When it emerged yesterday that the Twitter feed of the New York Times editorial board’s latest appointee, Sarah Jeong, crackled with nasty and puerile racial invective, it was generally assumed by many—including her defenders—that she would be let go before the day was over. Jeong’s Twitter remarks were so over-the-top—calling white people “groveling goblins” whose pale skin should force them to live underground, like Morlocks; saying “#CancelWhitePeople”; and exulting in being “cruel” to old white people—that it seemed absurd that the venerable Times editorial board, of all places, would welcome the thumbs that tapped out such jejeune trash.
But it turns out that Jeong is keeping her job, and that the Times knew about her comments when they hired her. “We had candid conversations with Sarah as part of our thorough vetting process,” the Paper of Record clarified, “which included a review of her social media history. She understands that this type of rhetoric is not acceptable at the Times.” Jeong herself explained that “as a woman of color on the internet, I have faced torrents of online hate.” Her comments, she said, cannot be construed as racist because they were “not aimed at a general audience, because general audiences do not engage in harassment campaigns.” The logic is twisted, but enlightening once you untangle it: Jeong’s explicitly racial insults were intended to “counter-troll” her white harassers, not all whites—many of whom, it is to be assumed, are fine people.
This is the same logic, of course, that all racists use when someone calls them to account for their words. When celebrity television chef Paula Deen admitted in 2013 that she used the “N-word” once to describe a black man who held a gun to her head during a bank robbery, her naïve assumption that people would understand that she didn’t mean to impugn all blacks cost Deen her show and sponsorships. But as the Jeong Affair is making clear to anyone who hadn’t already noticed, different rules apply depending on who’s speaking, and to whom they’re speaking.
Jeong calls herself “a woman of color on the internet”—surely a novel formulation of identity—and assumes a veil of protection from criticism based on this status. It’s hard to understand how a highly rewarded immigrant, whose family was embraced by the same country whose majority population she now denigrates, sees herself as a victim. Yet she does, and in fact, a supportive media narrative casts her as a double victim: first she was trolled by racists online, and now “far-right” activists and even “Nazis” are trying to get her fired. Jeong is not racist, her defenders say—on the spurious but now broadly held view that only whites can be—and even to pose the question, or refer critically to her tweets, or doubt the probity of the New York Times, suggests hatefulness.
Just a day after Jeong’s anti-white twitter screeds were revealed and righteously defended, it emerged that she also dislikes law enforcement. After her jar of jam was seized by the TSA in 2016, she tweeted “Marionberry jam confiscated at the airport, fuck the police,” presumably another instance of Jeong ironically occupying the position of the oppressor in order to undercut its hollow claims to authority. Last December, she again tweeted, “fuck the police,” this time accompanied by a cartoon of a police officer being beaten by a samurai rodent; the context is opaque, but surely trenchant.
Six months ago, the Times hired Quinn Norton to fill the “power, culture and consequences of technology” editorial role that Jeong now occupies, only to be dismissed that same afternoon when it turned out that she had once called someone a “faggot” on Twitter. So we have to take the Times at its word that it “thoroughly vetted” Jeong’s social media history. Might the paper have decided to go forward with her appointment anyway, not despite her white-hating tweets, but because of them? Jeong is a demonstration case of what can be acceptably said if you belong to the right kind of identity group—immigrant, racial minority, “woman of color on the internet.” For the New York Times, it appears, Jeong’s hatred of whites is not a drawback—it’s her qualification.
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