Bigots love hunting for situations in which blacks discriminate against whites. And not because they care so much about preventing acts of racism, but because they are bent on justifying them.
On Saturday, scholar and TV show host Melissa Harris-Perry expressed her sincere regret for what some critics thought was an inappropriate attack on one of Mitt Romney’s grandchildren, an adopted black child. As she apologized and promised to do better, she became audibly choked up.
In response, actor and former MSNBC host Alec Baldwin tweeted “Is crying the answer? If I cry, will I be forgiven of all my transgressions?“ As a homophobic epithet (and, possibly, low ratings) cost Baldwin his contract to host a show on MSNBC last October, we can only surmise that this is the “forgiveness” his tweet is referencing.
Let’s review shall we? Here are the verbatim remarks that Harris-Perry said during the now infamous segment in which the Romneys were discussed:
“This is the Romney family. And, of course, on Governor Romney’s knee is his adopted grandson, who’s an African-American—an adopted African-American child. Keiran Romney. Any captions for this one? [Guest comment*] Isn’t he the most gorgeous? My goal is that in 2040, the biggest thing of the year will be the wedding between Kieran Romney and North West. Can you imagine Mitt Romney and Kanye West as in-laws?”
And here are the words, directed at a photographer and recorded on video, which landed Baldwin in hot water:
Despite his clear use of homophobic slurs (as opposed to Harris-Perry’s at worst unseemly comments), in Baldwin’s mind, their “transgressions” are all the same. Aside from the implicit sexism directed toward Harris-Perry, Baldwin’s tweet about her apology highlights something more than verbal foibles—it illustrates the problem of false equivalency.
Bigots love hunting for situations in which blacks discriminate against whites, or gay folks denigrate straight people, or women demonstrate clear prejudice toward men. It’s not because they care so much about preventing acts of racism, homophobia, or sexism as much as they are bent on justifying them. The only solution for folks who don’t want to acknowledge all the ways white (male heterosexist) supremacy shapes our everyday lives is to trivialize, downplay, or equate it with the acts of people who belong to oppressed social groups.
So, weeks after right-wing media pundits rushed to defend a reality TV star who openly denied the racial suffering of blacks during segregation and voiced disgust toward homosexuals, the very same folks seized the opportunity to mock and criticize Harris-Perry for inappropriately using a child’s race as a conversation topic. Sadly, she’s held to a higher standard because she has higher standards.
Look, here it is, plain and simple: Don’t use hateful or demeaning words that assert your dominance over other people, especially language that references race, sex, sexual orientation, class background, or any other identifying difference that affords and denies privilege. In a world that so clearly constructs power and influence along these categories, this can be hard to do. But it’s what we should strive for. And when you inevitably fail, the best you can do is acknowledge your wrongdoing without qualification, ask for forgiveness, and do better.
But the truth is that all of this back and forth about language can also be a major distraction. Rhetoric is sometimes hard to pin down; it can be rephrased and reinterpreted, misquoted and edited. But you can’t misquote the existing racial disparities in income, employment, prison sentencing, housing, arrests or police assaults that Americans of color endure everyday, or the disproportionate closures of schools in black communities and the higher rates of hazardous waste facilities located in minority neighborhoods. You can’t rephrase the well over 4,000 violent attacks and dozens of murders of LGBTQ citizens in the United States alone in the last three years. And you can’t edit the fact that women, on average, still make substantially less than men.
The real work of curtailing social injustice is about more than thoughtless tweets or 60-second TV segments—fighting discrimination based on race, sex, and gender means working toward an end to the material, deadly, and well-established subjugation of entire groups of people through discriminatory practices and policies that endanger lives.
The seriousness of this endeavor is what moved Harris-Perry to tears when she made her apology this weekend. And the absolute refusal to address the plight of oppressed people is exactly why all Baldwin could do was mock her.
*In between Harris-Perry’s remarks, one panelist commented that “one of these things is not like the other” and another noted that the racial composition of the photo resembled Republican conventions.
Khadijah Costley White is a faculty member in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Find her on Twitter here.