Even though this post refers to the strange Jussie Smollett case unfolding in Chicago, I’ve opted to include a picture from the Equal Justice Initiative’s Lynching Museum in Birmingham Alabama as a reminder, that whether it turns out Smollett did indeed stage his attack, hate crimes and violence against people of color and LGBTQ in the US are real. Below I’m including an excerpt from an article by John McWhorter contributing editor at The Atlantic and professor at Columbia University, making commentary on Smollett’s case.
It's a challenging but thoughtful article. McWhorter has recently done some great, balanced writing on the issue of the Covington Catholic teens at the Lincoln Memorial harassing a Native American activist. On Smollett, McWhorter writes (emphasis added):
"Racial politics today have become a kind of religion in which whites grapple with the original sin of privilege, converts tar questioners of the orthodoxy as ‘problematic’ blasphemers, and everyone looks forward to a judgment day when America “comes to terms” with race. Smollett—if he really did stage the attack—would have been acting out the black-American component in this eschatological configuration, the role of victim as a form of status. We are, within this hierarchy, persecuted prophets, ever attesting to the harm that white racism does to us and pointing to a future context in which our persecutors will be redeemed of the sin of having leveled that harm upon us. We are noble in our suffering. . . Only in an America in which matters of race are not as utterly irredeemable as we are often told could things get to the point that someone would pretend to be tortured in this way, acting oppression rather than suffering it, seeking to play a prophet out of a sense that playing a singer on television is not as glamorous as getting beaten up by white guys. That anyone could feel this way and act on it in the public sphere is, in a twisted way, a kind of privilege, and a sign that we have come further on race than we are often comfortable admitting."
This is nuanced stuff, but for me, I think McWhorter is calling out a very real phenomenon of overplaying the role of victim. While it DOES NOT negate the suffering and oppression marginalized groups experience, it’s exceptional stories like Smollett's that defensive people of privilege point to first when confronted with issues of race or discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. I know as someone who feels called to reach out to white folks, people of privilege, and anti-LGBTQ folks, I'm already anticipating having to counter the way this phenomenon and this case in particular will be overemphasized and used as an example to discredit legitimate examples of violence and oppression.
Not to say McWhorter is wrong, my instinct is that he is right and calling out an over-correction that truly does happen. But these over-corrections are not representative of the overall work. As advocates I believe we need to read his excellent piece and be ready for folks pointing to this incident and this phenomenon as reasons to discredit legitimate voices.
The work continues.