What. A. Mess.
Quick Recap: Jussie Smollett — a black, gay actor — reported that he was a survivor of a hate crime. He claimed he was struck in the face, a rope put around his neck, while two assailants yelled a slur for a gay man, another slur for a black man, and shouted their allegiance to MAGA (Make America Great Again, Donald Trump’s slogan). An investigation was launched, a huge effort by law enforcement, each step carefully reported all over the news. As the evidence was uncovered, a series of twists and turns followed. Jussie Smollett now stands accused of faking his own attack.
Responding to the original report, people trusted Jussie Smollett’s account. Some of the details didn’t quite add up, but folks rightfully stepped forward to raise their voices against hate crimes. Since the story caved in on itself, I’ve heard the phrases “publicity stunt” and “wants attention” tossed around. I’ve also heard people express the opinion that Jussie Smollett must have serious mental issues on board, and I have to agree. I hope he seeks therapy, because my more-than-two-decades as a therapist showed me that the over-the-top level of his “publicity stunt” probably mirrors the over-the-top level of his pain. Still, no matter how chaotic he feels, no matter how angry, no matter how wronged, whatever mix of mental health and pathology he carries — I hold him accountable for his actions, words, choices.
The groundswell of resentment toward Jussie Smollett is understandable. People feel manipulated and betrayed. However, at this point, we enter a potential danger zone and I’m holding up a PROCEED WITH CAUTION sign. Humans have a nasty habit of stereotyping, and this is a perfect-storm opportunity. When a straight Caucasian male behaves badly, the masses tend to hold him, and only him, accountable. If an individual of any other gender, any other racial origin, any other sexuality behaves badly, the masses have a tendency to leap into generalizations, holding large groups accountable for the actions of one person. Jussie Smollett’s behavior means absolutely nothing about black people as a group, or gay people as a group, or survivors of hate crimes as a group. We can’t allow the misguided actions of one troubled individual to shape our views of anyone beyond Jussie Smollett himself. Please don’t give him the power to contaminate your respect and empathy for the soul crushing damage of bigotry and hate crimes.
On my own social media platform, while Jussie Smollet’s fake news was still considered true news, I retweeted a supportive post by Emma Watson (actor, He For She, Time’s Up, strong voice for social justice). As the investigation turned inside out, I considered deleting the tweet from my platform. Thinking it over, I decided to keep it. I want anyone who follows my platform to know that I stand with survivors of hate crimes. I fully support due process, innocent until proven guilty, but I also know that most people who report hate crimes are acting in good faith. My view of Jussie Smollet has changed; my support for racial equality and LGBTQ+ rights, my commitment to raise my voice against hate crimes — all of that remains unchanged.
In Emma Watson’s tweet, she included a quote from Maya Angelou: “Hate, it has caused a lot of problems in the world, but has not solved one yet.” Now it’s on all of us — every racial heritage, anywhere on the sexual spectrum — to make sure we don’t use Jussie Smollett as an excuse to perpetuate hate.
Amy Kaufman Burk is a therapist-turned-author in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Amy’s first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, follows Caroline Black through tenth grade, in a school with over forty languages spoken among the students. The story deals with homophobic bullying in high school, racial and economic diversity, and the power of friendship. Amy’s second novel, Tightwire, follows a fictional psychotherapy from three perspectives — the rookie therapist scrambling to build a treatment — the patient struggling to heal — the supervisor guiding the young therapist through the complex emotional terrain of her first case. This novel was written in support of same-sex parents, to fight the stigma of mental issues, and with deep respect for the human capacity to heal.
Amy’s novels are available on Amazon.