I wanted to write about the Jussie Smollett situation when I first heard the accusations that he was assaulted by two men in Chicago who yelled racist and homophobic slurs at him. I wanted to write about how the incident was an example of why homophobic jokes are never just jokes. About how we pave the way for anti-Black and anti-LGBT violence.
That’s still true, by the way. But the more I dug into the Jussie accusations and his side of the story, the more skeptical I became. I feared that writing an article using him as the fulcrum for a discussion about the violence that impacts Black queer folk in America might be torn apart by the fact I was becoming more convinced his story wasn’t true. So I didn’t write anything. I waited. I listened to the evidence. And now, it’s just hard to find a scenario in which Smollett comes out as having told the truth.
But Jussie and his individual act of seeming manipulative dishonesty have resulted in weeks of incendiary back-and-forth that has only reminded us of the worst inclinations of those around us.
So what did we learn? Let’s start with what we didn’t learn.
We didn’t learn that there are those who will leverage their space as allies who gain our trust and use that leverage to harm us in ways we didn’t think were imaginable. If it’s proven that Jussie Smollett lied, then he committed an act of violence against the Black LGBT community. He abused the trust he’s gained over the past five years as an activist. Because let’s be clear: A lot of people believed Jussie’s story because Jussie told the story and he’d earned the credibility to be believed. If any number of other people had told the story then those who rallied behind Jussie would have surely relied on the evidence present before speaking out. Jussie was loved because we thought Jussie loved us in a way that would stop him from harming us like he did. But, as mentioned, people will abuse that love. We didn’t learn that this week, because we already knew that.
We didn’t learn that celebrating the idea that Jussie lied is cruel, but people will celebrate having their beliefs affirmed more than caring about who those beliefs impact. Nobody wins by Jussie lying. Black men who felt attacked and are now proven right are taking victory laps. Racists who want to make us believe that racism doesn’t exist are taking victory laps. Homophobic people who want to downplay how we’ve destroyed so many LGBT people’s lives are taking victory laps. But really the only humane reaction here is ultimately sadness if it is revealed that Jussie manipulated so many people.
We didn’t learn that the worst among us will use this lie to justify their refusal to believe the plight of subjugated people around us lead life-threatening existences for simply living in their truth. There has been, and will persist, a fear that this lie – if proven to be just that – will only be fodder for people who already want to dismiss claims of racist and homophobic violence. Those people aren’t suddenly skeptical. They always have been and will just use this to confirm their hatred. We already knew that would happen.
We didn’t learn that the police suddenly become reliable sources of information to those who simply want to reaffirm their hatred. We already knew that.
Jussie’s story was always unlikely: the 2am trip to Subway; the noose around his neck; the lack of video evidence. It was always a convergence of unlikely circumstances for his story to be real. But you know what is just as unlikely? The idea that Jussie Smollett concocted a scheme because he was getting written off of a TV show. However, that was the story peddled by right-wing sites whose sole purpose was to discredit Smollett as a way to discredit actual Black and queer victims of violence. Discernment has to work both ways and refusing to believe Smollet’s story then believing unsourced stories that sound more like alt-right fan fiction than anything grounded in facts is an intentional refusal to discern. That’s just using white supremacist outlets to confirm your own hatred. But this isn’t new information as we’ve seen those who view liberation solely through cisgendered lenses yell about police misinformation when Black men are killed by cops but will ask us to defer to the letter of the law when a Bill Cosby accusation gets tossed out in court.
We didn’t learn that the media will parrot irresponsible false information that threatens Black gay lives, because we already knew that too.
We didn’t learn that Jussie Smollett wasn’t the “gay Tupac” because we damn well knew that from the jump.
We didn’t learn that sometimes valid criticisms of Black men can get replaced by performative targeting of Black men that doesn’t uplift those who are victimized by us nor works to hold us accountable for any of the ways we hurt folks. Calling out Black men for our role in creating an environment in which men like Jussie Smollett get attacked is legitimate. Investigating those ways in which Black men have and continue to endanger everyone else in the Black community is something that needs to be discussed as often as possible until changes are made. But this wasn’t it.
We didn’t learn that there are some Black men who were very happy to align with alt-right sources of misinformation because they don’t stand with Black gay men. Yes, there were some Black men who were legitimately wary of Jussie’s claims for the right reasons. But there were also some who are trumpeting their right-ness as some sort of referendum on how straight Black men need to be treated by the rest of the Black community. The fact is there are some Black men who wouldn’t have sympathized with Jussie even if his claims were true. We already knew this because we have seen them defend R. Kelly, Chris Brown and others who have been violently anti-Black.
The fact has persisted that information doesn’t matter so much as finding space to confirm things we already believe, especially if those beliefs are rooted in other people’s oppression. We already know that truth isn’t as important as the cognitive dissonance confirmation biases allow. The Jussie Smollett case has allowed so many people’s hatred for others to find something to hold onto. A space to sink their teeth into and an anchor to for which them to tether their oppressive nature. Learning isn’t the goal for much anyone reacting to the case.
So what have we learned? Maybe the only thing for us to learn here is that there is no end to the depths of unlearning we have to do to get free.
David Dennis, Jr. is a writer and adjunct professor of Journalism at Morehouse College. David’s writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Smoking Section, Uproxx, Playboy, The Atlantic, Complex.com and wherever people argue about things on the internet.