It may be just one more skirmish in a culture war that is being waged on all fronts of American life. Or it may be that the dust-up and fall-out over one outrageous and vile comment made by Roseanne Barr in the wee hours of Tuesday morning is a microcosm of where we find ourselves in America today. At least, that seems to be a perspective offered by Dictionary.com on Twitter.
In case you missed this whole thing, the sitcom star blew up Twitter, and eventually her #1 hit show’s position as the cornerstone of the ABC Fall lineup, when she said Valerie Jarrett was the baby of “muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes” in a now-deleted tweet.
For those who aren’t familiar, Valerie Jarrett is an African-American who most notably served as a senior advisor to President Obama. Her tenure lasted his entire 8-year administration. Fun fact, she was born in Iran, to American parents, which of course makes her an American citizen.
If you believe Barr calling this woman an ape was NOT meant as a racial slur against people of color, you probably should have attended the racial bias training Starbucks conducted in all of its stores on Tuesday as this Roseanne Barr drama unfolded. (We’re not even going to start unpacking the reference to the Islamic group part of the insult.)
No one, not even Barr herself, could justify such an indefensible tweet. Only an hour later she deleted it and issued a number of apology attempts regarding the “bad joke.” While retweeting their messages of support, she repeatedly told her followers she was wrong. It was not enough.
Mere minutes into the workday, Wanda Sykes, herself a comedian and actress who was a consulting producer on this year’s reboot of the Roseanne show, announced she had quit. There was mounting pressure on ABC and Disney, the network which aired the show and its parent company, to not only address the issue, but to also fire Roseanne Barr.
Which is exactly what they did early Tuesday afternoon in a statement calling the comments “abhorrent, repugnant, and inconsistent with our values” by ABC President Channing Dungey. It’s fair to point out ABC obviously knew Barr had a history of some rather repugnant behavior in the past, yet they greenlighted the show’s reboot. Still, they get credit for pulling the plug on a show which had not only been successful enough to renew for a second season, but which they had also put at the front of their showcase of shows for the Fall lineup.
Other members of Roseanne’s cast and creative team weighed in, agreeing with the network’s decision. Many noted that while they were sad about the show ending, it had less to do with losing a job as much as it had to do with losing a show that had tremendous potential to open productive dialogue about all that divides us — one reason why this story is getting so much attention.
The story might have ended there, except by Wednesday Barr was trying to back further away from the undeniably racist, islamophobic, and xenophobic series of comments made the previous day by saying she had been under the influence of Ambien while tweeting.
Sanofi, the maker of the sleep aid, was having none of that. The company released a statement which read, in part, “While all pharmaceutical treatments have side effects, racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication.”
Admittedly, that was a brilliant bit of public relations by the drug maker. However, the award for best response to Barr’s excuse may need to go to Dictionary.com.
In a tweet defining “ambient,” they suggested it wasn’t so much the sleep aid as the climate of our society that led Barr to believe her comment could be well-received, or at worst, a lame but acceptable joke.
So why has the line of what is acceptable been blurred to the point of being erased?
In looking for a reason, one could point to the office of President, which has lost its moral compass, currently occupied by a man who makes outrageous and false claims regarding groups based on their race, religion, or country of origin.
And yet, like Starbucks’ decision to provide racial bias training for all their employees, perhaps this incident provides hope. As Valerie Jarrett herself said, it is a teachable moment. This is a moment where an overwhelming number of people saw this blatant racism and challenged it. Rather than look for excuses, we redrew the line and declared there was only one choice: such language and behavior will not be tolerated.
As we teach our children, if you say something icky or mean, you cannot brush it off by claiming you were “just kidding.” Words have power, and they have consequences.
Use them wisely, because you will be held accountable for what you say.