor, her in-your-face personality and her late-night talk show "Chelsea Lately." That show aired from 2007 to 2014. Chelsea's also become known for speaking out a lot about race. You might've seen Chelsea in a Netflix special from last year. It was called "Hello, Privilege. It's Me, Chelsea."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "HELLO, PRIVILEGE. IT'S ME, CHELSEA")

HANDLER: I'm clearly the beneficiary of white privilege. I want to know how to be a better white person to people of color. We need to talk to people who are white and stop asking Black people to solve our problems.

SANDERS: Of course, white privilege happens to be a thing a lot of people are talking about right now in 2020, but that doesn't mean that Chelsea is ahead of the curve. She says that she has made many mistakes when it comes to race, maybe even more than mistakes. You can Google and find a whole list. Chelsea admits she's messed up before, and she admits that she'll make more mistakes along the way going forward.

So I wanted to talk to Chelsea about how she's been feeling about everything, about a video she posted recently that she had to take down, about her latest book - it's called "Life Will Be The Death Of Me: ...And You Too!" - and about coming to terms with both her own white privilege during the protests and with herself in therapy. All right, let's get to it. Here is my chat with Chelsea Handler.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: I want to talk more about the heavy stuff of this year. But before that, I want to check in with you and your relationship with Robert Mueller because I know he meant or still means a lot to you. You were in love with this man. It was - it's a big part of your book. Walk me through you and Mueller. There's something there.

HANDLER: It's such a - he ghosted me is what he did. He ghosted me because I had to - first of all, I had so much belief in Robert Mueller, you know? I believed in him. I was like - just by the way he presented himself, like the way he kept his act together with his body. I mean, that guy was in his 70s and still had a six-pack. And his coat would...

SANDERS: Are you sure he had a six-pack?

HANDLER: Oh, yes, I saw underneath his shirt that there were still muscles. And I was like, what? I mean, Robert Mueller - I fantasized about going away to the Catskills with him and, you know, playing games of Clue. So it didn't work out, though, the way that, you know, I wanted that relationship to work out at all.

SANDERS: I mean, like, the way you describe it in the book, like, every little part of that man you were in love with. Like, you wrote a few paragraphs...

HANDLER: His hair. His hair.

SANDERS: ...About how he has hair still.

HANDLER: He has that, like, thick little boy hair part, you know? Like, I mean - I mean, no one that age has hair like that. I'm into old guys. That's my wheelhouse. I know what old guys are up to.

(LAUGHTER)

HANDLER: I'm down. I've always liked older guys. But now that I'm getting older, guys are getting a little too old. Do you know what I mean?

SANDERS: Uh-oh, uh-oh.

I want to talk about this year and how so many people are self-reflecting in new ways that they haven't before and kind of talk about how you've already kind of been in this mode. When I think about your latest book and when I think about your latest Netflix special all about white privilege, you've been in a really reflective place for a while. And I want to see how you're feeling about that watching the rest of America, in some ways, catch up with you. But first, I want to kind of poke into how you got there.

There's this wonderful story in the first chapter of your book "Life Will Be The Death Of Me" where you're setting up the scene. And you can probably do it better than I can, so feel free to jump in. You are in your nice house. You're trying to get the TV that comes out of the ceiling to come down so you can watch some movie from some actor you have to interview. And you can't figure it out. So you call one assistant to call the other assistant to help you do it. And in doing all of this, you get exasperated with yourself. And you say in this first chapter, how did I become so useless? It was such a vivid kind of, like, bam moment for me. Like, I don't expect that level of self-reflection from celebrities. What do you think got you there (laughter)?

HANDLER: Oh, well, thank you. That's a compliment, I think.

SANDERS: It is.

(LAUGHTER)

HANDLER: No, I mean, I take it as one because it is important for me. I mean, the best, you know, compliment is just to be normal, right?

SANDERS: Yeah.

HANDLER: So I think the book was my experience with therapy. I'm hesitant to use words like journey because they make my skin crawl still. But, you know, it gave me the gift of self-awareness. You know what I mean? Like, I was so busy telling everybody else what I thought about them that I never ever looked at myself because I thought I was the cool one. I was like, everyone's stupid. And then you learn, like, if you think everyone's stupid and everyone's annoying, the common denominator is you.

(LAUGHTER)

HANDLER: Like, if everyone annoys you, eventually you have to take a look at why. And it's not pleasant to go to therapy and to know that you're going to be bawling or, you know, have to be vulnerable. But it's like the gym. You know you're going to get better...

SANDERS: Yeah, it's going to hurt, but it's going to pay off. Exactly, yeah.

HANDLER: Yeah.

SANDERS: I am always interested in what is the thing that gets people to finally go to therapy, especially in LA where everyone's already in therapy. Like, for me, when I started, it was just because an ex was like, you need this. You are damaged. I'm going to find you one. And they did, right? Was there, like, a moment, a thing, a person, a this, a that where you're like, now is the time - like, now I'm doing it?

HANDLER: Yeah. I mean, it was after the election. I mean, the election, I was just like, oh, my God, is this - I couldn't believe it. You know, I just - and I became so outraged. You know, I was going to Fox News lounges walking over - like, when I was at the airport, I was going to the Fox News section, and I would start screaming at Trump supporters. I'd be like, how could you possibly - I'd call people racist. Like, I was at the airport enraged. I once went to the airport and I didn't even have a flight. Like, I was looking for trouble. So...

SANDERS: (Laughter) Film that.

HANDLER: So I had to, like - and I was, like, on this mission because I just felt like, all right, OK, we're all being called elitist - everyone in Hollywood. And I wanted to go and, you know, actually go to the places that voted for Trump and talk to people and, like, do a college speaking tour and understand - with conservatives explaining their, you know, viewpoint so that I wasn't in my bubble, so that I had a better understanding of how people could vote for him.

So I kind of went into therapy under the subterfuge of, like, oh, I'm going to, you know, go learn how to talk to conservatives. What I was really doing without saying was like, OK, I need to figure out what my, like, you know, anger issues are really about and, you know, what that is covering up, which is always something. You know, anger's never anger. It's always hurt or pain.

SANDERS: Yeah. It's interesting hearing you talk about, like, the ways in which your therapist will, like, show you you before you know they're showing you you. Like, my thing a lot right now is just, like, deflecting. Like, I'll tell him this happened and that happened and I'm angry - blah, blah, blah, blah. But then I'll go, you know, but it's fine. And they'll always be like, is it fine?

HANDLER: Yeah, right.

SANDERS: It's like, yeah, yeah, yeah. It's fine. And he's like, it's obviously not fine. You were just yelling about it. You feel some kind of way about it. You can say that. I think part of the work is, like, one, seeing how your past informs your present, but, two, seeing the ways in which we've trained ourselves to, like, hide from ourselves and not actually say to ourselves, I do feel this way. I do want this thing. Like, that is some of the hard work as well. Like, when do you...

HANDLER: It's also to know yourself and to trust yourself. Like, I'm in a place where my feet are on the ground. And the thing that I found the most interesting to try to kind of wrestle with or the most challenging I think was once you have self-awareness and you can incorporate that, you have to blend the best parts of your old personality with all of this new information, you know, because you don't want to lose what makes you you.

SANDERS: Oh, yeah.

HANDLER: Like, you can overcorrect, and then all of a sudden, I'm, like, the most empathetic person in the world and nobody recognizes me. You know what I mean?

(LAUGHTER)

HANDLER: It's like...

SANDERS: Yeah.

HANDLER: ...You can't just go all-out to the opposite side.

SANDERS: Exactly.

HANDLER: So it's about blending the two and being, like, a more careful, kind, compassionate person while also holding on to the parts of you that make you you. The fact that I am a sarcastic bitch and I find most things annoying, like, that's always going to be a part of who I am.

SANDERS: All right, time for a break. Coming up, we talk about the video Chelsea posted - what it was and why she took it down. BRB.

Besides the book and sharing your self-reflection there, you had this special all about white privilege last year on Netflix, which was also extremely reflective. It was an hour of you really traveling the country, talking to all kinds of folks to have some frank discussions about white privilege. Why then? And why that special? And, I mean, it was perfect timing because this is, like, the issue of 2020, so you beat us by a year. But why that special? Why then?

HANDLER: You know, that was coming out of therapy, too. I had to deal - I mean, I had one more project to deliver with Netflix. I was going to do a documentary. I just didn't know what the subject matter was going to be. And after therapy and kind of taking a look at myself and my surroundings and coming to the realization that my success has a lot to do with my skin color, I wanted to really do something that set an example about how to, you know, contribute because at this point, it's not enough to just say you're not racist. You know, you have to be - we have to be working to dismantle the system because we are reaping the benefits in exchange for people losing benefits.

SANDERS: What's it like - as a white woman having done this work and having this special about white privilege come out last year, what is it like watching a lot of white women who might share your politics coming to those same conversations a year later? Does it feel like, oh, beat you to the - I mean, it's not ironic, but I'm just kind of like, oh.

HANDLER: I was on the phone - I mean I wasn't on the phone. I was in person. I was at a friend's house the other night. We were all at our social distance Friday night dinner. And my friend was saying - she's like, I just read "White Fragility." And she's like, and, you know, we were talking to somebody at the office. And, you know, this Black woman worked at the office, and she was giving us feedback, and I just feel so terrible. Like, I just don't get it. I just - and she starts, like, really getting weepy. And I was like, whoa, what are you doing right now? You just said you read "White Fragility." You cannot talk about...

SANDERS: You can't cry.

HANDLER: ...Reading "White Fragility" and start to cry.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

HANDLER: I was like, this is exactly what the problem is. And she was like, no, I'm just telling you. I go, don't. No, you can't talk to me about it either anymore. No more white people should be talking about how sad they are. Like, now we know we [expletive] up. Let's fix the problem.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

HANDLER: Jeez.

SANDERS: Tough love from Chelsea Handler.

HANDLER: Like, seriously, yeah.

SANDERS: Tough love.

HANDLER: Sorry to go off like that.

SANDERS: It was - no, I love the going off. It was - you know, that's what I did appreciate about the special. Every - you would walk into these rooms where you knew they weren't going to like you. And you were like, OK. Like, what was it? You, like, go to the spoken word night - not even a spoken word night. It was something beyond that.

HANDLER: Oh, yeah, yeah.

SANDERS: But there's just this one Black woman that gets up at a certain point. And she's like, I don't even like you being here. I don't know why you're here. You're going to take it from us. We don't like you. And, I mean, you don't get a trophy, but I do admire that you just stayed there and took it. And I think one of the big lessons from your special is that, like, some of the work that white people are going to be asked to do is just going to be them sitting there and listening and taking it. I think some people, especially in this moment, are confusing the work of allyship as a work that still centers themselves. And, like, maybe it's not. Maybe it's you go in the room, and you listen, and you don't like what you hear, and that's it. You've listened. And so - I don't know - do you think, from the conversations you have with, you know, good liberal white women like yourself or whoever, do you think white folks are getting that in this year yet? I'm not sure.

HANDLER: I think that there are more white people getting it than ever before. I think that there...

SANDERS: OK.

HANDLER: People are waking up in a way that they haven't before. Whether that's a result of COVID and everyone being at home I'm sure is - you know, I'm sure there's a correlation. And what was televised around the world was that the system - the police system - is broken. So people, like what they're doing in Minneapolis, what they've done in certain places around the country - I mean, people are really making change. So I know that Black people are going to feel like, OK, well, let's see how long white people can keep up with this. But as a white person, I am definitely seeing a change in everybody that I know.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah. What do you - I mean, so this special has been out for a year. You're thinking about these issues and active on these issues still. What do you think your - if you're getting reflective here, what do you think has been your biggest mistake in allyship so far?

HANDLER: Mistake in allyship, mistake in allyship - oh, all the time - making mistakes all the time. I mean, I posted a video last week I shouldn't have posted, and I apologized for it. And I apologize again for it because I was looking at this Louis Farrakhan video, and I just thought the message was so profound that it was paramount...

SANDERS: Tell folks what the message was for folks that haven't watched it yet.

HANDLER: It was a message about - it was about racial justice and how white people reacting to Black people asking for racial justice and white people missing and being so defensive and missing the understanding in the moment and how little it's changed in all this time. And then he really describes how, actually, you know, Black people don't have a history of violence. We've been violent against Black people, and we associate Black people with violence. That's what I took away from that. And I thought the message was paramount to the man. But I was wrong. The man is worse than the message.

SANDERS: Yeah. So he has been the leader of the Nation of Islam for a long time. He's made a lot of statements that are considered to be anti-Semitic. And as soon as you shared the video and other famous friends of yours shared it, there was a lot of outcry about, whoa, do you know who this guy is? And you admitted you didn't know. You learned. You took it down.

What I found interesting about that was it revealed the ways in which, like, the experience of, like, absorbing American culture is different for Black America versus white America. You know, you and a lot of other people - white people - had never heard of Louis Farrakhan. But for me, from, like, youth, I knew who he was, right? Like, my family - my Black family - we weren't Muslim. We were Pentecostal. But, like, he was in the ether. And, like, Black folks knew who he was.

And so I found that story interesting, in part because of the growth and, like, accepting mistakes and learning from them, but also accepting the fact that we still, in many regards, we see different things. And we've seen different things and heard and learned different things. And there is oftentimes a disconnect in, like, our knowledge bases that also has to be corrected for, you know? Like, do we all have the same context and background as we come to these conversations? That's a whole nother chapter of the work that's hard.

HANDLER: Well, also, I mean - but, I mean, I hear what you're saying, but, like, look at The New York Times list for the last five weeks. Like, look at the books that everybody's reading at the top. You know, everything is about how to be anti-racist. You know, "White Fragility" is, like, No. 1 for weeks. I mean, people are not only - now more people seem to be aware. They're actually - more people seem to be doing the research and the work to understand and educate...

SANDERS: Which is great.

HANDLER: ...And that's the difference in the shift, I feel like.

SANDERS: Yeah. Well, because I felt for years, as a Black person who was often in white spaces, five, 10 years ago, it was still deemed totally appropriate for white people to be like, well, I don't know, and you got to teach me, Black person. And now I think they're realizing, well, that's unfair, and you're putting an undue emotional labor on people of color to educate you when you can educate yourself. And I am glad that in 2020, like, white America is realizing there are books about this (laughter). There's a whole Internet about this. Find it. I find that refreshing.

HANDLER: Yeah. I mean, it's like, you know, people don't know mostly about the Confederacy. They don't know that it was for five years. People are dying to, you know, keep these statues up for a group that was - a band that was together for five years - a racist band that was together for five years. People are like, we need a - I mean, this is how dumb I am. I didn't know that Mississippi had a Confederate - I was like, wait; whoa, whoa. Black people are walking into that building every day with a Confederate flag underneath? I mean, what the - you know?

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.

HANDLER: And I think I'm educated. So we all have more work to do. It's not like we're ever going to be fully cooked or fully knowledgeable on any topic, you know?

SANDERS: Yeah.

HANDLER: It's about the desire, you know, to learn more and to do better. And, you know...

SANDERS: Yeah.

HANDLER: ...I think a lot of people are feeling that right now. And they understand privilege is something, and it's not deniable anymore.

SANDERS: All right, time for one more break. When we come back, we talk more about white women and their white privilege. BRB.

You know, in thinking about the special and in thinking about the work now and the work that white allies are trying to do, one of the critiques about the special and one of the questions I ask about the special that I still don't have an answer for is part of why you want to learn about white privilege and ask these questions is that you can go out and educate other white people about it. And part of me says that's good. But part of me also says, and some of the critique of the special was, well, could someone like Chelsea, with a big platform, just give her mic to a person of color to do that work?

And I don't know what the right answer is. Like, is the best work to have one of the messengers be someone who looks like you 'cause you can speak to certain other folks that look like you? Or is that, in this weird, roundabout way, recentering whiteness? I don't know. And like, I enjoyed the special, but I still don't have an answer to that question. And I'm not sure if there's only one answer all the time.

HANDLER: I would say to answer that question that the show is about white privilege, so I wasn't making a show necessarily about racism or being Black. I was making a show about having white privilege.

SANDERS: About being white, yeah.

HANDLER: So I don't know how I would've done that without my own experience to draw from. You know, all the work I do is drawn from my personal experience, so I had to start with myself. I think if I do further work, that, yeah, there will be people in place of me. But, like, as a jumping off point, I have to expose myself in terms of, like, you know, how I feel about me doing, like - you know, a celebrity doing a documentary. Like, what's the point, you know, unless you're going to expose yourself and get really uncomfortable?

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah. You've been very public about the work that you're doing and the growth that you've had. But there's probably some people who are like, I don't know if I believe Chelsea - not that Chelsea who named her book "Uganda Be Kidding Me," who did this, who did that. I'm going to laundry list it. But, like, there's maybe a lot - and not just you. Like, there's maybe some white people getting involved in the work, and people of color just aren't trusting them, for whatever reason. What do you think the work is for white people in those situations? Because there's a lot of trauma and disappointment and skepticism on behalf of people of color for a lot of this stuff. How do you deal with that, when people say, Chelsea, I don't believe you?

HANDLER: I believe - I get it. I don't want to believe me either. I mean, there's no - I mean, you have to...

(LAUGHTER)

HANDLER: I totally understand the mistrust. I mean, it's like, hello, where have white people been for the last - since the beginning of time in this country? So I get it. I get the mistrust. And I would say you have to prove over and over. It's like that Michael Jordan documentary with Phil Jackson talking about Michael Jordan - how you can't just win once. You have to win again. And then you have to do it again.

SANDERS: You got to win over and over and over again, yes.

HANDLER: That's what you have to do with showing up for racial justice. You have to prove that you're an ally and build the trust.

SANDERS: Yeah. Well, and, like, this is a thing that I think, like, people have to really wrap their heads around. Like, we all think of race as this thing that is static. You are racist or you're not. You're on the right side or you're not. And once you're there, you're there. And so much of the work around this stuff right now is letting people know that it's, like, fluid, and it's a process, and it's an ever-evolving thing. And so the work of anti-racism is always work and always action. It's not just saying, well, I'm not racist, not a racist bone in my body, I got a Black friend, I am good for life. It is a constant check-in, a constant renewal of these ideals. And that's what I am curious to see whether it continues or not, 'cause I think a lot...

HANDLER: Whether the fatigue sets in, right. I see what you're saying. And I get...

SANDERS: Yeah.

HANDLER: I also understand your mistrust. I get it. I mean, you're right. When does the fatigue set in? You know, when do people say, oh, my God. I mean, I've heard white girlfriends be like, oh, my God, I'm just so exhausted. I'm so exhausted by all of this.

SANDERS: What do you say to them when they say that?

HANDLER: I said, how would you - can you imagine how tired Black people are? That's what I say.

SANDERS: (Laughter) Do your white girlfriends love you or hate you right now?

HANDLER: No, they're so over me. Oh, my God, no. They're just like, oh, [expletive]. Here she comes again.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: Thanks again to the comedian Chelsea Handler. Her latest book is called "Life Will Be The Death Of Me." You can also watch her documentary that we discussed earlier. It's called "Hello, Privilege. It's Me, Chelsea." It's on Netflix right now.

All right, listeners, don't forget you are a part of this show as well. We are back Friday with a new episode, and we want you in it. We want you to share with us the best things that have happened to you all week. Record yourself on your phone and send that file to me at samsanders@npr.org - samsanders@npr.org. All right, listeners, till Friday, thank you for listening. I'm Sam Sanders. We'll talk soon.

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