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In a little less than a month, Jussie Smollett’s name has swung like a pendulum, gouging a sizable chunk of sympathy before embedding itself into a hostile rock.
At the end of January, #wearealljussie was a trending hashtag. Writers crafted think pieces about the very real violence QTPOC (Queer, Trans People Of Color) face, supporting Smollett's decision to file a report and to be vocal about his attack.
Two week ago, I wrote about Smollett, and ended the piece with this thought: Waiting for the invisible to be made visible through a body with celebrity status means that many more of us are harmed, and die, in silence.
Despite the roller coaster that the Smollett case has become, I remain convinced that fame, and the privileges that come along with it, will not save QTPOC.
There is an inherent flaw to the logic that Smollet’s hate crime, if concocted and false, will somehow negatively impact others who share his identities: It assumes that society was already listening to marginalized voices enduring violence. History and statistics tell us that this isn’t the case and that believing and supporting QTPOC survivors is the exception and not the norm.
Positing Smollett as the reason why QTPOC won’t be heard ignores how QTPOC are systemically silenced in the first place and places the onus on a person of color instead of on white supremacy.
Whether or not Smollett made it up is irrelevant for me at this point. But the initial support of Smollett and the lack of support for other QTPOC survivors unearths a glaring truth about culture. We find worth in the cultural relevancy of a person and we think that their social capital and influence will somehow speak or change things for us. Sometimes, it does work that way and many times, it doesn’t.
“The task is to transform society,” activist and revolutionary Huey P. Newton said in his book, “Revolutionary Suicide.” “Only the people can do that — not heroes, not celebrities, not stars.” Newton makes a salient point. Celebrities are effigies of our culture. They are corporeal representations of our society's engagement with itself.
However, that representation is not a reflection of reality.
Celebrity culture is an extension of the heavily muscled arm of capitalism, reaching to commodify our attention. Their unique position in society make them optimal vehicles to drive forward marketing, advertising and even political campaigns.
That’s not to say that being a celebrity doesn’t have disadvantages. It does, as does every other cultural signifier of wealth and class. But being a celebrity means having access to resources, such as wealth and social capital, that cushion the realities of systemic disenfranchisement.
Smollett's name brought up important dialogue about the intersections of racism and queerphobia and the erasure that happens at its junction.
Before Smollett's attack, a threatening, homophobic letter addressed to Smollett was delivered to Fox Studios in Chicago. In response, "Empire" hired armed security guards to protect the staff and cast of the show and offered 24/7 personal guards to Smollett. He allegedly turned the offer down. The irony of it now seems cruel. The situation inspired plenty of white supremacists and queerphobic vitriol — something the actor addressed in his dramatic Good Morning America interview.
As the facts piled up, it got harder and harder for supporters to find validity in Smollett's story. Tethered to our dedication to addressing injustice, we refused to silence another marginalized voice. But Smollett's actions capitalized on a movement built and sustained by QTPOC, who are harmed the most by hate crimes.
Most QTPOC don’t have the resources or access to be provided with or to hire security teams to ensure their safety. Certainly, most don’t have the connections to get a Good Morning America interview or to drop new music almost immediately after an attack.
In fact, many QTPOC don’t report hate crimes in the first place because of the fear of judgement and discrimination from the police force. The amount of support Smollett cultivated was staggering but it revealed how readily politicians and other famous figures will mobilize when another socially visible person experiences violence.
Where’s this cavalry of support when non-famous QTPOC are victims of hate crimes?
Actress Laverne Cox spoke on this stark difference in realities in an interview last year. “I understand that I’m very lucky,” she said. “I understand that I’ve been chosen. It makes me sad … It’s very intense.”
Although Smollett didn’t create the systems that silence or erase QTPOC, he is now complicit in perpetuating them. He was intentional in his exploitation of his identity in ways that have a rippling impact on other QTPOC who don’t share his fame or wealth.
However, the eagerness with which Smollet was crucified is just as telling as his hoax. Smollett isn’t the first person to lie about a hate crime yet somehow, the rhetoric is that this highly publicized instance will harm all QTPOC. This rhetoric isn’t present when white perpetrators file false police reports or call law enforcement on POC for non-criminal activity.
We cannot expect celebrities to lead us in movement. While they may play an important role in disseminating the messages of movements, celebrities cannot be the loci of activism. If celebrities are centered, the movement crumbles when the person does, leaving the marginalized vulnerable in the wreckage.
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