There’s a major difference between profit-driven behind-covering and making a meaningful public apology that addresses the core issues of a violation or mistake. XXL’s vague statement about the Too $hort video debacle, which Jamilah Lemieux details here, falls squarely in the category of ass-covering. (If you don’t have time to read her piece, know that on a video shot, edited and posted by XXL.com the childless 45-year-old rapper Too $hort instructs middle school boys to eschew the age-appropriate ritual of “trying to get kisses from the girls” in favor of “[pushing a girl] up against the wall or [pulling] her up against you while you lean on the wall,” inserting a spit-covered finger into her underwear and rubbing her “general area down there” to “watch what happens.”)
Now, the byline on the apology, “XXL Staff,” suggests that the people responsible for it are professional writers and editors who are paid to turn even the most mundane and scatological celebrity utterances into coherent, timely news stories.
Given “XXL Staff’s” ability to perform under this kind of pressure, I believe that about 45 minutes of Googling would have given them the information they needed to specify why the video was wrong and to transform Too $hort’s irresponsibility into a vital, teachable moment.
Instead, we get this:
“There has been some recent controversy surrounding a video interview with Too $hort that posted on XXLMag.com last week. Many readers found the tone and content of the interview to be offensive and were angered that it was allowed to post on the website.”
“There has been some recent controversy” makes the behind-covering intent plain because it doesn’t reveal what actually happened. The “recent controversy” didn’t start because “many readers found the tone and content of the interview to be offensive.” The site caught heat because Madame Noire put the video on blast, The Root and The Grio picked up the story, and prominent hip-hop feminists including Joan Morgan are using the Twitter hashtag #FireVanessaSatten to promote two petitions for her dismissal and greater accountability for XXL and its publisher, Harris Publications.
Then there’s the frustrating phrasing of “it was allowed to post on the website.” The video didn’t magically appear on the site. If you’re going to refer to site-posting within the context of an apology, you need to identify who green-lighted the video, who physically posted it, and what in the culture of this publication and its web properties led those involved to believe that it was not only OK, but a good idea to have a 45-year-old entertainer taking on the persona of a father figure and instructing middle school boys to spit on their fingers and place them in girls’ vaginas.
In the next paragraph of the apology, XXL editor-in-chief Vanessa Satten is quoted as saying she “was truly offended” by the video and “thought it crossed the line … The video goes against my value system and represents poor judgment on behalf of the individual who posted it.”
I see what Satten is trying to do here. But it’s weak. She—an editor and journalist—doesn’t name “the line,” nor does she identify the tenets of her “value system.” Without these specifics, we’re left to wonder how her “line” and her “value system” will function in the future.
In the interest of full transparency, I’m going to tell you that I’ve met Vanessa several times in person, and, in 2004, I was assigned a Cassidy feature on her watch. I didn’t write that story because the rapper placed his palm on my inner thigh and eased his thumb dangerously close to my own vagina during a car-ride from his photo shoot to his record label. Shaken, ashamed and furious, I called Vanessa from the label to explain why I couldn’t stand to write the feature. She was decent about it; she didn’t try to coerce me or claim that sexual harassment was just part of the business. But she did assign the story to another writer and, as far as I know, Cassidy was in no way penalized by XXL.
Nearly 10 years later and equipped with more wisdom, additional streams of income and better publishing opportunities, I see how I could have pushed harder. I didn’t have to be the shaken victim of a hostile work environment groped out of a check. But my and similar failures to act don’t absolve Satten from her responsibility to spell out internally and publicly what she won’t tolerate. She’s the boss. If she’s not clear and transparent about where her line is and where her values lie, how will Too $hort and adults with judgment as poor as “the individual who posted” the video truly get the message?
This brings me to Too $hort’s portion of the apology, which begins with the odious, should-be-left-in-kindergarten phrase, “I want to apologize to anyone I may have offended.” An excerpt:
“…When I got on camera I was in Too $hort mode and had a lapse of judgement [sic]. I would never advise a child or young man to do these things, it’s not how I get down. Although I have made my career on dirty raps, I have worked over the years to somewhat balance the content of my music with giving back to the community. … If you’re a young man or a kid who looks up to me, don’t get caught up in the pimp, player, gangster hip-hop personas. Just be yourself.”
First of all, this is untrue. Too $hort, an elder statesman in the rap game, has made a career of portraying himself like a pimp. While he doesn’t have the youth on lock the way a Jay-Z does, the entire premise of his XXL video series was that a younger generation of artists and fatherless young men perceive Too $hort as a parental figure. For him to claim that he hasn’t instructed younger males to participate in age-inappropriate and potentially coercive sexual behavior is a Mitt Romney-level flip-flop.
More important than Too $hort’s previous record, is his attempt to use “giving back to the community” as a defense. I don’t expect Too $hort to have the language to address what rape victims, scholars, activists and feminist writers and bloggers call “rape culture.”
What I do expect from him is more reflection. Claiming to have gone into “Too $hort mode,” as if he’d been possessed by Pimpin’ Satan isn’t enough. Broad claims of community service aren’t, either.
Learn you something, Too $hort! Then find an anti-rape organization that serves Black, Latina and other girls of color or provides anti-sexist training for men and write them a check. A big one. (Three that come to my mind: Chicago-based A Long Walk Home, Brookyn-based Girls for Gender Equity, and the DC-based national organization, Men Can Stop Rape.)
Bottom line: The editors behind “XXL Staff,” the magazine’s editor-in-chief, and Todd “Too $hort” Shaw are capable of much more than what they’ve displayed in the damage-control phase of this debacle. Given their capability for storytelling, this vague, ass-covering apology is a slap in the face to every adolescent boy and girl who has been sexualized by a grown man; to every middle school girl in the ‘hood being harassed by boys who have been miseducated by a chronological adult; to every boy being teased or ignored because he doesn’t use overt sexual harassment to prove his masculinity; to every child who is surrounded by coercive and confusing sexual imagery while being denied comprehensive sexuality education; to every mother, father or grandmother trying to keep their girls safe from sexual assault and their boys from becoming unwitting perpetrators or observers of it; and to little girls who have been branded as “fast” and therefore OK to violate. I hope all of the adults involved step it up before they do even more damage.
Akiba Solomon is an NABJ-Award winning writer, freelance journalist, editor and essayist from West Philadelphia. She writes about the intersection between gender and race for Colorlines and is the co-editor of Naked: Black Women Bare All About Their Skin, Hair, Hips, Lips, and Other Parts .