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.