The Internet is so heartbreaking. All it takes is that one comment, that one split second when you hit enter, and nothing before it matters. None of the thoughtful writing, time spent addressing issues in pointed, careful and generous ways. Because what you say online, specifically on Twitter, which operates at a breakneck and decidedly un-thoughtful pace, bears the weight of the world. And if you work in media, it serves as judge and jury of your career writ large, and its future. The content of your character is irrelevant.
Yesterday, during a Twitter exchange between Ebony Magazine Senior Editor Jamilah Lemieux and RNC Deputy Press Secretary Raffi Williams, among others on the thread, Lemieux told Williams she does not agree with his politics and mistakenly referred to him as white, when in fact he is black. It didn’t go over well with the RNC.
Within minutes, people were calling for Lemieux’s job, and RNC President Reince Priebus demanded a public apology from Ebony, which posted on the magazine’s site today. It was a sad, demoralizing apology in which not one mention was made of the extraordinary work Lemieux has done since joining Ebony’s digital team in 2011. Work that has included in-depth feature profiles and insights and wisdom about African American culture and feminism, all written through a lens of extraordinary compassion, intellect and still-I-rise buoyancy.
Last month I moderated a panel addressing the continued and perhaps deepening chasm between black feminists and white feminists, and how that chasm has manifested on and is perpetuated by social media, especially Twitter. Lemieux was one of the four panelists, each of whom represented a unique black feminist perspective, and it was clear from early on that her voice was going to carry the strongest, the farthest, and the most resonantly.
What’s especially remarkable about Jamilah Lemieux is that even as she will throw down with the Vaseline and knuckle rings, she is also one of the single most empathetic people I’ve ever met. She’s tough, but she’s wide open to the individual experience of pretty much everyone. Her willingness to go in strong and deep on issues pertaining to race and culture, to argue, listen, question, and put it out there, all while busily brewing the thick, complex and full-time love for her young daughter as a working mother, is a testament to the fully conscious way she conducts her life.
Did she make a mistake with her Raffi Williams tweet? Yes, but she apologized and explained, as she should, that she wasn’t interested in hearing about Williams’ politics (not being interested in someone's politics is a personal prerogative), and didn’t look closely enough at his avatar picture to detect his race. She assumed he was white because he was touting what sounded like an oft-heard party line from white conservatives –- a hollow-sounding appeal for the inclusion of “a diversity of voices.”
That’s all. It’s not really bigger than that. And yet, here again, a black woman speaks her mind, especially on Twitter, and she’s demonized. Immediately. One of the most salient points Lemieux made on the panel I moderated, was that in regard to the “angry black woman” stereotype –- whether it’s true or mythical, we are angry, and that anger comes from a place of real pain. It comes from pain, and also exhaustion from doing so much of the emotional work for the feminist movement.
Lemieux wasn’t talking about the kind of emotion that most people in a male-dominated associate with women -- crying at work, moodiness, or god forbid having her period while she’s in the control room of whatever corporate oligarchy -- but rather, the kind of emotion that comes with pushing up your sleeves, making room in your heart for dissent, and essentially digging in the dirt all day hoping to hit upon something valuable.
The Internet and social media has quickly gone from innovative to unavoidable -- this is it, people, this is the new Us. This is how we talk to each other. This is how we write about each other. Mistakes have been made in the past, are being made in real time, and will be made in the future. The more reliant we become on social media, the less connected we become to each other as complex, flawed individuals with complicated opinions and long lists of things to do and lives to change.
Let’s let Jamilah Lemieux get back to changing lives.