When the situation involving Jemele Hill, ESPN and Donald Trump first made headlines, I remember being grateful that I work for a black media outlet. Day after day, I write posts that include news about the Trump administration, and in each of those posts, I ridicule the president and his administration while simultaneously calling out the systemic racism that he and his cronies perpetuate and uplift.
Unless I specifically libel or otherwise defame the president and his administration, I don’t have to worry about being forced by my company to apologize for speaking the truth. I wanted that for Jemele Hill.
In the time since her tweet about Trump got the president and his amen choir all up in their feelings, Hill has continued to tweet. She’s continued to do her thing and speak her mind, but there seems to be an air of caution around her now.
This is the social burden of being a black woman with a large platform and an engaged social media presence: People are constantly trying to shut you down when your opinions and your thoughts are too big for them to handle. When that happens, they will personally attack you, your family, the people you love, and they will almost always go after your job. That is what they did to her.
The sad part is, we are talking about her First Amendment rights, and for us as members of the media and the press, our jobs rely on that same First Amendment just to exist. Yet, even with that being true, Hill has been told over and over again that she needs to apologize.
In a recent commentary written for The Undefeated, Hill discusses the experience, the aftermath and the daily narrative that is being pushed about her and her employer in the media.
She says that she has watched ESPN “become a punching bag” as a false narrative about the company’s political leanings gets pushed.
“If we’re keeping it all the way real, that narrative is often pushed by the folks in the media who benefit most from that notion and all the attention that criticism of ESPN brings,” Hill writes.
“But this isn’t about that,” she continues. “It’s simply indicative of just how complex things get for people in OUR position—especially if you’re a woman and a person of color.”
Neither the president nor ESPN seemed to have any problem when Sage Steele said that she experiences the most racism from black people. Steele was allowed to have her opinion and speak her truth—whether we agreed with that truth or not—and no one in the executive branch of our government demanded she lose her job. In fact, it would be fair to say that they probably didn’t care.
But whenever you get online and call out white supremacy or white privilege, especially if you are black, and most especially if you are a black woman, you can expect the attacks to be swift and frequent.
Compound that with having a large social media following and getting the kind of engagement numbers from your tweets that corporate brands only dream of, and you have a recipe for trolls, abuse and threats to your livelihood.
Although Hill is an employee of ESPN and anchors one of its more popular shows, her Twitter account is her own personal space. At some point every day, she gets off work and is on her personal time. While she may at times talk about things related to her job on her personal Twitter account, it is her personal space that she manages. It does not belong to ESPN, and the network does not moderate it.
And so she asks, “Yes, my job is to deliver sports commentary and news. But when do my duties to the job end and my rights as a person begin?”
She adds, “I honestly don’t know the answer to that.”
This is a conundrum that many of us in creative and media fields battle daily.
The level of accessibility that social media affords the general public often leads people to assume a familiarity that is not necessarily there. And because we often deliver information through our personal channels, it gives people the false impression that they are owed our time, our attention, our labor and our words.
They begin to think they own some part of us. They begin to believe that they can control what we say and what we think.
Sadly, all of this has led Jemele Hill to believe that she can no longer freely express herself on Twitter.
“Still, Twitter wasn’t the place to vent my frustrations because, fair or not, people can’t or won’t separate who I am on Twitter from the person who co-hosts the 6 p.m. SportsCenter. Twitter also isn’t a great place to have nuanced, complicated discussions, especially when it involves race,” she writes.
It makes me sad that she’s reached that point.
Last week, the CEO of my company followed me on Twitter. I immediately felt sorry for him, because while I do use Twitter to discuss social issues and the articles I write for The Root, there is also a healthy dose of talk about sex, ratchetness, music, cusswords, incessant flirting with bearded men and everything in between.
Those things sometimes make me a target for trolls and people who just generally want to attack a self-assured black woman and put her in her place. I cannot imagine how it would feel to worry that those same things could be a threat to my job as well.
I stand with Jemele Hill. I don’t think she should have to apologize at all for speaking her truth. There are old tweets floating around that show that prior to becoming president, Trump made some highly questionable comments about then-President Barack Obama. The level of hypocrisy here is astounding.
I only hope that she will continue to speak her truth and call out the lies when she sees them. That is our job as journalists.
Unfortunately, living with the social burden of being a black woman in media tells me that the silencing will only continue.