Letter from former Jeopardy! contestants regarding offensive terminology and gesture aired this week

This post has been updated as of April 30, 2021. Please see below.

A recent contestant has caused concern among “Jeopardy!” viewers for two separate occurrences, and we as former contestants feel th need to speak out against the messaging that these choices communicated — either intentionally or unintentionally — by the contestant Kelly Donohue and, implicitly by association, the producers of “Jeopardy!”.

On Monday, April 26, Kelly responded to a clue with a term for the Roma that is considered a slur. The use of this term doesn’t necessarily indicate malice; until recently, it was widely used by English speakers. Current diversity style guides, however, suggest that it not be used, and that Roma or Romani be used instead. Host Anderson Cooper noted this on-air. However, many of us witnessed occasions in tapings of other episodes of the show where questionable responses or mis-speaking prompted a pause and re-recording of the dialogue. This probably would have been a good occasion to employ a similar fix. Yes, it may be an innocent or ignorant reply, and yes, it was technically correct. But on a television show for an international audience, the impact on a larger stage needs to be taken into account. A search of recent show archives reveals that the writers of clues have used the term “Gypsy” five times in the last two years. We ask the writers to remove this word from their vocabulary when it’s not being used in the context of a title of an artwork or a direct quotation. It would be best if they could craft clues that positively showcase the cultural heritage of the Roma and distance the association with hurtful stereotypes from the past.

Tuesday, April 27, was a more widely felt misstep. During his on-camera introduction, Kelly made a gesture with his hand that he has since claimed was an indication that he had won three games. He had, on previous episodes, indicated with one finger and two fingers that he had won one and two games, and no reasonable person would have interpreted those gestures differently. However, this gesture was not a clear-cut symbol for the number three. He held his thumb and forefinger together with his other three fingers extended and palm facing inward, and he tapped his chest. This, whether intentional or not, resembled very closely a gesture that has been coopted by white power groups, alt right groups, and an anti-government group that calls itself the Three Percenters. In a public Facebook post that has since been deleted, Kelly states, “That’s a 3. No more. No less.” His public Facebook profile also featured a cover photo of Frank Sinatra making a similar gesture. This was either erased or made private on Wednesday morning, along with hundreds of public comments on his few “Jeopardy!”-related posts. Regardless of his stated intent, the gesture is a racist dog whistle. Some of the first people to notice this were not affiliated with “Jeopardy!” in any way — they were viewers who couldn’t believe what they’d seen, captured it on video, and shared it to Twitter. Among them were people of color who, needless to say, are attuned to racist messaging and not appreciative that the show allowed this symbol to be broadcast.

During other tapings of “Jeopardy!” episodes, changes have been made to avoid negative messaging making it to air. On more than one occasion, contestants have made gestures during their introductions that were seen as undesirable for broadcast and were asked by the production team to reshoot the footage without the gesture. A couple of years ago, a contestant unintentionally wagered a monetary amount that used numerical values coopted by white supremacist groups and, since the total didn’t affect the outcome of the game, “Jeopardy!” digitally altered the numbers in the version that aired. This should have been done in this case. Intentional or not, the burden was on the production team to catch the similarity to a hate symbol and make sure it didn’t end up on air.

Most problematic to us as a contestant community is the fact that Kelly has not publicly apologized for the ramifications of the gesture he made. If something has been misconstrued, an apology and a total disavowal of any connection to white supremacist doctrines is called for. We saw that gesture air on television. We are among the public it affected, and we are a diverse group of people. People of color, religious minorities, and other marginalized groups already live in a United States and a Canada that have structural and institutional racism, sexism, antisemitism, ableism, homophobia, and transphobia embedded into their history and function. These people deal with microaggressions nearly every day of their lives, through words, actions, and assumptions that remind them on a constant basis that they are not the default, they are not the mainstream, they are not “real citizens.” And that is hard enough. That is enough for them to bear and enough for us to keep trying to recognize, to address, and to fight. That is already a series of walls and fences that keeps us from truly reaching the American ideal of e pluribus unum.

We cannot stand up for hate. We cannot stand next to hate. We cannot stand onstage with something that looks like hate. We are ashamed to be associated with brands and identities that suffer the taint of hateful statements and actions — particularly if they go unchallenged by those at the top.

Executive producer Mike Richards recently said, “I think politically, the country is incredibly divided and that makes me sad, and I really have always thought that ‘Jeopardy!’ is a great uniter that way. It is apolitical and there’s no place for divisiveness on it in any way, and that is what I want it to be going forward.” This event was the opposite of apolitical speech. It was perceived by people across demographic boundaries as a wink and a nod by white men about their superiority. And that speech is out there and the damage has been done. “Jeopardy!” is a program that ostensibly prizes knowledge and education. It would be prudent to address this now to uphold that reputation. Leaving this messaging unchecked will encourage others to attempt similar things in the future. Is the production team of “Jeopardy!” prepared for more of this? Prepared for more attempts to disguise contempt as innocent gesturing? Prepared for the backlash and ramifications should one of those moments ever become tied to real-world violence?

As people whose lives have been largely beneficially impacted by this show and its community, we really hope to see a statement and a disavowal of both of this week’s events, and we would like to see “Jeopardy!” address Kelly’s behavior. We know that contestants sign morals and ethics-related agreements when they prepare to appear on the show, and we would ask the production team to evaluate this situation within that framework. We would like to know whether a sensitivity and diversity auditor is involved in the show’s writing. Finally, we hope to see changes made so that future mistakes of this magnitude never make it on air.

***

Update, 4/30/21: On April 29, Kelly Donohue issued a second statement on his Facebook page. This statement included an unequivocal condemnation of “white supremacy and racism of any kind.” A full screen-shot is below, and the message is publicly visible on Mr. Donohue’s page as of April 30. Mr. Donohue’s original response posted on April 28 has been removed from his Facebook page. We still await a response from Jeopardy! and its producers on the matters raised in this letter.

Image transcription: I’m truly horrified with what has been posted about me on social media. I absolutely, unequivocally condemn white supremacy and racism of any kind. People who know me personally know that I am not a racist, but for the public at large it bears repeating: I am not a racist and I reject and condemn white supremacy and all forms of bigotry for the evil they are. It’s shameful to me to think anyone would try to use the stage of Jeopardy! to advance or promote such a disgusting agenda. During the taping of my fourth episode, I was simply raising three fingers to mark my 3rd win. There was nothing more I was trying to indicate.

I deeply regret this terrible misunderstanding. I never meant to hurt a soul and I assure you I am no friend of racists or white supremacists.

I removed the previous post because the comments were more than I could bear. I stand by the statement itself and you can find it reported in other media. I did, however, understand the fair criticism that I did not include a forceful condemnation of white supremacy in my initial statement. I hope my feelings on that matter are clear now.

Signatories:

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