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Everyone is missing the most important part of Louis C.K.’s SNL monologue

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 28:  Louis C.K. performs on stage at Comedy Central Night Of Too Many Stars at Beacon Theatre on February 28, 2015 in New York City.  (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for Comedy Central)
NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 28: Louis C.K. performs on stage at Comedy Central Night Of Too Many Stars at Beacon Theatre on February 28, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for Comedy Central)
Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

Comedian Louis C.K.'s monologue on this week's Saturday Night Live does not quite rise to the level of an Upworthy headline — he did not obliterate inequality; he won't change how you see poverty forever — but the first couple of minutes, discussing what he calls "mild racism," do make a decent point that is worth your time.

"I'm not racist. However, I do have mild racism," he says, explaining that he can't help but take mental note of people of color when he encounters them. He describes his initial reaction — approval at seeing a Chinese or Indian doctor, anxiety at seeing a young black man "unless he has a big smile on his face" — that betrays an unmistakable, knee-jerk racism.

He's talking about implicit racial bias: "when, despite our best intentions and without our awareness, racial stereotypes and assumptions creep into our minds and affect our actions," as my colleague Jenée Desmond-Harris explained.

Thirty years of neurology and cognitive psychology studies show that it influences the way we see and treat others, even when we're absolutely determined to be, and believe we are being, fair and objective.

The idea of implicit racial bias, no matter how well-established by empirical research, is still controversial. People don't like to think that they could be racist; they prefer to divide the world into a binary of "racist" or "not racist," with themselves in the latter category. But that makes it a lot harder to address the effects of implicit bias, which impact everything from hiring to police conduct.

Louis C.K., by teasing himself for his well-intentioned "mild racism" and explaining it as a product of the environment he grew up in, is making it a little less scary to acknowledge implicit bias. It's reframing it such that people can be told about implicit bias without hearing an accusation they feel the need to deflect. That's a helpful step toward addressing the issue.

The rest of Louis C.K.'s monologue centered on a fairly ham-fisted Israel-Palestine metaphor and a weak bit on child molestation — the joke was that it's awkward to joke about child molestation and more awkward still to acknowledge that child molestation must be enjoyable for child molesters, ha ha — that was clearly designed to draw controversy and certainly did.

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