What the Jussie Smollett Story Reveals
On January 29, the Empire actor Jussie Smollett said that in the middle of the night in Chicago, he had been attacked by two men who shouted racial and homophobic slurs, covered him in a chemical substance, and tied a rope around his neck. This week, almost a month later, Chicago police charged Smollett with a felony for allegedly filing a false police report.
In the hours before Smollett was charged—after new evidence cast doubt on his original version of the events—John McWhorter wrote for TheAtlantic.com about the possibility that Smollett had staged the attack (Smollett’s lawyers continue to maintain his innocence). McWhorter argued that the incident sheds light on a peculiar aspect of 21st-century America: victimhood chic.
“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,” McWhorter wrote. “That anyone could feel this way and act on it in the public sphere is, in a twisted way, a kind of privilege.”
John McWhorter’s article astutely delineates the complex identities, social narratives, and motivations at play in this Jussie Smollett affair. The prism of race and all of its pathologies are evident in this story, as is the American fixation with celebrity at any cost. It is difficult to accept that one of our own would betray us at such a high-stakes moment for black people in this country. And yet, the gnawing skepticism that many of us feel cannot be denied, especially in view of the Tawana Brawley story. We are now watching an eerily similar fiasco unfold before us in slow motion and have no idea how to process it. McWhorter taps into the collective unease and angst being felt with empathy and insight.
New York, N.Y.
One might say that McWhorter, by maintaining his skepticism, has acted the way we all ought to: rationally. But those who initially defended Smollett should not be condemned. We tend to believe survivors because of what the research tells us.
We tend to believe black and LGBTQ folks because we know they face patterns of violence. Thus, while McWhorter reads Smollett’s supposed victim status as a sort of twisted privilege, I worry that said privilege is the exception and not the rule.
If the latest reporting is indeed true, it does not follow that Smollett’s entire race, sexual orientation, and political community should be painted with the same brush. All of us—McWhorter included—should be wary of fetishizing the case study.
New York, N.Y.
Thank you for writing this article. I too am black, and was perplexed when the story broke and all the media jumped on it, even though it didn’t make a whole lot of sense from the start. I am angered too that someone would exploit the broken and bruised system of racial and LGBTQ tensions in America, especially since that would discredit other heinous and credible stories about black LGBTQ members of our community.
The attention that this story brought does give way to the idea that we have come a long way in racial and LGBTQ progress, and that is something to celebrate.
In Canada, we recently had our own Jussie Smollett: an 11-year-old girl who claimed to have had her hijab cut by a man with scissors. She was later found to be lying. How did Smollett and this girl learn that their pain is only legible when it is almost implausible? Clickbait culture is surely at the root of this. And I’m afraid that it is only going to get worse.
I think you could have used a little more historical context in this piece. You talk about a “21st-century” phenomenon of victimhood chic, but that seems to me to be either carelessly or deliberately ignoring the long history of white people making up stories about black criminality and staking out a position in defense of white virtue over black people’s lives. Carolyn Bryant made up her story of victimhood at the hands of the perfidious Emmett Till in 1955. Her decision to publicly declare that she had been victimized can hardly be described as the result of 21st-century oversensitivity to race issues. And what about Ashley Todd? Here’s a 21st-century victimhood narrative told by a white woman purportedly victimized by black Obama supporters who went so far as to carve a (backwards) B into her own face.
You might be partially right: We might be seeing a rise in black-victimhood hoaxes because our culture finally recognizes that black people can be victimized, whereas previously that role was reserved for whites (and white women in particular). It seems to be a somewhat universal (if exceedingly rare) occurrence; maybe what we’re seeing now is that people of low character throughout most, if not all, demographic groups are capable of this kind of behavior so long as it has the potential to be successful. But is it a 21st-century phenomenon? I see no evidence for that assertion in your column.
Peter M. Kunhardt
John McWhorter replies:
Peter Kunhardt seems to entertain an idea almost as fragile as Smollett’s—that I am actually unaware that people of all kinds before the 21st century were known to make false claims of victimhood. He misses that my point is more specific—that it seems more recent that some people claim victimhood at the hands of racism because of a sense of it being “cool.” Brawley was afraid of her stepfather, not just wishing people knew who she was or seeking a way to look like an interesting person. I sense Kunhardt is worried that my zeroing in on the particular motivation of people such as Smollett distracts people from thinking about racism and homophobia’s reality overall. But why such trepidation when I make clear so often in the piece that racism and homophobia are real? Why a sense that black people need to be protected from my supposed essentializing when Rachel Dolezal, after all, is white? We can be honest at how striking Smollett’s duplicity was while also understanding that something like that could well have happened to someone. As I wrote, racism is real, but awareness of it should not drift into a kind of fetishization that would make a Smollett more interesting as a martyr to MAGA-dom than as a fine performer on a hit show. Smollett didn’t get that idea out of nowhere.