Smollett’s Motivations: Narcissism or Necessity?
Above: Jussie Smollett speaking to the media after charges against him had been dropped via CNN.com
Despite being a religious minority in the world, I am by no means marginalized at Packer. I move through these halls without having to feel the constant challenges associated with being a minority. Often, the only time that many Packer students are confronted with and discuss the issues that marginalized groups are forced to grapple with is when said issues are attached to a groundbreaking story. Whether you saw it on social media, read it in the newspaper, or just heard it come up in a conversation, the Jussie Smollett case undeniably captured the attention of the country when it broke and forced the issue of hate crimes into the forefront of our minds.
Smollett is an openly gay, black man who played Jamal Lyon on the popular show ‘Empire.’ At 2:00 am on January 29th, 2019, Smollett filed a police report claiming to have been the victim of a racist and homophobic physical attack by two masked men in downtown Chicago. The alleged attack came a week after Smollett had received a letter to the ‘Empire’ office full of homophobic and racial slurs, though Chicago police officers later revealed they suspected Smollett sent himself said letter. Reports of Smollett’s attack sparked outrage on social media from the likes of U.S. Senator Kamala Harris of California and popular talk show host Ellen Degeneres.
On February 15th, after details of Smollett’s story had come under scrutiny, Chicago police reported that they had two potential suspects in custody. However, later that day, investigators announced that the two men, brothers Olabinjo and Abimbola Osundairo, had been released without charges.
Later that week, the brothers claimed that they had staged the attack at Smollett’s request after he became frustrated that the insulting letter he received did not get sufficient attention. Consequently, the “Empire” actor was formally charged with disorderly conduct for filing a false report after allegedly staging the assault against himself. Although a grand jury indicted Smollett of 16 felony counts in an emergency hearing on March 26, all criminal charges against him were dropped by the Illinois State’s Attorney Office. I, along with many others, was outraged by Smollett’s supposed fabrication of the attack.
Smollett’s seeming concoction of this case gives those who already attempt to de-legitimize people who come forward as victims of violence a vehicle. There are millions of race/sexual orientation/gender-based attacks that go unreported – not only because of institutionalized and systemic prejudice – but because often people who are in a position to turn a blind eye to struggles that they themselves do not face will do just that. There are larger implications to fabricating a hate crime, predominantly because those who actually are victims of an attack of the same nature as the one Smollett claimed to have been will be less likely to have their story heard, because people may assume that they, too, contrived it.
But before unambiguously judging Smollett, we must consider why he felt compelled to fake the attack in the first place.
Although I didn’t understand it until Middle School, I soon came to realize that as Packer students we are not always as conscious of the challenges faced by minorities in our school and our world as we hope and claim to be. I gradually began to notice the culture within Packer of only speaking about certain discrimination when specific incidents take place.
In 6th grade I learned of the murder of 43-year-old Eric Garner by police in Staten Island. Garner was approached by a police officer due to a suspicion that he was selling single cigarettes from packs, and died shortly after being put in a chokehold by that same NYPD officer. The medical examiner ruled Garner’s death a homicide; however, the officer responsible for Garner’s death was not indicted.
At the time, as a 12-year-old white child, I had never been forced to consider some of the deadly realities of racism in our country, since, up until that point, I had been pre-conditioned to only consider racism when faced with a tangible, striking example of it—not in the abstract.
While Packer makes genuine and coordinated efforts to educate, explore, and understand the experience of minority or marginalized groups in our community, doing so is a monumental task. We are often only comfortable discussing institutional biases when they are tied to a specific event. Smollett and Garner’s stories, although completely different circumstantially, served as a wake-up call, as I begun to be more willing to address questions of violence based on race when there is a front page story on the topic.
Semeka Smith-Williams, Director of Diversity and Equity, explained that we typically only acknowledge issues faced by minorities when we are bombarded with news stories, like those of Garner or Smollett.
Ms. Smith-Williams commented on Smollett’s case and the allegations of it being planned as opposed to an authentic attack, saying, “Why did [Smollett] feel there was a need [to fabricate an assault]? Yes, there might have been personal benefits. Sadly in our world, and in our school, sometimes people react differently when they can name a particular instance of bias.”
Although misguided, Smollett has raised awareness surrounding the difficulty faced on a daily basis by members of minority and marginalized groups. So many people, including myself, were quick to deem him as a self-serving person based upon his wrongful actions. Yet, the reality is, we likely would not have been discussing the harsh realities of being a marginalized group in our community had the case not surfaced. These important conversations regarding race, sexual orientation, gender, and other identifiers should not be ones that we only have when the topics flood the media. To better empathize with those who are discriminated against, we must have these conversations all the time—even if these are issues that you are not forced to deal with on a daily basis.