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Kevin Hart, the New Yorker and the Limits of Wokeness

Why did the New Yorker piece on the Kevin Hart / Oscars scandal ignore his race?

December 14, 2018
 
 

One of the signature characteristics of contemporary wokeness is to highlight a dimension of an individual’s identity and connect it with a particular talent or virtue or favored worldview. It typically takes the form of pointing to an artist or public figure one likes and exploring how that person’s blackness, or queerness, or female-ness is somehow inextricably linked to their work in the world.

I hear this a lot in higher education / diversity progressive discourse, and I see it frequently in the left-of-center elite publications that make up my reading diet – The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic and The New York Review of Books.

Generally, I find this approach useful and enriching, if occasionally a bit overbearing (examples of the useful and enriching sort: Beyonce Masters the Fierceness of Crowds , On the Front Porch, Black Life in Full View). After all, American-style prejudice didn’t just enslave and segregate (African Americans), exterminate (Native Americans) and exclude (LGBT folks, Asians, women and for a long time Catholics and Jews), it also erased histories, contributions and identities. To remedy those errors (sins, really) will require some overcorrection.

But it feels a little one-sided and, well, anti-intellectual to only and always be linking the dimensions of identity we like (blackness, queerness, female-ness, immigrant-ness, let’s see how long Muslim-ness lasts) to talents we admire and views we favor.

I guess that’s why The New Yorker piece on the Kevin Hart / Oscars scandal struck me. It entirely sidestepped Hart’s race! Hart is a rare and special comic – one who codes black and also plays widely to mainstream audiences. (Also, one who made some ugly homophobic comments). 

As a regular reader, it does not appear to me that The New Yorker typically misses an opportunity to highlight the race of minority artists and public figures when those individuals do something that the magazine’s writers like.

Is it avoiding an interesting – and hard – intellectual question to ignore race when an artist of color does something the magazine doesn’t like? After all, it’s not like the anti-gay sentiments in certain strains of black masculinity and black theology are especially secret.

Territory ripe for intellectual exploration, no?

I will say it over and over again, from the moment the rooster crows until the time the cows come home: the signature quality of intellectual life is exploring the hard questions, the dynamics in the world that make one uncomfortable, the things one doesn’t like.

As certain logics of wokeness – like connecting favored identities with admirable talents and preferred views – move from being useful correctives to being predictable, standard and expected (not to mention occasionally dogmatic), the orientation of intellectuals will have to shift. Or else we will simply be advocates.  

 

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