I started watching The Bachelorette this season because I heard that the franchise had cast a person of color as its lead for the first time. Plus, I needed some brain candy to keep me company on the exercise bike.
This week was the “Men Tell All” episode, essentially a cast reunion that rehashes the season’s drama. One of those incidents involved a white man, Lee, falsely accusing a black man, Kenny, of physical aggression. Later, it came out that Lee had posted tweets comparing the NAACP to the KKK.
Today, as I pedaled away, I watched the racially diverse cast of men join together to publicly call Lee out on his racism. Black men and white men alike wasted no words in decrying his behavior, and he squirmed in his seat and did his best to talk about learning experiences and avoid the word “racist.”
It felt cathartic to watch this racist white man being put in his place, to see these injustices named and discussed on national television and in the bright light of day (or the studio). But, at the same time, it felt like a taxing spectacle, something difficult rather than celebratory. Viscerally, it didn’t feel as though something good had been accomplished, only that something awry had been, with great effort, set back in its rightful place.
There was something disconcertingly familiar about that feeling, but it took me several minutes to place it. Then I remembered.
The last time I felt the same way was just last week, actually. Tense with dread and yet unable to look away, I stayed up into the wee hours of the morning, watch C-SPAN’s live stream of the Senate voting on the “skinny” repeal of the Affordable Care Act. There was an inexplicable wait for the roll call that teased me with hope I didn’t dare indulge. I squinted at the blurry video and tried to figure out which U.S. Senators I could identify from the side or back, then gave up and refreshed Twitter to learn the details: Mike Pence was lobbying John McCain to support the measure.
When the roll call came at last and the results were read back, I counted the 51 “No” votes on my fingers and understood that the Republicans had pulled defeat from the jaws of victory, that the measure had failed, that for this night, at least, I would be able to keep my health insurance. I didn’t feel ebullience, only a heavy sense of relief. It didn’t feel like a desire had been granted, only like a horror had been spared.
There are so many ways in which our society lets down the worst off among us. A black man on reality TV endured a white man painting him as a negative racial stereotype for sport. Millions of us had our future health care coverage hanging in the balance of a muffled conversation between two old white men in the middle of the night.
Righting those wrongs is important. It’s necessary.
But it’s also laborious and effortful, and it doesn’t feel like joy. It feels exhausting. It feels like we undertook a monumental effort just to return things to the way they should have been all along, to the way that the lucky few get to take for granted.
Of course, because we ask television to make us feel good, when a white racist, after intense prodding, finally acknowledges that his tweet — not even himself, just his tweet! — was racist, is finally willing to speak the word “racist,” he’s greeted by hugs and handshakes, applause and forgiveness.
It reminded me of the way that John McCain was greeted by applause and widespread accolades for, in the very last moment, doing the difficult, necessary work that 50 other Senators had been doing all along.
We all have our weaknesses and our failings. I understand that. As much as anybody, I believe in our ability to mature, evolve, and grow into better people. But I’m going to hold my applause the next time we see a person of extreme privilege do not a great thing, simply the decent thing, after a concerted campaign from those with more to lose. Because, to me, that’s part of believing in improvement. We can do better than this.
I demand better than this.