On August 4th of this week I published the post: A Parallel Argument on Race and Disability: How Wyatt Cenac Got it Right and Wrong.
That evening I received an email from Mr. Cenac offering to talk. I had a conversation with him yesterday. It was better than I had anticipated. In fact, it was awesome.
I told him that as I listened to him talk with Marc Maron about Jon Stewart’s denial of racial insensitivity I experienced déjà vu. I recognized he had used similar language less than a year before with Aylona Minkovski on HuffPost Live —but, then he was defending his performance on This American Life regarding Down syndrome. I told him I honestly found the parallels between his interviews remarkable.
I was never satisfied with his explanation in that Minkovski interview from 2014—it fell short of responsibility in my estimation. I now had an opportunity to address those concerns given what he shared with Maron. I was armed with irrefutable evidence—his own voice. It was a real “gotcha moment.”
He asked why I had not contacted him directly. He told me he would have talked to me “the way we are talking now.” There’s nothing like a reminder on common courtesy to take the wind out of your sails.
I fessed up that it didn’t occur to me. I offered: “I guess I didn’t think it would matter.” And finally: “I was wrong to do that. I should have first given you the opportunity to respond.”
We moved on from there.
He told me: “If I look at my work and what I said [on The American Life] it is naïve and ignorant. I do see that.”
That acknowledgement was more than I had anticipated and it was the response I needed. It got better than that, though.
He acknowledged the routine was in part about his personal experience at that time — not that people with Down syndrome were losers — but that he was empathizing with how people with Down syndrome live marginalized lives because of how they are treated and restricted by income and access to health care, employment, education.
I said: “I loved that idea of reflecting on the condition of people with Down syndrome in our society in a subversive way but you were clunky and it wasn’t not that.”
He told me: “[The] difference to me is between what I said and what I meant. I could have done that better.”
I also shared: “I didn’t like the voice you used at all.”
He said: “…it never occurred to me it sounded like someone with Down syndrome… [and] when practicing it [other’s] said it..was funny and maybe European.”
I hope the European Commission never gets a whiff of this.
He suggested I tell people, who have not listened to the entire interview with Maron, that his situation with Jon Stewart was also something different– it devolved into a personal verbal attack by Stewart, who was his boss at the time.
I told him I only used quotes preceding any description of that explosive interchange. My intention was never to mislead people. I would also recommend to anyone who hasn’t listened to the entire interview that they do so.
In a follow-up email he shared: “I am aware that humor can shine a light on something and expose ridiculous or uncomfortable truths in the world or in an audience or in the comedian themselves. For me, my overall hope in speaking with you was to let you know that my intentions were not from a malicious place or one of trying to demean people with Down Syndrome. And I also wanted to see your perspective and learn a bit more because I’m never going to get anything 100% right, but until the day I become an all knowing immortal Highlander I should be willing to learn.”
In thinking about several things he told me on the phone about his life 11 years ago when the “pot brownie incident” happened, I had a thought about what might have informed last year’s bit on This American Life. This is different than a ‘gotcha moment’ – this is a moment of trying to empathize with another human being.
I emailed him this: HERE is my two-cents and dime store analysis that I will use only if you are comfortable:
“I believe this has been an ordeal for you that has likely been irritating and hurtful because you know you have integrity. You know you are open and would have welcomed a conversation instead of public examination. I also think you did not fully understand all the aspects of your story as it related to you when you told it. On the surface it was a “funny story”– but with a very painful backstory. The isolation and aloneness and separation you described on the phone to me is experienced at times by my son. He experiences the oppressive nature of typicalness or how we are all supposed to live life. You must have felt the same. I absolutely believe you were not in any way malicious and I believe you were not completely aware of your motivations [at the time you told that story].”
I can accept that discrepancy in Mr. Cenac. It is a very human thing.