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Will Daily Show viewers pay as much attention when a black host talks about race?

Comedy Central

Sure, The Daily Show is comedy, but it's more than that: its incisive humor gives viewers fodder to decide what they think about the news, especially when race and racism are in the headlines, as they have been in recent months.

Leading up to his retirement, host Jon Stewart has mocked the assertion that "racism is on its last leg" ("Pretty strong fucking leg," he scoffed, "it must be bionic"). He's blasted the media for ignoring what he called the "problematic racial divide in America." He's scolded those who said race didn't fuel the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri ("Race is there, and it's a constant. ... You're tired of hearing about it? Imagine how fucking exhausting it is living it"), and ridiculed Fox's Bernie Goldberg for saying, "Ferguson, Missouri, is not Selma, Alabama." ("Of course, if Fox had been around for Selma, Alabama," Stewart said, "the headline would probably have been ‘Relax: Selma Isn't Slavery!'")

There's little question that Trevor Noah, the widely praised comedian who will replace Stewart, will pick up where his predecessor left off on this subject matter. Born to a black mother and a white father in apartheid South Africa, he's known to quip, "My existence itself is a crime," and race relations and racial identity anchor many of his routines.

As a Daily Show guest in the video below, he takes on racialized police violence by joking that his arms are tired because he's been holding them above his head to avoid being shot by the police.

Noah will obviously add diversity to the field of late-night TV. Vox's Max Fischer has predicted that he'll "talk about American racial issues as the hapless but curious outsider," distinguishing him even from Larry Wilmore, Stephen Colbert's recent African-American replacement. So, is Noah the perfect candidate to pick up the torch of hard-hitting comedy about American race relations? Will he do this even more effectively than Stewart did because he's actually black?

Maybe not.

I spoke to Whitney Dow, the creator of the Whiteness Project, an interactive investigation into how Americans who identify as white think about and experience their ethnicity, about how the messenger matters when it comes to commentary on race and racism. [Further reading: Here's what happens when you ask white people how it feels to be white.] His prediction is that regardless of how brilliant or hilarious Noah's comedy is, a black host might change how The Daily Show's material on race is received.

Jenée Desmond-Harris: There's a broad consensus that having a black man host The Daily Show show is positive for television diversity. But I'm interested in getting your thoughts on how the incisive commentary on race and racism-related headlines that The Daily Show has become known for will be received from a biracial/black host.

Whitney Dow: White people hear other white people much more clearly when they speak about race than they do people of color.  Even the most culturally aware. They go into this default position of listening to people complain versus recognizing that race is something about them. The big Rubicon you have to cross with a white person is that they're having as racialized an experience as anyone of any other ethnicity — they think when people of color talk about race it's about an experience outside of themselves.

Trevor's clearly really smart and funny. It will be interesting seeing him up against Wilmore — because also Americans have a different reaction to black people from other countries than black people from America. It's much more loaded with black Americans. Obama got elected — his mother's from Kansas, and his father's from Kenya. Could he have been elected if his mother were from Compton? I don't know; it would be very different.

There aren't that many white people on television talking about race, like Stewart did, in a complex, critical way. So much of the racial conversation that emanates from white people comes from this denial of reality, trying to set terms of the debate that aren't necessarily in line with the reality of the country.

So I think it's a really valid point to ask the question: what are we losing in this particular discussion by losing Stewart? He sort of gave white people permission to think about these things in a nonthreatening, self-critical way. It may be much harder for someone who's not white to allow white people that same sort of permission to sort of think about this stuff, because as soon as people feel threatened, or as if it's being critical, they immediately shut down, and then it becomes a less productive conversation.

JDH:  How have we seen examples of that in history/American culture?

WD: The classic example is Selma and all the violence that took place in Selma. It wasn't until there was a white minister killed that the white people were suddenly galvanized. ...

It takes something to allow people to recognize that race and racial constructs are part of their experience, especially when they are operating in a context where there are no people of color.

JDH: Have you experienced this in your work with the Whiteness Project?

WD: There are two extremes of reactions to me. I've had so many people approach me and say, "I've watched the Whiteness Project and it's the first thing about race that I recognized as something for me, and it really opened up my mind to start thinking about myself in racial terms." The other part of that is the blunt honestly of the people in the Whiteness Project — it gave me permission to be honest with myself, to listen to what I might think about race that I might not feel comfortable admitting to myself.

The flip side of it is the insane pushback I get — this hate mail. ("You're a self-hating white person! How come you're so racist? How come you're so racist against white people?")

The idea that white people are having a racialized experience is very threatening to some people — every time I do a news thing I get some sort of hate mail or pushback or people coming after me for what I think is saying the most inoffensive, banal thing about race.

JDH: In November 2014, a Pew poll found that eight in 10 black Americans said the events in Ferguson raised important questions about race, while half of white Americans said race was getting more attention than it deserved in the coverage of the case. Does the delivery of information and criticism of something like Ferguson by a white person versus a black person help in changing minds, or letting white people know that it is not just a black issue?

WD: Sadly, yes. For example, I think the fact that Eric Holder is a black American will make some people discount his report on the Ferguson Police Department, simply because they'll say he's black and he has an agenda. Would it be received more openly by more people if Eric Holder was a white American? Absolutely. (It's also the flip side. Look at the focus that [black columnist] Jonathan Capehart got saying he was wrong about what happened between Darren Wilson and Michael Brown. So many white people dove onto that as, like, a life preserver).

JDH: So, maybe Daily Show audiences are ready to get commentary/lessons on race from a black guy?

WD: They're pretty liberal ... I think they're absolutely ready to laugh and take lessons about race from a biracial south African with a funny accent. But the danger I see is that it becomes something outside of them — that they're laughing at racist white people, saying, "Ha, ha, ha, look at this idiot racist person," or whatever it is that needs to be changed, as opposed to seeing it as something that's part of us, that's connected to us. Having a biracial South African point that stuff out means rather than, "This is something you and I are doing," it will be, "Look at this thing these other idiot racist fools are doing."

Stewart was able to do both ... and it's very powerful when someone, especially someone with power, recognizes that they're also part of the paradigm. When someone who looks like you says they're experiencing these uncomfortable things themselves, I think it's really powerful. A lot of people want to be like Jon Stewart, really respect him, and see themselves as versions of him. ...

What Noah will do will have great value, and from the clips I've seen of him he's a funny, smart guy. But he's guy who's not from America, and he doesn't look like the white Americans who watch him. ... So they'll be thinking, "He's certainly pointing stuff out, but he is not me." It's going to be interesting to how he's going to be received.

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