The dramatic story of Jussie Smollett – the black, gay entertainer who claimed he was attacked by two people wearing ski masks yelling racial and homophobic slurs at him – is a lesson of our time. Why did so many people fall so hard for his account? Because it confirmed a widespread belief that America is still rife with vicious racists.
As it turns out, Mr. Smollett seems to have staged the attack on himself. Chicago police have arrested and charged Mr. Smollett with disorderly conduct. They claim he was not the victim of a hate crime and made up the story to promote his career. Maybe America is not as hateful a place as it’s made out to be.
No one would claim that racism has been eradicated, or that we have no more serious problems to address. In fact, hate crimes are on the rise here in Canada. But it’s hard to escape the conclusion that racial panic and exaggeration are growing while the openly bigoted, segregated days of my childhood have vanished.
Consider the case of the Junior Oil Barons, a minor-hockey team in Fort McMurray, Alta. Three players on the team recently let off steam by doing a brief powwow dance in the locker room. Juvenile? Yes. Harmless? No. Not when there’s a video.
As soon as the video went viral, the threats started coming in. It was only a matter of hours before the Fort McMurray Minor Hockey Association – without talking to any of the players – denounced the powwow as “sad and gravely unfortunate.”A local school laid on extra security because of the threats. Eventually the parents decided to cancel the season early because nobody could guarantee their childrens’ safety.
Why did people go so berserk? I don’t know. Perhaps the racial animosity was already high. Perhaps the issue of cultural appropriation is far hotter than I thought. Even so, it’s hard to detect a crime here. The boys weren’t dancing to traditional ceremonial music. They were dancing to a contemporary song by an Indigenous electronic-music group, A Tribe Called Red, whose influences range from reggae to hip-hop and rap. No one seems to have fretted about how much cultural appropriation was involved in their music.
To top it all off, two of the boys in the video turned out to be Indigenous.
You can probably think of better ways this incident might have been handled – ways that do not involve a grovelling apology for trivial misdeeds (if that is even what they were). But too many incidents such as this induce a certain panic in the authorities, who run for cover so that no one can accuse them of being soft on racism.
It’s a long way from Fort McMurray to Mary Poppins, although not as long as you might think. Even the beloved nanny is tainted by racist associations, I learned – something for conscientious parents to keep in mind as they take their children to the movies.
A professor named Daniel Pollack-Pelzner has explained the taint in the pages of The New York Times. The original 1964 Mary Poppins movie, he notes, has a famous scene in which Mary Poppins blacks her face with coal dust and dances around the city with some chimney sweeps. Innocent? No way. The chimney sweep scene, I learned, is a direct link to the ignoble tradition of blackface performance, which has been much in the news lately because certain Southern politicians seem to have dabbled in it in their youth.
How can a 44-year-old movie, whose link to racism is tenuous at best, contaminate the new movie Mary Poppins Returns that came out in December? The professor doesn’t quite convince. Perhaps a more pertinent question is how a venerable paper such as the Times could serve up such ridiculous drivel. The answer is that it feeds into the contemporary narrative that everything has racist roots, if only you look hard enough.
There’s nothing wrong with being sensitive to racism. Many of us grew up in a world that wasn’t sensitive enough. And everyone has racial blind spots. But what happens when you see racism that isn’t there? You get a story such as Mr. Smollett’s – or the controversial standoff that happened at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington last month. That was the story with the high-school guys in the MAGA hats, which was widely interpreted as an ugly confrontation between one of the boys and a Native American elder. The news media loved the story line and the image that went with it, and that is how a 16-year-old named Nick Sandmann became the smirking face of white privilege in America. Although painting him as a racist was not fair, it will follow him through life.
What’s happened with race is the same thing that has happened with women’s rights and other areas of social progress. As the situation gets better over time, our definition of racist or sexist behaviour expands to include grievances we never would have noticed before. This may be a good thing, but it also means the outrage machine will never stop – especially in an age of social media. We live in the Age of Outrage. Get used to it.