Over the past month, the entertainment industry has been experiencing an overdue reckoning with its treatment of the Black community in waves. The most current wave we’re witnessing is taking place in the comedy world as veteran comedians use this time to think deeply about the years (decades, in some cases) of criticism they’ve received for past racist content. Unlike his fellow industry mainstays Tina Fey and Jimmy Kimmel, Jon Stewart isn’t suddenly apologizing for past instances of blackface. He is, however, discussing his past issues with inclusion in his Daily Show writers room and his previous, innate defensiveness when it came to justified criticism.
During an appearance on Breakfast Club Tuesday morning, Stewart accepted his role in upholding structures of systemic racism through a predominantly white writers room. He also touched on his previous treatment of former contributor Wyatt Cenac, who he told to “fuck off” after getting called out for a racist Hermain Cain impression. “What’s hard about that for people is you get defensive,” Stewart said. “Nobody likes to be called on their shit, especially when they feel like it’s not really their shit. But what you realize is, just stopping active persecution isn’t enough to dismantle. It has to be actively dismantled.”
On his highly publicized reaction to Cenac’s criticism:
“It took me a long time to realize that the real issue was that we hired a person who is Black… [and] they felt like they’re carrying the weight of representation. So they suddenly feel like, ‘I’ve got to be the speaker of the race.’ So we think we’re doing the right thing, but we’re not doing it in the right way. Those were hard lessons for me, and they were humbling lessons. And I was defensive about them and still didn’t do it all right.”
Stewart and Cenac seemingly made up in 2015 when the former contributor appeared on Stewart’s final episode of The Daily Show. Per Business Insider, Cenac also confirmed during a podcast appearance that Stewart “kind of apologized as much as he could” in a private email exchange.
Stewart also touched on socio-economic injustice within the entertainment industry, noting that the industry is run by “rich people from Westchester and Long Island” who only offered unpaid but career-defining internships to privileged youth who, like them, could afford to sacrifice pay. “The whole thing is seeded with inertia,” Stewart said. “I don’t consider myself malevolent, but my ignorance of that dynamic had real consequences.” Towards the close of the interview, he expressed that change could only come if people in power quell the need to get defensive about their privilege. “I honestly think that most people are willing to learn. It’s [about] getting over the defensiveness, to realize that you’re not being called a racist—or maybe you are [and] not giving so much of a shit that somebody might call you that...And [being] willing to say that we all have blind spots... For us to dismantle the entrenched tributaries that continue to contribute to inequality of outcome of equity, it takes effort.”
The conversation begins around the 50:40 mark, if you wish to hear it for yourself.
Looking for ways to advocate for Black lives? Check out this list of resources by our sister site Lifehacker for ways to get involved.