Notes on a Lemon Drop
I’ve been leading diversity & inclusion workshops in organizations large and small for over 20 years now, and sadly I cannot count the times I’ve heard phrases like, “I don’t have white privilege; I grew up poor” or its not-so-distant cousin, “I can’t be racist; I’m gay.”
I won’t claim here that every person who has ever uttered that sentiment is, in fact, racist. But the sheer absurdity of the claim does give me pause, and one thing I’ll say for certain: being gay in no way prevents a person from being racist, or erases whatever racist biases they may hold.
About a month ago, the internet exploded at the news that longtime Fox News anchor and white supremacist Tucker Carlson had been suddenly and unexpectedly let go. Then, an hour or so later, we learned that Don Lemon had also been fired from Fox competitor CNN.
Whether a strategic PR move or sheer coincidence, the timing of the latter announcement assured that we’d forget all about Lemon’s exit by the end of the day. Indeed, as I write this, my friends are still debating whether Tucker Carlson’s dismissal signals a sea change at Fox News (surely not) or if his absence from the Fox roster will be good for democracy (unfortunately, I don’t think it will matter much).
But Don Lemon isn’t being talked about much. Unless he lands a swanky new gig on another program between the time of this writing and its publication (which I doubt), Lemon is likely destined to be an asterisk in the sordid tale of the buffoonish, bigoted Tucker.
However, I did see quite a bit of conversation about Don Lemon on the day he was let go. Twitter’s gonna twitter, after all. And mostly, the talk came from women, who were happy about the firing.
I did see quite a few folks attempting to come to Lemon’s defense by showing a recent on-air clash with entrepreneur and Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswany, who was claiming that America’s rampant gun culture had been great for civil rights and Black people in general. I enjoyed the clip, but it was clear to me and most casual observers that CNN let Lemon go, not because he disagreed with Ramaswany’s ludicrous theories, but because he was a misogynist. He had been mistreating women both on and off the airwaves for a long, long time.
Lemon’s most recent controversy occurred this February, when Lemon declared that Nikki Haley, another GOP presidential hopeful, was not a good candidate because she wasn’t “in her prime,” a clear example of ageism and sexist double standards, given the ages of our current and most recent presidents, both men. Chris Licht, the CEO of CNN, called the comment “upsetting, unacceptable and unfair,” and 60-year old Oscar winner Michelle Yeoh obliquely referenced the comment in her acceptance speech, saying “ladies, don’t let anybody tell you you are ever past your prime.”
But according to an April 5 article in Variety, Lemon had a long history of misogyny. From threatening text messages and crudely mimicking his female colleagues on the air to insulting them in open staff meetings, multiple sources had much to say about many, many sexist words and behaviors during his decade-plus tenure.
Remarkably, I saw a few folks in the comment threads deflect from these accounts and claim that Lemon was being targeted, either because of his race (he is Black) or his sexual orientation (he is gay) or both. The comments had a faint ring of “he doesn’t have male privilege because he’s a person of color” or “he can’t be sexist because he’s gay.”
And so, it must be said: being oppressed because of one of your many identities cannot and does not prevent you from being an oppressor of others. People of color who disown their gay and trans children are bigots, anyone who posts “no blacks, no Asians” on Grindr is racist, and Don Lemon is a misogynist. Our identities intersect, but one is never a cover for the other.
Many of these folks didn’t cast doubt on the accounts, but rather posited that if Don Lemon had been a straight white man, he’d still have a job, as if that’s okay. Don Lemon’s sexism is no better or no worse than it would have been were he white or straight or both.
Each of us, whether a famous anchor on cable news or an ordinary citizen of our increasingly polarized world, has an opportunity—dare I suggest, an obligation—to take an inventory of where our privilege lies and how we can wield it more responsibly, to create a more just and inclusive world for all of us. And those of us who are targeted for one aspect of who we are have even less of an excuse to mistreat others, either explicitly or through our silence.
With apologies to both Francis Church and Harvey Fierstein: Yes, Virginia Hamm, you can be racist, sexist, transphobic, ableist, antisemitic, or anything else under the sun. But you can also choose not to be. ▼
Eric Peterson is Interim Managing Editor of Amble Press, a novelist (Loyalty, Love & Vermouth), and a diversity, equity, and inclusion practitioner. In his spare time, he hosts a podcast, The Rewind Project.