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Why Hannah Brown’s racism matters even more than Donald Trump’s

Why Hannah Brown’s racism matters even more than Donald Trump’s
A photo composite of Hannah Brown and Donald Trump. (Composite by Andy Dehnart; photo of Hannah Brown by Eric McCandless/ABC; photo of a newspaper with Donald Trump's image by Charles Deluvio/Unsplash)

Dancing with the Stars winner and The Bachelorette star Hannah Brown did not kill anyone this week. She did not call 911 on a black person. She did not use the highest office in the country to threaten to shoot people who damage physical property.

No, Hannah merely joyfully sang the n-word on Instagram last weekend. But what’s explicitly clear to me now, after another week of horrifying evidence of the reality that black Americans face every day, from being threatened for just existing to being killed by a police officer while crying for help, is that Hannah did so easily and without even noticing in the moment. That’s the foundation upon which the violence toward black people continues to grow.

Let me be clear: Donald Trump’s racism does matter, especially when it emboldens and inspires others. But it is easy to castigate and then dismiss, especially by woke white people, because by now no one needs more evidence of Donald Trump’s racism or complete lack of empathy toward human life.

Still, there it came, on Twitter: more outrage about the damage of physical property than the destruction of human life. In fact, he threatened humans with death, the very same people he is supposed to protect.

On Monday, hours before George Floyd’s death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, Amy Cooper called the police from Central Park and told them “an African-American man” is “threatening me.”

That man, Christian Cooper, was bird-watching, and asked Amy to leash her dog. Before Amy Cooper made the call, she used that very thing as a threat: “I’m going to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life,” she told him.

She was making a direct reference to what we all know so well, and which was made clear hours later by the murder of George Floyd: police have repeatedly shot and killed black people, and usually do so without consequences.

So what does that have to do with a former Bachelorette star and Dancing with the Stars winner? A lot, actually.

What Hannah Brown did when she sang the n-word was casually use language without regard for its meaning. She didn’t even notice that she’d said the word until she was called out during that live broadcast.

“I did? I’m so sorry… No, I was singing… I’m so sorry,” she said, according to USA TODAY. While she first expresses doubt that she even said the word, she quickly apologizes—recognizing that she shouldn’t have said it—but also sandwiches an excuse right in the middle of those apologies.

“No, I was singing,” implies that it’s somehow meaningless because it was in a song, and it was someone else’s lyrics. Of course context does matter: If she’d shouted that word in anger at someone, that’d be much worse. But even just using it casually is a problem; it makes racial slurs acceptable, and that just adds to the many ways our society values black people and their lives less.

This is similar to what happened last spring on Survivor, according to one of its cast members: contestants using racial slurs in the context of a casual game, on day one of a game for $1 million.

Julia Carter on Survivor Edge of Extinction episode 8
Julia Carter on Survivor Edge of Extinction episode 8 (Image from Survivor via CBS)

Julia Carter, the contestant who revealed what happened (it wasn’t broadcast), reminded us how that affected her ability to play Survivor. In an essay, she wrote:

“If there was one thing that I did NOT have the privilege of, it was knowing that anything that I say or do will be used against me. I could not afford to step out of character, to be the angry Black woman, to be a stereotype. I have a career that I have busted my ass working toward. I would never give them that. “

The white players could easily be themselves, including using a racial slur, without fear of it affecting their games. A black player could not.

This implicit prejudice is a form of racism, and whether it comes from a celebrity singing on Instagram or from fans’ reaction, it’s more insidious than white supremacists marching with torches, because it raises the bar of what’s acceptable.

Reality TV has been contributing to this for more than two decades now. While there has been plenty of overt racism, there’s a lot more that’s covert. It may not be intentional, but intent doesn’t matter.

Last summer, a Big Brother producer asked a black female cast member to act more stereotypically, while the show’s producers and editors minimized, hid, and defended the aggression of a white man toward a black woman.

Also last year, ABC decided once again to cast a bland white guy as The Bachelor, which they’ve done for 23 out of 24 seasons (a Latino man was the show’s only star of color), even though they had a perfect candidate for their first black bachelor in Mike Johnson.

The show and network has spent years making empty promises, probably because they’re scared that the show’s fanbase is so racist they’ll stop watching, which is what happened the one time a black woman was cast as the star of The Bachelorette.

After ABC cast Rachel Lindsay, the franchise’s only black lead—the only one! in 39 seasons!— everyone from casting to the editors worked to manufacture racial tension and even violence and add that to her fairy tale romance.

“I can’t be the only black female lead and not discuss a white Bachelorette saying the N-word publicly to your 2.8 million followers,” Rachel said on a podcast yesterday, according to E! News. “I have to say something about that because it directly impacts me.”

And ABC and The Bachelor’s choices directly impact all of us, even those of us who are white.

Network reality TV shows are refusing to cast a black man in a lead role in a dumb romantic fantasy reality show at the same time they’re asking black women to be more like the stereotypes audiences expect. That just perpetuates racism.

Let’s talk about my racism

Thom Sherman, CBS Entertainment's senior executive vice president of programming, and Kelly Kahl, the president of CBS Entertainment, at the Television Critics Association press tour on Aug. 1, 2019
Thom Sherman, CBS Entertainment’s senior executive vice president of programming, and Kelly Kahl, the president of CBS Entertainment, at the Television Critics Association press tour on Aug. 1, 2019. (Photo by Monty Brinton/CBS)

Last weekend, I was working on updating my personal web site, and came across a piece I wrote for Salon 19 years ago, in 2001, about the lack of representation of African Americans on prime-time TV.

I’m proud of my reporting in that story, but when I read it again, I was horrified. I used the word “blacks” throughout the story, using it as a noun instead of an adjective, reducing a group of people to a single characteristic. As a gay man, I know there’s no such thing as a hive mind of “gays,” so why would I do that to other people?

I also wrote that the “president of the NAACP” “blasted prime-time television’s” lack of diversity. The verb I chose jumped out immediately at me because of something that happened last August.

After a Television Critics Association press conference with CBS executives, I was mentioned in a story that Deadline published. At the press conference, I asked about the racism from cast and producers on Survivor and Big Brother. My friend Eric Deggans, who’s NPR’s TV critic, asked follow-up questions.

In its story, Deadline referred to me, a white person, as “one press member” and said that I “called out” what happened on Big Brother last summer. Deadline referred to Eric as a “black radio journalist.”

After being criticized for that, Deadline updated its story, and made it worse: Blasted NPR TV critic Eric Deggans, who is black.” Eric’s questioning was suddenly described with an aggressive verb, and his race was mentioned. My questions were described with a much softer verb, and my race was not mentioned.

The story hasn’t been revised since.

I would not write my Salon story in the same way today, just as I would do so many things differently, things that have caused people pain, like publishing a racist letter in the college newspaper I edited.

But I also am under no delusion that my implicit racism has evaporated. When I was growing up, I went to schools where there were mostly white kids, lived in neighborhoods where there were mostly white people, and had relatives from whom racist comments flowed as easily as their expressions of love for me. And that’s to say nothing of the barrage from mass media: show after show, character after character, news report after news report, all with the same kinds of messages.

In the bathroom where I brushed my teeth twice a day as a kid and teenager, there was an image of the Boston Tea Party. I loved looking at it, and being absorbed into that moment: such visceral action, change being made.

The Boston Tea Party was a moment in American history to be revered, to be memorialized in cross-stitch. I was never told, in school or anywhere, that it was a riot caused by thugs, because that’s not what we label white people who are protesting injustice.

That is what former Apprentice star Donald Trump labeled protesters and rioters in Minneapolis. Again, I shouldn’t be surprised that Trump is willing to be so publicly racist, to care more about the destruction of property than the death of a human being.

I thought of the image of the Boston Tea Party when I read Charles Blow’s tweet this morning. He wrote, “It is estimated that the Boston Tea Party, the riot that gave birth to this country, resulted in $1.7 million dollars (in today’s dollars) in property damage (tea). I’m just going to leave this right here for whoever needs to read it.”

I’m a person who needs to read it, clearly, or at least be reminded that so many of the constant, daily messages I’ve been given for my entire 42 years on this planet have been infused with invisible, often unintentional bias.

That’s why it’s my responsibility, as a white person, to say something, at the absolute minimum. To address not just the explicit racism—everyone knows Donald Trump is a racist, everyone knows the KKK is bad—but to address the much smaller moments, like the way my fellow journalists frame these kinds of stories (“controversy”, “claims”).

I wish I knew what to do besides calling it out when I see it, and trying to remind viewers and fans and networks and producers that all of these little moments matter. Because I think they do.

Some people hate it when I call out such moments on silly reality shows. It bursts the fantasy bubble of entertainment, and reminds them of reality. But if we can’t even think about the racism and prejudice and bias on reality TV, how can we begin to address it ourselves?

That’s hard, I know: We all want to think of ourselves as good people, so it’s understandable why people defend themselves with That’s not who I am. It’s why I kept watching The Apprentice.

The same kind of thinking that allows white people to not just use racial slurs casually, but to excuse each other for doing it contributes to a culture in which the lives of black people are valued less. Thats also what allows “good people” to vote for a racist.

White people: We need to do better. And if you’re thinking to yourself right now: Just by identifying me as a white person, he’s being racist!, I’d suggest you think about the last time when your life was threatened because you merely existed.

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means. Learn more about Andy.

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