In a February article for The Atlantic, author and professor John McWhorter wrote about the recent media developments in the Jussie Smollett case. Throughout the piece, McWhorter suggests that if Smollett “faked” his assault, he did so with the intention of attaining elevated celebrity status. McWhorter writes:
The problem is that amid the complexities of 2019 as opposed to 1969, keeping the Struggle going is more abstract, less dramatic, than it once was…How do you make as stark and monumental a statement as a King or a Malcolm these days? With a touch too much thirst for glory, and a tad too little inclination for analysis, one might seek to be attacked the way they were.
McWhorter further states, “For Smollett, being a successful actor and singer might not have been quite as exciting as being a poster child for racist abuse in Trump’s America.” (Note: because McWhorter’s article primarily focuses on the racist, rather than homophobic, elements that Smollett alleges motivated his assault, so will this essay.)
McWhorter’s argument raises many important questions. If Smollett indeed “faked” his attack (which is not the focus of this essay), would his choice to pursue such a goal function as evidence of an endemic trend of false civil rights prophets whose existences thwart attempts at achieving racial equity in Trump’s America?
Or would the problem be that Smollett was able to achieve his goal, and, more to the point, that the current climate in the U.S. is such that his hypothetical goal is even achievable?
In other words, in 2019, what kind of consideration does Smollett’s false report — a needle in a haystack of well-documented anti-Black hate crimes since Trump’s election — merit? Are potentially false reports like his really the oil that keeps anti-Blackness in America running? Or, more likely, are homicidal racists like Dylann Roof — who often fly under the radar until they have murdered many people —the problem?
In the larger conversation about current civil rights in the U.S., is it Smollett’s potentially false allegation that he suffered a hate crime that we should center, or should we perhaps background stories of the like for ones about white men like U.S. Coast Guard lieutenant Christopher Paul Hasson, who amassed an arsenal of untraceable weapons in the course of plotting a domestic mass murder? What is revealed about U.S. culture at large when reports about people like Hasson are buried beneath sensational stories — and, often, rumors — about contemporaneous cases like Smollett’s?
I doubt McWhorter is oblivious to the current sociopolitical climate in the U.S. As such, I don’t underestimate his capacity to appreciate the ways in which the term “victimhood chic” can — and likely will, if it hasn’t been already — be dangerously coopted by those skeptical of claims that America has a long way to go in terms of racial progress.
Consider our mainstream conversations about rape and sexual assault, many of which center middle- and upper-class cisgender, heterosexual white women and are plagued by interjections that those who report sexual abuse should be received with skepticism (and here, I do mean the accusers themselves, and not simply their accusations). In these conversations, naysayers often cite, in bad faith, the fact that there exists a paltry minority of women who falsely report sexual abuse.
However, as with discussions about rape and sexual assault, only in bad faith can we center a conversation about the racial politics in the U.S. on those who falsely report racist abuse; only with a blatant disregard for the current state of affairs can we portray them as cogs without which the functioning of America’s racist machine would cease.
When I initially saw that McWhorter had written a piece criticizing “victimhood chic” — a modern cultural phenomenon that, by his estimation, is a far cry from any that featured prominently during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s — I thought to myself, “That sounds like a real problem.”
In a world where white men are able to gather arsenals to commit mass murder in a country that suffers from a stubborn case of almost daily mass shootings (many of them motivated by racism and xenophobia); where, as McWhorter noted, white men with explicitly anti-choice and -non-U.S. citizen judicial track records are granted lifetime seats on the bench of the highest court in the land; where, for weeks, news reports about the wealthiest person in the world center on privately exchanged pictures of said person’s genitals, rather than on his literal and symbolic existence as an example of the non-functional wealth inequality in the U.S., is “victimhood chic” really the problem we should be worrying about?
Maybe, one day, victimhood chic will be a trend that Black, brown, queer, trans and gender nonconforming, non-U.S.-born, disabled, working class and low-income people can participate in to their tangible benefit. However, if that day ever comes, it will almost surely be because the white capitalistic patriarchal structure we currently live under no longer exists. And that will be the day, indeed.
Thank you for reading! If you’d like to see more of my work or learn about me, visit www.christinayoseph.com.
This piece has been edited for clarity and minor typos since original publication.