The controversy over comedian and talk-show host Ellen Degeneres‘ Twitter post has followed a track that has become all too familiar in the social media age. No sooner had Ellen tweeted a gag photo of herself being ferried about town aboard Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt than she was facing accusations of racism from other social media users. In case you missed it, here’s the tweet in question:
— Ellen DeGeneres (@TheEllenShow) August 15, 2016
The photo was retweeted over 35,000 times, and prompted a spirited discussion on Twitter about the photo’s implications, portions of which were excerpted over and over again in online articles about the backlash. The tweet calling it “racist garbage” was popular, as was the one saying “literally I’m black and don’t take offense to this,” plus a handful of others that went to the heart of the complaint:
— 777-9311 (@MiQL) August 15, 2016
— iyonah (@iyonah) August 15, 2016
— Fighting Jurist (@Br_mabe) August 16, 2016
The reaction to the reaction has been either that anyone who objects to the tweet is an oversensitive moron who’s assassinating the character of a great American, or that hey, this is a thing that happened. Ellen herself posted a tweet assuring everyone she’s not racist:
I am highly aware of the racism that exists in our country. It is the furthest thing from who I am.
— Ellen DeGeneres (@TheEllenShow) August 16, 2016
Now, I might have missed it, but nowhere have I seen anyone actually call Ellen Degeneres a racist. I don’t think anyone, even the people offended by the tweet, believe that she intended to offend anyone. It simply didn’t occur to Ellen that anyone could be offended by the gag. As demonstrated by the fact that Usain Bolt himself retweeted the photo, it is perfectly reasonable not to be offended by it.
That doesn’t necessarily mean, though, that it is unreasonable for someone to be offended. If it weren’t for the protective instinct that so many of us have toward Ellen, this gag might be seen quite a bit differently. If Paula Deen, say, or Donald Trump had tweeted a joke like this, it might occur to more people to be offended. That’s also perfectly reasonable, but what it demonstrates is that it is possible for people to be reasonably offended by this gag.
Unfortunately, the overwhelming urge to protect a beloved figure like Ellen has caused people to assume that anyone who was offended, or remains offended, is being unreasonable, which makes this story very useful to people who would like to normalize a whole raft of behaviors that they don’t consider to be “real racism.” Objecting to a photo like this becomes an attempt to “enforce political correctness” rather than what it really is, an honest objection to something that’s kind of messed up when you think about it, and when you’re not deeply invested in Ellen Degeneres.
In fact, maybe that’s what’s happening when other people object to other things, they’re expressing themselves in ways that are completely legitimate. No one is suggesting we punish Ellen by making a law that discriminates against her, or waging a campaign to get her fired. A few people said that her joke had a dehumanizing historical echo to it, which it did. When people get outraged about the outrage, they should be careful about who they end up helping. In this case, it’s people who are trying to tell you that listening to someone else’s concerns somehow amounts to silencing their own.
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.