I love my work. I love having the opportunity to tell diverse Black stories—and stories that impact Black people. I also love the democracy of digital media, an ever-changing space that allows people of all creeds, colors and backgrounds to serve as storytellers, content creators and influencers. As an active Twitter user since 2008, I have been able to share stories with and from people all across the world. I have debated, I have ranted, I have listened—and I have learned. I have also not only developed a loyal and remarkably kind group of e-friends, readers and supporters, but I have connected with people with whom I might not typically befriend or engage, many of whom who have fiercely different perspectives than my own.
There have been nearly 20,000 tweets with the #StandwithJamilah hashtag following the events of last week. I do not have words to express the gratitude I have for the individuals who have raised their voices publicly and privately to ‘stand’ with me after I was attacked, or in Internet parlance, trolled following my exchange with RNC Deputy Press Secretary Raffi Williams—an exchange that was largely reported with gross factual inaccuracies by news outlets both large and small. After thousands of negative Tweets, emails and phone calls to and about both my employer and I—in which I was repeatedly called names ranging from the strange (“socialist,” “Marxist,” “plantation mistress,”) to the downright sexist and racist (“c-nt,” “b-tch,” “n-gger”) and even calls for me to be raped, robbed and beaten—I am sustained by the kind, supportive words I have received from so many people, women and men of all races.
I want to affirm, for any who may doubt, that I have very strong feelings about how my words were twisted to fit the agenda of others. (This is not new territory—ask Shirley Sherrod, Melissa Harris Perry, Anthea Butler…I suppose I should take some pride in now being counted among this principled group.) But, right now, this isn’t about my feelings. Even though so much of this seems like it is about me, Jamilah Lemieux, it most certainly isn’t. This debacle is largely a commentary on the evolving concept of being an employed individual on social media—and the ever-shifting line between public and private. It highlights the importance of employees being mindful of such at all times, whether that feels “fair” or not. This is not about the First Amendment, this is about corporate ethics and the challenges that face those of us who represent major media brands.
In theory, I should be able to say whatever I want on my personal social media accounts and everyone should understand and respect that my words are not the words of Johnson Publishing Company, nor EBONY. That is not the world we live in. That is not reality. And while a quip about a TV show or anecdote about a date may go by without much controversy, “snarking” those who don’t share my political views left me open to attack. And in an era during which there are people who live for nothing more than the opportunity to tear down a brand or an individual who is, perhaps, more confident or more accomplished than themselves, we all have a responsibility to protect ourselves and our careers from a useless war.
In all honestly, JPC has a more liberal approach to social media than many other companies; we are lucky not to be subjected to the over-policing that finds some writers’ Twitter feeds looking as dry as unbuttered toast. And this has allowed me to be my sarcastic, irreverent and outspoken self—something that has been a benefit to our online traffic. But it also allowed for me to feel comfortable being largely unfiltered. And I regret the comments in question, simply because the black eye on EBONY wasn’t worth it. It is hard to be both private and public. This is a dance I will master, post-haste. The people and the company who have supported me so greatly deserve that.
The EBONY brand is much bigger than me, bigger than any one individual—even our founder John H. Johnson, who was indeed the first to speak to Black “somebodiness.” And when you put such a powerful, historic name on your back, you are expected to represent it at all times. Ironically, at the time of our exchange, Raffi Williams had the disclaimer “Tweets do not represent my employer” in his bio, as did I (albeit worded differently), but he, his employer, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus and other members of the Conservative community argued unequivocally that my tweets did represent my employer.
Is that fair? No!
Is there a double standard when it comes to when Twitter snark is fair game? Note this tweet from the Fox and Friends show account to me and answer for yourself:
— FOX & Friends (@foxandfriends) March 28, 2014
Is any member of the media who has identified themselves by their position subject to exactly what happened to me? (And by extension, is the media company I represent—a Black-owned and operated one—under incredible pressure to make clear to potential advertisers that they are above the fray?) Yes!
Dear #StandwithJamilah friends, this is the truth. And it is what makes the official EBONY statement in response to my personal Twitter exchange an inconvenient truth. Alas, EBONY stands by it. And I understand it.
When Raffi Williams attempted a debate that I wanted no parts of (not at that moment, at least) by suggesting that I had failed my obligation to the community for rejecting said debate, I became very quickly frustrated and bothered. I simply didn’t handle the exchange in the best way. I could have felt those feelings and handled the intrusion into my mentions differently. Still, should we ignore the fact that liberals, progressives, people of color and women are most likely to be attacked the way that I was in these situations? And that our jobs are often the most vulnerable?
Of course not.
However, no one editor at this publication can take so lightly their exchanges and behavior in the public sphere, for the cost can simply be too great. EBONY can only continue to advocate for Black people if it is viable; we cannot celebrate diverse Black perspective if the lights are not on—it takes both community and commercial interest to do that. My truth is my truth and my opinions are my opinions. They are valid and I believe them to be valuable. The fact remains that my truth and my opinions are in large part are the reason I was selected to be an advocacy journalist in this space. Therefore, I do not ever wish for a Twitter exchange to stand in the way of the important work we do each day. I do not take lightly that I was given the opportunity to launch a career here and within two years, step into the role of Senior Editor—something that might’ve eluded me at most mainstream publications. I only hope that my supporters understand the importance of having a voice like mine at EBONY.com, and that they will not allow their feelings about this situation to hinder their support of the EBONY brand.
We at EBONY love and live for our audience. Black people from across the Diaspora and across all political belief systems are the reason that we are approaching 70 years in print. However, the fragility of the publishing business is not to be taken lightly. Righteous indignation will not feed my child, nor will it guarantee this legacy brand another 70 years of existence. There are particular difficulties of sustaining a Black media business, and that we have been able to do so for this long and still represent the best in Blackness and still hire a Jamilah Lemieux, is to be lauded. It isn’t that we are above making mistakes, but I would hope that both the company and the individual have expressed their unwavering commitment to Black people and Black stories in ways that need no convincing. And that you all understand that we have always advocated for what we discern to be, based on years of engaging with our audience, for the greater good of our people. It is true that diverse Black thought is welcome here; it always has been. It is equally true that we measure political objectives and policies against the potential positive or negative impact they have on most African Americans.
Despite the fact that I am officially no longer engaging around this issue, I wrote this because I want you to know that your words were heard and felt at Johnson Publishing Company. We cherish collective action and believe that #StandwithJamilah is a beautiful thing. On a personal level, I am overwhelmed with appreciation for both the support of the community—and the platform on which I address them. And know that I will continue to decide where and when I choose to engage or debate anyone, publicly or otherwise. I am unbowed, I am unbroken…but I will also be far more careful to protect myself and the company I love from those who would use my words to do us harm.
As a post-mortem, I think it’s worth mentioning that Mr. Priebus’ open letter called for “more understanding between Blacks and Republicans.” I will leave it to you, dear readers, to decide if this moment created just that.