Foucault would surely recognize television talk shows as a sort of confessional for a secular society, taking up the Christian demand that we both know the truth of ourselves and make that truth over and over again through a constant narrativizing of the self and confession of sin. In the latest incarnation of this confessional, Dr. Keith Ablow is our confessor, a kind of low(er) rent Dr. Phil, attending to the sins of angry tweens, fighting girls, and hastily married couples. He promises that by coming clean on his shows, his guests will be able to return home and work on themselves, cultivate new identities that break from their violent and problematic pasts in a quest for redemption.
Today’s show featured two tearful daughters pleading with Dr. Keith to help their racist mother. Their mother is the kind of racist our culture imagines to be extinct–full of incredible venom and hatred and stereotypes we like to think we’re over; we prefer our racists to hide it a little better, to profess their color blindness in public even while constructing, supporting and maintaining a social and political world where race works as a strong determiner of life chances. No, these guests are anything BUT colorblind. This show serves up its racists old style.
But to whom? Who is watching this show? The camera splits its time between Dr. Keith, his guests, and the audience. As the good doctor pulls more and more racist words from the racist mother the camera pans to the black faces in the audience, as if expecting to see shock and horror, as if the news that a southern white woman is incredibly racist will be a surprise to these viewers. The real surprise is only on the white faces, seemingly shocked by what they’re hearing, marking concretely how whites can walk this world in complete ignorance of the daily facts of racism. This woman’s virulent racism works on the white viewer like a kind of salvation from her own complicity in white supremacy; I would never say such things, she thinks to herself. I am not a racist mother, not like that, she thinks. And this show is for the white woman who can separate herself from this woman, reinstalling the notion that racism is a problem of individuals and individually conquered when we refuse to say the “N” word out loud, unlike this racist mother who can’t seem to say it enough.
And yet what pleasure is obtained by the viewer in hearing out loud these unbelievably racist views? Whose inner thoughts are given voice, and what desires, in spite of the ostensible repugnance of the white viewer, are played out on this program? The sin may be confessed, but we are far from cleansed.