How does one define class?
I’ve been thinking about that a bunch as of late, considering how cavalierly the word is often thrown around. Folks, particularly womenfolk, are obsessed with it. What I mean is, I see folks use the word to signify a number of mostly aesthetically (and shallow) attributes like how poised one is in both posture and mannerism; the style and mostly conservative tone of dress; and how one articulates their words and punctuates with the finest of verb and noun agreements. Basically, being classy is about the image of refinement and civility we like to project out to the world.
And it sort of makes sense: women, who smile pleasantly, speak softly and remember to end their sentences with “please” and “thank you,” earn lots of people capital in a society, which still has a difficult time not referring to assertive women, who forgo social conventions, as “bitches.”
But for all of the “rewards,” which being a class act can afford us outwardly, what does class really say about character? You know, how poised and well-mannered someone is on the inside? More importantly, when faced with a situation that requires a bit of righteous indignation, what happens when one’s internal classiness conflicts with the appearance of dignity, respect and sophistication we like to project out to the world?
It’s a question that I wish Phylicia Rashad would have considered long and hard before even attempting to defend her former on-screen husband from allegations of sexual assault and doping women. If I had not made myself clear: I’m talking about Bill Cosby. Not that she didn’t have a right to offer a character witness and even her support to Cosby, who she regards as a long time friend. But it’s a whole ‘nother thing to rinse over the allegations against him – all 26 of them.
And yet that’s what Rashad did. First, during an interview with Showbiz 411 when she said, “Forget these women…What you’re seeing is the destruction of a legacy. And I think it’s orchestrated.”
And then again the following day, in another interview meant to clarify her previous thoughts about how we should feel about the women. With her head held high and while enunciating every syllable and affix, Rashad proudly tells the news program:
“That was a misquote. That is not what I said. What I said is this is not about the women. This about something else. This is about the obliteration of legacy….I am a woman. I would never say such a thing.”
In the interview, Rashad is both poised and dignified in her defense of not only Cosby, but now, of herself. Her pedigree, being the daughter of a Pulitzer Prize-nominated artist and an orthodontist, combined with all the years spent performing in the theater and her signature role as Clair Huxtable, shines through in a way that is almost enchanting. And for a split second, you can’t help but feel like you are getting the imaginary scolding we all secretly wanted from our favorite Black high achieving lawyer-wife and mother of five children and Olivia (Pam too if we want to get technical).
For the record, Showbiz 411 writer Roger Friedman, also clarified Rashad’s “real” intention, writing:
“There was NEVER the meaning in ‘Forget those women’ that she was saying to actually forget or dismiss then. [sic] She meant, ‘those women aside’– as in, she’s not talking about that, she’s talking about Cosby’s legacy being destroyed. It was conversational. Somehow this got twisted.”He also took out “forget those women” from his original article “because it was misunderstood and for no other reason.”
However, even with the clarification and adherence to grace, it is hard to see any real difference in either statement, particularly when during the original interview Friedman also writes: “Rashad dismisses claims from both Beverly Johnson and Janice Dickinson. ‘Oh, please,’ she said when their names came up.”
Rashad never offered an explanation for the “oh please” statement in her followup interview with ABC News. Perhaps her flippant dismissal of both Dickinson and Johnson’s alleged victimization was also a misquote too? Perhaps she meant, “Oh, please. I will have another scone and crumpet to go with my spot of tea. Pip pip and cheerio, old chap. And thank you…?”
In all seriousness, Rashad’s “oh please” mirrors what many sexual assault victims face at the hands of police, the justice system as well as the court of public opinion. The “oh please” tells us that just like so many sexual assault victims before them, Dickinson and Johnson are the wrong kind of victims. Why? Rashad never says.
As far as we know, neither has ever falsely accused any other man of allegedly doping and/or sexually assaulting them. We do know that Dickinson is a bit eccentric and Johnson admitted to using drugs in the past. Perhaps of sexual reputation or other less “dignified” personal behavior is enough to invalidate whatever act of violence might have happened to them? But if that is the case, what does make a victim worthy of belief, or the very least, having their allegations taken seriously enough to be investigated? Is it the actual crime itself or the person?
And more importantly, why isn’t their alleged victimization as important as Cosby’s legacy? Rashad insistence that we set the women aside and focus primarily on what these allegations are going to do when Cosby is long dead and gone (because that’s what we mean by legacy, right?) also highlights how we, as society, but more particularly a culture, have come to value appearance over the actuality of things. We do it with slave owning anti-Black presidents and other dignitaries. We do it with women-hating civil rights leaders and activists. And now we are doing it with comedians.
More specifically to the Black community, we often sacrifice our victimization and ignore the wrongs committed against us in favor of not looking angry. Or lazy. Or dishonest. Or worse, uncivilized and classless. But don’t take my word for it. Let’s consider the words of Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, who writes in Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920:
“The role of black churches, their educational institutions, and missionaries in disseminating bourgeois values underscores the bicultural reality of black existence in America. Stating in the days of slavery, but particularly in the decades thereafter, black men and women lived within spatial and ideological communities whose collective behavior developed not in a cultural vacuum, but in contexts continuously though unevenly informed by the social, political, and economic values and behavior of the dominant American society. Home missions and other self-help activities of black women served to inculcate within the masses of poor and uneducated blacks psychological allegiance to certain mainstream values and behavior. Such values and behavior, especially as related to motherhood and domestic duties, were deemed proper and correct, even if difficult to sustain in practice.”
In my opinion, the adherence to certain values and behaviors, particularly the ones that place appearance over substance, should not be sustained. In particular, when social graces and “class” are used to mask lots of dysfunctional, regressive and even anti-Black people behavior. And while Mistress Emily Post might be happy with Rashad’s performance, I have to say I’ve seen classier…