In a world where certain white male celebrities refuse to acknowledge their privilege, the Friends actor is a breath of fresh air.
Laurence Fox was, until very recently, famous for being a well-respected actor. For fans of ITV’s Inspector Morse spin-off series, he’s the DS James Hathaway to Kevin Whatley’s DI Robert Lewis. For those obsessed with Victoria, he’s Lord Palmerston. And, for Billie Piper fans, he’s the actor’s ex-husband – and the guy who felt the need to go to the press and share intimate details about their custody battle (what a prince).
In 2020, though, Fox is now synonymous with his controversial appearance on Question Time, during which he accused Rachel Boyle, a researcher on race and ethnicity at Edge Hill University, of racism after she described him as a “white privileged male”.
“I can’t help what I am,” the former Harrow student insisted. “I was born like this, it’s an immutable characteristic, so to call me a white privileged male is to be racist – you’re being racist.”
Fox made a lot of headlines in the process. A lot of headlines. He made even more when, mere days after the QT episode aired, he appeared on the James Delingpole podcast and shared his opinion that “the woke” (rough translation: liberals who are strongly against racial or sexual discrimination) are fundamentally racist – and that a Sikh soldier in new film 1917 is an example of ‘enforced diversity’.
“It’s very heightened awareness of the colour of someone’s skin,” he said, “because of the oddness in the casting. Even in 1917 they’ve done it with a Sikh soldier, which is great, it’s brilliant, but you’re suddenly aware there were Sikhs fighting in this war. And you’re like ‘OK, you’re now diverting me away from what the story is.’”
Of course, those who have been following this story will already know that Fox’s comments backfired – and massively so. Not only was his argument ill-judged, but it was wholly inaccurate, too. Indeed, it wasn’t long before historians had drawn attention to the contribution of Sikhs in the British Army during World War One (about 130,000 Sikh men took part in the war, making up 20% of the British Indian Army), prompting Fox to issue an apology.
“Fellow humans who are Sikhs, I am as moved by the sacrifices your relatives made as I am by the loss of all those who die in war, whatever creed or colour,” Fox tweeted.
“Please accept my apology for being clumsy in the way I expressed myself.”
It feels incredibly disheartening to see someone like Fox use his position in the spotlight to undermine issues of race, and to point-blank deny that he is afforded any privilege as a white man.
Thankfully, on the other hand, we have David Schwimmer.
The Friends actor is currently promoting his new project, Sky TV’s comedy series Intelligence – and has fielded a number of questions about the show, his social activism, and about the lack of racial diversity in Friends during the press tour.
Schwimmer’s reaction to this line of questioning, however, couldn’t be any more different to Fox’s.
“Maybe there should be an all-black Friends or an all-Asian Friends,” he told The Guardian.
“I was well aware of the lack of diversity and I campaigned for years to have [my character] Ross date women of colour. One of the first girlfriends I had on the show was an Asian American woman, and later I dated African American women. That was a very conscious push on my part.”
Schwimmer added: “I’m very aware of my own privilege as a heterosexual white male whose parents were able to pay for a private education for me. I’ve always felt a sense of responsibility to give back and to call things out if I see an abuse of power.”
Before I reveal his answer, though, some context: Fox recently revealed that he avoids dating younger women due to their ‘victim mentality’, citing an example of an ex-girlfriend’s support of Christine Blasey Ford, the psychology professor who appeared before Congress in 2018 to testify that she had been sexually assaulted by Supreme Court nominee (now judge) Brett Kavanaugh.
Fox’s girlfriend told him, “believe the victim”, to which Fox says he responded: “No, you don’t believe the victim. That’s not how it works. You listen to the victim. The victim’s evidence is examined and a jury of their peers makes that decision.”
Schwimmer, though? “I don’t know a woman in my life that has not been harassed in some way,” he said.
Then, focusing on Trump’s accusers specifically, Schwimmer added: “I was shocked and really dismayed when it was revealed that he’s got so many women accusing him of sexual assault and that he boasts on tape of grabbing women by the genital.
“Most people decided that it didn’t matter. I would argue to those same people that if he had done that to their daughter or their wife or their sister, it probably would matter. I didn’t know how to explain to my daughter how the country elected someone who was boasting of committing sexual assault.”
Schwimmer added that he was saddened by the “atmosphere of terror” that “struck all men” after the #MeToo movement began, of course. However, he did so thoughtfully – without suggesting, implicitly or otherwise, that the outpouring of sexual assault claims has seen men become victims of discrimination.
Why is Schwimmer’s response to these questions so very, very heartening? Because it has shown us how we should address the white privilege debate. Rather than lash out, grow defensive, hurl around claims of racism (as Fox did), Schwimmer has acknowledged his own privilege. And, better still, he has used his status as a white man – and the privilege it affords him – to help others.
As Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu recently told Stylist: “In dealing with things like white privilege and racism, it requires a conscious intention to address it. You must be consciously intentional about addressing your privilege by ensuring you’re not being complicit of enabling inflammatory racist behaviour, language, bigotry, intolerance towards people who don’t look like you. Because this happens every single day.”
Here’s hoping that, if Fox is still unable to bring himself to listen to “woke” younger women and activists like Dr Mos-Shogbamimu, he will look to Schwimmer, and follow his good example. After all, the American Crime Story star is a respected actor and director. He’s a man. He’s from a white privileged background. And, at 53, Schwimmer is older – something which is undoubtedly important to Fox (as previously mentioned, he has stressed a belief that wisdom comes with age).
We hope Fox can do all of this. Otherwise… well, otherwise he can work on keeping his mouth shut. After all, the world would be a better place if the privileged and ignorant didn’t use their platforms to hog the limelight away from other, more important issues, wouldn’t it?