A black woman is 'given' a spot a white woman believes the white woman is entitled to
Is ESPN's Rachel Nichols racist? Should you care?
In this photo, I was speaking to a middle school English class. I made plenty of those kinds of appearances in the Myrtle Beach, S.C. area after becoming the first black lead columnist for The Sun News. I’ll write about some of my experiences about race after being promoted to that position. Today, I wanted to focus on what’s going on at ESPN because it feels so familiar.
Even if you don’t care about the NBA or ESPN or sports in general, you should care about what’s happening behind-the-scenes at the country’s most-visible and influential sports network because it speaks volumes about where we are as a country.
The story I’m responding to is here, including links to the video in question. You can check that out before reading my reaction to it: A Disparaging Video Prompts Explosive Fallout Within ESPN
Rachel Nichols, the host of a popular NBA show on the network, believes the job of anchoring the coverage of the NBA Finals, the highest-profile gig for that sport, belongs to her. No, seriously belongs to her. That means because it was given to a different person, the decision had to have been made for reasons other than merit. Because a black woman, Maria Taylor, got that promotion, it had to be because of race.
Here’s what Nichols said during a conversation she accidentally recorded of herself:
Per the New York Times: “I wish Maria Taylor all the success in the world — she covers football, she covers basketball,” Nichols said in July 2020. “If you need to give her more things to do because you are feeling pressure about your crappy longtime record on diversity — which, by the way, I know personally from the female side of it — like, go for it. Just find it somewhere else. You are not going to find it from me or taking my thing away.”
Think about what she said. “…taking MY THING away.”
Is Nichols racist because she pushed the idea that a black colleague got a promotion, not because that black colleague was qualified, but simply because the company was pushing diversity efforts? Frankly, it doesn’t even matter. But if she isn’t, it stings more, not less. When your seemingly-friendly white colleagues raise questions about your qualifications, it stings more than if a racist colleague did. And make no mistake, Nichols did just that despite people’s attempts to underplay what happened.
Honestly, though, that’s not what bothered me most. It’s the my thing portion of her comments. White people have been in privileged positions for such a long time that many have become convinced those positions literally belong to them. And if they don’t forever have those slots, it is because of injustice. And if a black colleague gets one of those slots, it has to be because that black colleague has been given preferential treatment.
Let me pause and say this for those who’d find offense in what I just said instead of trying to grapple with it: Of course I don’t mean all white people. I’m not trying to disparage a group of people. But it is damn near impossible to talk about race in the U.S. without talking about “black” people and “white” people even though we all know those terms are not precise. Don’t get caught up in that. In a different post I’ll delve into how to better think through the complexity and nuance of race in America.
Now back to your regularly-scheduled program…
It’s a vicious cycle. Black people have been held out of high-profile positions in every industry in America because of their race despite being highly qualified. When a relatively few black people finally get into some of those positions, questions swirl about whether it was just because of their race, not because they are qualified. It happens time and again, and not just in this case. And attempts to right past wrongs are also used against black people.
Taylor could not have been promoted simply because she was the right person for the job at the right time. It had to be because of “diversity” or “affirmative action.” Because of that perverse logical, if a black person is promoted, that’s the first question asked. And for those who think it simply makes sense, consider this: White people in this country have benefitted from their race in hiring decisions in this country since our founding - because black people were being punished for their race. And yet when a white person is promoted, few people jump to the conclusion that they received that position because they are white rather than being qualified. If it is logical to question every black person being promoted, why wouldn’t it be even more logical to question every white person being promoted, given that white supremacy and white privilege are a hell of a lot older and widespread than affirmative action policies?
This isn’t just about ESPN. We are seeing echoes of this elsewhere. It’s why white farmers have sued the federal government to stop a program designed to correct past racial wrongs, claiming that white farmers are the real victims now.
The biggest issue is that as this country becomes even more diverse, these issues will continue playing themselves out. Attempts to correct past wrongs will be described as the real racism and distorted versions of those efforts will paint white people as the real victims, which is why there is a moral panic over something called critical race theory. And politicians and others will be all too happy to profit off all that fear and confusion. The rest of us will have to find a way to see these things clearly. If not, we are headed for a world of hurt. And that means white colleagues must stop spitting on black colleagues who get promotions just because they are disappointed in the outcome. Your black colleagues are qualified, too. They work hard, too. If you want to be upset, be upset that past discrimination that benefitted white people is still deeply rooted in these systems and that it will be painful to undo all that wrong.
Yes, a black woman being promoted because she’s qualified is undoing some of that wrong even when it is not affirmative action - because for so long, even when she was qualified, she would not have received what she had earned.