Seriously, Chelsea Handler? You’re Going With the ‘Black Boyfriend’ Defense?

Host Chelsea Handler at the 2013 amfAR Inspiration Gala in Los Angeles Dec. 12, 2013
Mike Windle/Getty Images

Though Chelsea Handler’s real sin may be the fact that she’s painfully unfunny, she managed to offend this week for another reason.

While guest live-tweeting for the Huffington Post during Sunday’s Academy Awards broadcast, she provoked cries of racism at worst and racial insensitivity at best when, after Lupita Nyong’o was named the winner of the Oscar for best supporting actress, Handler plugged her own latest book in a “joke” about traveling to Africa, tweeting:

Then, to make matters worse—after taking some heat for it—she went on Good Morning America and proceeded to argue that she can’t be a racist because (drumroll, please) … “I date a lot of black people. So that would be a difficult thing to explain to them.”


And when I heard that, all I thought was: Here we go again.

Another high-profile white person gets in hot water for a racially charged remark and then chooses to deploy the Black Friend Defense. Only, in Handler’s case, this time it’s specifically the Black Boyfriend Defense.

Using your black friends to shield you is the tacky way out—no matter how you look at it. But it’s even worse hiding behind a sexual partner—particularly one whom you’ve admitted to denigrating when he wasn’t around.

It’s well-known that Handler once dated rapper 50 Cent, and she later admitted that during a disagreement they had over the fact that she was going to interview one of his ex-girlfriends on her talk show, she demeaned him in a way that, at least tangentially, had to do with race. As she told shock jock Howard Stern: “I think I called him the worst thing you could say to a black person, short of calling him the n-word. I said something like, ‘You’re like a street person,’ basically. Something along the lines of being a gangster, and it was really, really offensive and I hung up, and I’ve never spoken to him again.” She added, “When I told my friends what I said, they were like, ‘You will never hear from him. This is, like, a proud black man you basically tore apart and put to shame.’”


But in her mind, apparently, she bedded him, so there’s simply no way she was racist.

Which, of course, isn’t automatically the case. As I’ve noted before, by that logic, Thomas Jefferson, Strom Thurmond and every other white man in power who fathered children with black women weren’t racists, either. Only, I’m not so sure that those black women, their families or any of the other black people they were demeaning and discriminating against at the same time would agree.


What Handler, Paula Deen and the countless others who have been caught up in accusations of racism don’t seem to realize is that saying “I’m not racist” doesn’t mean a lot if your behavior shows that you are. And saying “I have a black friend” is not the same as showing that person and the world that you both respect and value him or her.

The truth is that if they had black people in their lives who were true friends—not booty calls or employees, but people with whom they share true emotional intimacy, as well as mutual admiration and respect—then much of their behavior simply would not have been possible. Or, at the very least, they would have had the awareness to immediately respond to criticism of their words and behaviors with the self-awareness that comes from knowing that you hurt a group of people that someone you care about belongs to.


So perhaps, going forward, there should be a rule. If you want to get away with using the Black Friend Defense, instead of telling us you have a black friend or boyfriend or girlfriend or ex-girlfriend—instead of speaking for them—why don’t you let them speak for you? Let us hear from them, in their own words, whether they think you are as racially aware as you claim to be.

It may turn out that the black friend has your back in a race flap. Or it may turn out that the person you called a friend all along doesn’t realize that you considered him (or her) one—and never really considered you a friend, either. Because in my friendships, people see me as an equal; they don’t demean me or the group I belong to. And when I tell them they’ve hurt me, they listen. If that’s not the type of relationship you have with someone of a different race, then you’re not really friends.


Which means that the next time you get in trouble over race, don’t name-check that person to ease your conscience or solve your PR problem.

Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.

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Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter

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