Thursday, November 7, 2019

Claims of Racism

I was alerted yesterday afternoon to a post by one Chesya Burke, a fellow writer, that mentioned me, by name, and included allegations that I participated in an online discussion back in 2013 about Paula Deen and said something racist within the post. When I first read the post, horrified by Ms. Burke’s vague allegations, I immediately reached out, privately via FB messenger, to get more details because I genuinely didn’t remember such a conversation or what I allegedly said. Unfortunately, in her post yesterday, she simply stated:
"Vince Liaguno, another totally not racist because he's gay, writer also said some just so happen racist shit."
There were no direct quotes of what I allegedly said, nor was the link to a blog post she wrote in 2013 helpful since she didn’t name me—or anyone, for that matter—only referring to people by the color of their skin and sexual orientation. There were two exceptions to this—Anne Rice and her son, Christopher. There was really no way for me to evaluate her inflammatory claim since I didn’t have the actual social media thread in front of me, but there were clear contradictions between her own words written yesterday and those written in 2013 that made me wary. For example, in her blog she references someone invoking the name of the elder Rice—not odd considering the thread was about comments Anne Rice had made about a lawsuit filed against celebrity chef Paula Deen in 2013—and writes, “Eventually, for some reason, Anne Rice is linked to (as if he expects her to bring down her rain of truth on me) and her son is spoken to as if he’s commented (I have no idea if he did)…” Yet, in her FB post yesterday, her memory apparently sharpens after six years when she notes that “I just know that Anne Rice's son joined in at one point.” (Side note: He was never part of the thread other than in passing mention by another poster much later in the thread.)

Hoping for a response to address this with her, my mind was now preoccupied with finding the actual social media thread. Originally, I thought it occurred in a public thread of Anne Rice’s. After scouring through 2k+ comments, I typed in “anne rice paula deen” into the FB search engine and saw Mr. Rowe’s June 2013 post and the 100+ comments. This was on his FB page and a private discussion that only his friends could participate in. The post itself (and I’m paraphrasing here) was about Mr. Rowe’s agreement with Anne Rice’s assertion that the Deen situation was less about racism and more about the public’s bloodlust for celebrity teardowns, with Mr. Rowe noting at one point in the conversation that the public outcry had less to do with any authentic or righteous desire to actually cleanse America of its racism but more with its sick fascination with celebrity culture and people using a public figure like Deen to deceive themselves into thinking that they were fighting against racism without ever having to actually do anything but type a few words from their computers. Soft-targeting was the term he used.

The post was largely polite, with some dissenting opinion that rolled along without incident. Ms. Burke entered the conversation about halfway through, presenting her dissenting opinion, and suggesting that instead of defending Deen (which no one was really doing…in fact, more than one person clearly stated that her use of the “n” word was not to be condoned) that “we feel sorry for…” and listing all of the allegations from the Jackson versus Deen lawsuit. She ends her post with a link to the actual suit. Mr. Rowe points out that no one is defending her, reiterating his point of the hypocrisy of how so many other far more egregious acts of racism, homophobia, and misogyny are overlooked by the media but because this involved a celebrity, it was a “feeding frenzy.” Ms. Burke and Mr. Rowe go back and forth for a dozen or so responses. No one is called the "n" word in any of the posts I read and re-read last night at least a dozen times.

At some later point in the thread, I have clearly entered the discussion and respond to Ms. Burke’s assertion that those in the thread are characterizing Deen as a victim (she even goes so far as to throw out the word crucified, which no one has said anywhere prior) and that she’s actually done the things she’s been accused of in the lawsuit by asking her, directly, where in the actual deposition does Deen admit to these things, noting that these are allegations (capitalized for emphasis). This is the first of my three interactions with Ms. Burke:

She responds, I respond back:

One more volley back and forth:

She’s out, I’m out after that. Was our exchange a bit heated? Ok, sure, a little. Were we challenging to one another? Yeah, sure. But please point out where anything I said was “racist.” So now, after finding the six-year-old thread and reading and re-reading it—specifically my interactions with Ms. Burke—I’m even more dismayed that she’s publicly spreading something about my character that’s patently false. It was by then late afternoon/early evening and I found her email address on her blog. Since we are not friends on FB, I have no idea how or if connection to messenger works so I re-send my message, now with the added knowledge of having located the thread and noting that there are inaccuracies that I hope we can discuss and correct together. I’m purposefully choosing my words very carefully because I don’t want to intimate that she is lying—because I don’t believe she is. I believe that she remembers a six-year-old thread that she’s admittedly not had access to for many years in a certain way—a certain very real way to her. I’m trying to be empathetic to that while not allowing my character to be besmirched, with her post from yesterday shared 65+ times and seen by over 240 people. I send the message from my iPhone—immediately thinking that my email may likely end up in a spam folder.

Flash forward to today. No response as I’d hoped for from Ms. Burke, but then again, I’m skeptical of both methods I’ve used to send the message. I’m trying not to stoke any unnecessary fires by commenting on her public posts, so I wait until this afternoon (about 20 hours or so since I sent the original email) and I re-send the email from my AOL account (yes, AOL…I know, I’m a creature of habit.) My game plan at that point is to ride it out through the weekend, hoping for some response and discussion with Ms. Burke. Imagine my surprise, then, after taking great pains to handle the situation with some sensitivity and not taking it public without giving her the benefit of private discourse, to find my private email to her posted along with her response, complete with a refusal to engage and even an unnecessary F-bomb:

So, now I’m done. Ms. Burke’s experiences with racism in her life do not give her a free pass to irresponsibly toss around character-damaging claims of such—no more than my experiences with homophobia give me a free pass to recklessly level such claims against someone. I’ve found my interactions with her in that thread from six years ago and have screenshot them with my iPhone for all to see. As far as the rest of the thread, since she’s so adamant and sure of who/what/where/when from a single interaction in 2013, then she doesn’t need me to post anything else. It’s not my FB page and I’m not going to presumptively do so. My words to her speak for themselves and can be in no way construed as “racist.” There were 16 other people in that thread, at least one of whom is a quite well-known and well-regarded author, yet only three gay men (one of whom wasn’t even in the thread) are singled out.

As I said last evening on my FB page, I will harbor no lasting ill-will toward this woman. I couldn't imagine for a moment what it's like to walk in the shoes of a black woman, no more than others could imagine what it's like to walk in the shoes of a gay man who came of age during the AIDS epidemic. But my empathy for her doesn't give her a free pass to spew false memories. I will not allow anyone to level such a serious charge as racism at me with no proof and (in their own words) a "six-year memory lapse" without rebuttal, which is what I have tried to do here.

Let the hivemind do what they will. I’m not responsible for what others who don’t know me think. I’m responsible only for my own actions and words—and I would never speak derogatorily to a woman of color in racial terms like the vague ones ascribed to me by someone I have no connection to. Those who know me know that I’m the first with an apology if I’ve screwed up, the type of person who tries to evolve as a person. But I can’t—and won’t—apologize for something that I simply didn’t do to make someone else feel better. I meant what I said in my FB posting and comments yesterday:

"There is enough hatred in the world without me unknowingly contributing to it with some offhanded comment I may have made either in ignorance or one that was misinterpreted within the discussion. In either case, or even if she has incorrectly ascribed to me a comment I never made, I would very much like to set the record straight on this. Regardless, this incident made her feel terrible at the time, and for that I have tremendous sorrow for the pain it caused her." 

I have done and said all I can and am going to with regard to this matter—the public record of what I actually said, how I tried to handle the situation, and this blog post will either suffice or it won't. I would ask that none of my friends (real-life and virtual alike) make any derogatory comments about Ms. Burke or this situation. Any such comments will be deleted without hesitation. Time for self-care and healing.


Addendum to my original post:

I was alerted by more than one friend and colleague that there was something wrong with the formatting of the post on Thursday and, depending upon what device you were attempting to read it, it either appeared blank except for the four photos of the screenshots or you had to highlight the blank areas to read the text. I had written this on two different laptops and then copied/pasted it into the "compose" mode of my blogging platform, which did something wonky to the formatting. I took the post offline last night and have attempted to fix the issue by switching to HTML mode, but (admittedly) I'm not great with HTML code so apologies if anyone is still having difficulty reading this. The web version should now appear with white font against a blue background; the reader view (if reading from an iPhone) should be black text against a white background. My apologies for the technical issues.

Since originally posting this, Michael Rowe has responded on his own blog, far more eloquently than I. I think both Mr. Rowe's account (including an in-person apology he made to Ms. Burke that same year and a corroboration of what I said above that at no time in the offending FB post was the "n" word directed at, used with regard to, or about Ms. Burke or anyone else nor was it used "at least 50 times" as originally alleged) and Ms. Burke's response add much-needed clarification and texture to the original claims still circulating. I encourage you to read both.

I've also disabled comments on this post. After receiving notification that there were comments awaiting moderation, I read two—the first I will address below. The second was from an anonymous user that read (and I quote verbatim, poor grammar included): "Its amazing in this day and age that an unclean faggot like you would call a woc a n****r [the poster spells out the word]. Your Aids diseased ass should know better." I deleted all comments after that, having no desire to absorb that kind of uncalled for vitriol.

The other comment I did read came from a woman named Ann, and I apologize for not having noted her surname before deleting all the comments—no disrespect intended. She mentioned my use of the phrase "there is not a racist bone in my body" that I used in a FB post, which I had briefly made public but returned to my standard private because I didn't want to create an online environment where my FB friends felt the need to defend me and, thus, fanning more flames of animosity. As I said above, my intention this entire time since first reading Ms. Burke's allegations was to handle the matter respectfully with the person who made them. Ann rightly pointed out to me the problematic nature of that statement, which negates the fact that all of us are influenced by the racism that permeates our culture and to make such a statement denotes that I've somehow managed to avoid all cultural influences. I humbly concede that point and will refrain from using that phrase again.

As I sit and write this addendum late into the night, it is clear to me that my participation in Mr. Rowe's FB thread of 2013 deeply offended and hurt Ms. Burke—regardless of what I actually wrote then and or feel about it viewing those three interactions now. She was hurt by the thread and my participation in it, and for that I am unequivocally sorry and apologize. There is just too much hurt and pain out in the world, and I regret that I played any part in adding to it. I also know that words are cheap and actions matter so there are two things that I would offer, in apology, to Ms. Burke as an olive branch: First, that I will earnestly try to consider my responses in sensitive cultural matters such as the one we engaged in together back in 2013 and weighing the importance of needing to make a point in the larger context of how someone might feel at that time. Second, I will make a donation to any charitable cause of Ms. Burke's choosing as a small reparation for the hurt my participation in this has caused her. Although she has asked that I not contact her privately—a request I will respect—she has my contact information and is welcome to email me the name of the charity of her choosing. If she prefers not to designate a specific charity, I will wait one week from today and then choose one myself and make a donation in her name.

Final addendum to original post (posted 11-15-19):

Last week, I committed to making a good-faith attempt to make a gesture of reparation to Ms. Burke for my participation in a FB thread in 2013 that caused her much hurt by donating to a charity of her choosing. Today marks one week since that pubic commitment. In the absence of a charity designated by Ms. Burke herself, I've opted to donate in her honor to the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice. With a mission to "address the lack of funding, specifically for lesbians and women of color," the foundation awards a variety of grants to individuals and groups, much of it in the world of the arts. The foundation has an overall score of 93.72 and four-star rating from Charity Navigator. Although this small gesture does not negate or erase the anguish Ms. Burke felt in 2013 and continues to feel today, I hope this action is viewed as a respectful attempt to redress a painful and deeply-regretted occurrence that caused someone unnecessary offense and distress.