Jennifer Garner has caught some heat on social media the other day after a 2017 clip from a dinner with Chelsea Handler, Regina King and some others resurfaced. The clip is from Chelsea Handler’s Dinner Party: My American Experience, and Regina is asked by Chelsea to kick off a conversation about where the group and their parents were from.
“I grew up here in L.A., born and bred. One of the few people that are born and bred in L.A. It’s, I think, a very cool thing and I kind of wear it on my chest very proudly because so many people say, ‘Oh, L.A. is this and L.A. is that,’ and I’m like, well, you’re not from L.A., so you don’t really know it.”
Most of the group smiled, nodded and listened, but when Regina finished speaking, Jennifer asked her the following question that has the internet at odds:
“But do you know where your ancestors are from?”
Regina, graceful as ever, spelled it out for the table.
“Well, yeah… They were part of the triangle slave trade. From Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Senegal, but my parents are both from the south. Met each other here. To this day, I’m totally grateful my mom left. My mom was the one that was like, ‘I am f---ing out of this b---h and I’m going to see what else is out there,’ and she came to L.A.”
It’s a loaded question – and I am no stranger to the weight of it. While people on the internet debate what Jennifer’s intention may have been in asking it, I’m of the unpopular opinion that she really didn’t mean any harm in asking. But I also want to be clear that that doesn’t mean there wasn’t any harm in her asking.
The main problem with that question is that it is exclusionary. It othered Regina. Because it’s unlikely that a person who fits a certain image of an American would be asked that. Despite America’s diversity, there is still a very narrow idea of what an American looks like, and in most cases, it’s a person who is white. Someone who looks like Jen.
The thing is, this was a structured discussion. The group was to discuss their origins and the migration of their families across the U.S. So Jen’s question wasn’t completely out of left field. She was trying to get Regina to discuss how her family got to L.A., before the south, even if they had been there for generations and generations. It’s a complicated question to ask, particularly as a white woman, and a complicated one to answer, despite Regina’s grace in doing so.
A lot of the comments on social media suggested Jennifer took issue with the idea that Regina was laying her claim to be a true Los Angeles native, or that she was giving the “white woman stare” and that this question was the equivalent of the n-word with the hard r. This person gave an incredibly dramatic description of the raising of eyebrows by Dan Savage, who was seated next to Jen when she asked the question. They’re suggesting his eyebrows almost “popped off”. They continued on, saying he “nearly chewed straight through them pretty pearly porcelain sets of his.” But to me, in the clip, Dan looks like he’s simply sipping his water and is engaged in the conversation.
When debacles like these break out on the internet, as they so often do, it can be difficult to determine where one stands on the issue. But sometimes what helps me figure out which side of the argument I’m on is to do a deep dive into the causes or policies any given person is involved in. And not just involved in by way of slapping their name on something. I want to know what they’ve done.
For almost 20 years, Jen has been involved with Save the Children, first as an artist ambassador, then as a board member, and this to me highlights her dedication to philanthropy. In 2017, she cofounded Once Upon A Farm, a startup that sells fresh, cold-pressed organic baby food. She pushed the company forward and now works with state governments in places like Texas, Florida, and Michigan in support of low-income families.
As we know, there are a ton of problematic celebrities involved with charities and good causes who sit idly by when they have the opportunity to do something about issues in society – whether it’s racism, poverty or human trafficking. And if it wasn’t for her humble beginnings, Jen could have easily been one of those problematic celebrities attached to causes without a genuine concern. But she grew up poor in West Virginia and came from a home that genuinely knew struggle and saw poverty. If she grew up privileged in Beverly Hills or was perhaps a nepo baby, it would be a different story. But the fact that she has proven to be dedicated to good causes – that seem to be rooted in her own experiences growing up – in theory and in practice counts for something.
This is often the issue with these little snippets of conversations and interviews that go viral. There is no context, and people rarely see the forest through the trees. No one is looking at what the group was asked to discuss, no one is looking at anything beyond the sensation of it all. In fact, the original accompanying tweet to the viral clip read: “Oh I see why Ben left her ass.” Anyone that followed the news of their separation, which Lainey wrote about here, knows that Ben didn’t leave. If anything, it was mutual. And even after announcing their split, Jen still showed up for Ben as he experienced substance abuse issues, driving him to a rehab facility and keeping a close eye on him to help prevent him from relapsing.
The other aspect of context that’s missing in this conversation is timing. We are reacting to a six-year-old clip after the world endured a racial reckoning and a pandemic in 2020. I don’t know that she would have asked that question if the episode was taped after 2020. I think she would have sensed the issues that could come with posing a question like that and held her tongue or found a more sensitive way to ask it. With that said, I also don’t think there would be the same reaction if we didn’t all experience 2020. That’s why there wasn’t much discussion about it when it originally aired. The cultural and societal factors that determine the weight of this question were entirely different in 2017.
It's not to say that there is no such thing as the “white woman stare”. I’ve been the recipient of it on many occasions - in every place from my home, when white relatives came over, to my workplace, from white women colleagues. And it’s not to say that people can’t call you the n-word without actually saying it. But it is to say that you have to have a heart to lend your privilege to the causes that she has. And it is to say that there are a ton of problematic white women in Hollywood. We’d be better off focusing our attention on calling out people like them than to be cancelling someone who has remained as unproblematic throughout their career as Jennifer has.
In recent years, people have been invited to have tough conversations so that we can live in a society where people understand each other more. But it can be difficult to gain that understanding if we’re not extending grace. Yes, Jen’s question was harmful and exclusionary. But was it harmful because she intended for it to be? Or was it harmful because there are questions that will trigger the inevitable and ever-present legacy of the history of Black Americans?
In order to begin offering more grace, it’s important to look at intent. That’s one way to weed out the Amy Schumers and the Tina Feys from the Jennifer Garners. But how do we continue to do that fairly in the age of social media – the precise medium where a lot of these conversations are taking place? Where virality and sensationalizing always trumps rational discussions that include the full picture?
Though Jen and Regina have yet to say anything about the topic, they’re really the only ones that can quell the noise. Was Regina offended? Has Jen learned anything? By any measure, this was a tough discussion, even six years ago. But in order to keep having them, we have to toe the line between educating and inspiring for a better tomorrow.