The celebrities cannot seem to help themselves. As America seizes with unrest following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and far too many others, stars have been falling all over themselves to demonstrate “allyship.” This comes at a critical juncture, when the internet’s tolerance for unspecific, image-obsessed platitudes from the rich and famous is at an all-time low. Beautifully rendered illustrations, hashtags, and hollow, rambling words are no longer going to cut it. White celebs, especially those who’ve been silent until now, are being held to a new standard.
And in some seriously odd and insufficient ways, they’re attempting to rise to the occasion.
For a new campaign called #ITakeResponsibility, a video montage starring a sea of white A-listers — including Kristen Bell, Sarah Paulson, Kesha, Aaron Paul, and Debra Messing — attempts to examine their own anti-Black racism. The two minutes of excruciating monologue and sorrowful instrumentals begins with the stars acknowledging some of the ways they’ve upheld a system rife with injustice (every “unchecked moment,” every “not-so-funny joke”). It lost me somewhere after the crescendo, as they rattle off all the quotidian activities (going for a jog, sleeping in your own home, playing video games, shopping) that should not be considered a death sentence. Only one person (thank you, always, Stanley Tucci) remembered to actually call racism by name, the others opting to “stand against hate.”
#ITakeResponsibility is just the latest entry into a revolving door of well-intentioned but thoughtlessly executed projects of atonement. This gesture is unlikely to do much to curb a horrifically violent system of oppression (though, to be fair, if you wade through the campaign’s site, you’ll eventually find places to donate). But, it does demonstrate that accountability is piercing the mainstream. So what do we want instead? It’s clearly not in an overproduced montage, so how should celebrities begin to address the racism they’ve long ignored?
White America sustains itself on frivolity and escapism, as a means to avoid confronting the pain and discomfort afflicting the rest of society. Fame and celebrity thrive on this desperate need for mental diversion. Celebrities cannot exist without literally taking up space — keeping themselves perpetually in the forefront of our minds — a goal at odds with a movement that demands the privileged step out of the spotlight unless they’re using it to protect and defend Black lives.
Celebrities were already losing it during quarantine, stripped of the usual devices that placed a wedge between them and the rest of the world. The banal, doe-eyed responses to the racism in America that we’d normally expect from white people, celebrities and regulars alike — “I had no idea,” or “I can’t imagine what that’s like” — fall very, very flat when quite literally the only thing to do while you’re stuck in the middle of a pandemic is pay attention to social media and what you witness there is people being brutalized.
Of course, some celebs have shown up to protest. Others have “opened up their purses” and lent their voices to decry racism and support detailed and specific calls for reform. But just like the rest of us, they have some problematic colleagues: Madonna celebrating her son’s interpretive solidarity dance; Ashton Kutcher posting an incongruously emotional video about Black Lives Matter that veered off on a bizarre and lengthy tangent about parenting; Ellen DeGeneres tweeting “for things to change, things must change”; Drew Brees’s willfully ignorant understanding of peaceful protests and inability to have his mind opened by the steady murders of Black people on film. (And it’s not solely white celebrities: See Terry Crews’s nauseating critique of “Black supremacy.”) More of these bizarre blathers will surely come. The past few weeks have again exposed the depth of America’s moral bankruptcy, and white people are scrambling to perform their Great Racial Awakening. Their weak dribbles of support — which would have once been swiftly mocked and forgotten — have become a symbol of people’s carelessness toward, and complicity in, a racist world. Their performances are completely incompatible with what’s happening in America’s streets.
What to do with celebrities at this moment of cultural upheaval is situated between an uncomfortable series of truths. That if you’re Black and talented, some people would prefer you entertain them quietly, to shut up and dribble. That you don’t let the sticky inconvenience of your own oppression get in the way of people’s ability to consume you. And if you’re white and unconsciously enjoying a distance from the suffering of others, silence is increasingly not an option as fans (rightfully) threaten to “remember” who is worthy of support after this is “over.” This is the only thing that explains these terrible, embarrassing videos.
Pushing people to speak out when they don’t have the range will almost always result in damaging and misguided comments. Technology has given fans direct access to their faves’ “unfiltered thoughts,” and what we’ve been seeing in the past few weeks is a paltry understanding of what’s really going on. Even in the best cases, certain celebrities are willing to adopt the language of the movement while lacking the wherewithal to educate themselves. It’s much easier to pull from the performative-protest template, to say their heart is broken, to post a black tile or a swipe up for an anti-racist reading list. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Comedian Dave Chappelle, no stranger to searing social commentary about race in America (but whose transphobic comments can’t go without note), talks about the recent protests and the utility of celebrity in a new special titled 8:46. He recalls Don Lemon scolding celebrities for their absence on the front lines, “[He] expects me to step in front of the streets and talk over the work these people are doing as a celebrity.” Chappelle asked the masked crowd, “Do you want to see celebrities right now … No, this is the streets talking for themselves. They don’t need me right now.” Actress Tracee Ellis Ross raised a similar point on her Instagram about the need for everyone to “show up in their own most effective way.” Perhaps for those who are well worn in these conversations, as Chappelle and Ross are, that is silence or reflection. The white celebrities fumbling for words right now — if they truly want to support Black life — should resist that pull.
Americans have flooded the streets of their cities in protest of the murder of George Floyd, police brutality, and systemic racism. It’s hard to look at the defining images of the country’s unrest — crowds choking on tear gas, buildings broken into or aflame, and police seemingly unconcerned that they’re being filmed throwing protestors to the ground, or beating them with batons, or taking out eyes with rubber bullets, or ramming into them with their cars — and not feel that we’ve reached a moment in American history that we can’t unsee.
Even the most privileged among us are beginning to lose the will to look away. “These are our brothers and sisters. Our friends. Our family. We are done watching them die,” say the celebrities taking responsibility via a two-minute video. “We are no longer bystanders; we will not be idle.” Welcome. There may be limits to what anyone can do right away, but what a privilege to be able to start and not have your entire life shaped by the starting. I think often of the clips that have circulated of babies in protest; a little girl screaming “No Justice, No Peace!” with rage beyond her years as she marches alongside adult protesters; a sweet little boy sitting atop his father’s shoulders shaking a sign that says “I can’t breathe” with his glasses slightly askew.
Demanding that people remain aligned with what’s happening in the streets — ones they’ve never paid attention to before — is a tense tug-of-war of accountability. And yet it is what we’re asking every non-Black person in the world to do, famous or not. Admit you don’t know. Let others have the mic. Use your platforms to listen. Recognize the privilege of being able to learn about racism instead of being extinguished by it. Do the work. Away from Instagram. Away from the publicists. Out of view of a system that’s designed to place you on a goodwill leaderboard a few months from now when things have died down.
The price of having a platform has gone up.