Last night, Viola Davis made history by being the first African American women to win the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series.
And her speech was one for the record books.
She opened it with a quote from Harriet Tubman.
“In my mind I see a line and over that line I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful White women with their arms stretched out to me over that line. But I can’t seem to get there no how. I can’t seem to get over that line.”
And then, in her own words she spoke:
“The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”
She thanked the writers for redefining what it means to be beautiful, sexy, a woman and Black. And even acknowledged her fellow actresses of color for taking us over that line.
It was beautiful, poignant and timely. With whoops and screams, the audience seemed to appreciate it. Kerry Washington had tears in her eyes. But not everyone was pleased.
“General Hospital” star Nancy Lee Grahn expressed her disapproval… explicitly.
In a series of tweets, she wrote:
“I wish I loved #ViolaDavis Speech, but I thought she should have let @shondarhimes write it. #Emmys
Nancy could have stopped there. We would have still side-eyed her but she could have explained her way out of it. It was the subsequent tweets that dug an irreparable hole. In response to someone else, she said:
“@nxssy I do 2. I think she’s the bees knees but she’s elite of TV performers. Brilliant as she is. She has never been discriminated against.”
Grahn was immediately criticized. But she still didn’t get the picture.
“@MelioraEsq and I heard harriet y Tubman [sic] and I thought its a fucking emmy for gods sake [sic]. She wasn’t digging thru a tunnel.”
She really did it with that last one. Grahn’s tweets began 11 hours ago and she is still, as I type, being roasted for believing that the Underground Railroad was a system of tunnels beneath the earth, leading to freedom.
Black Twitter is “kindly” letting her know that they were not.
Grahn has since deleted the last two tweets and apologized for her ignorance and acknowledged that she needed to check her privilege.
“I apologize for my earlier tweets and now realize I need to check my own privilege. My intention was not to take this historic and important moment from Viola Davis or other women of color but I realize that my intention doesn’t matter here because that is what I ended up doing. I learned a lot tonight and I admit that there are still some things I don’t understand but I am trying to and will let this be a learning experience for me.”
Then later: “30 yrs an advocate 3 human rights & now i’m a racist. Color me heartbroken. Twitter can bring out the best & sadly tonight the worst of us.”
I don’t know what I can say today that I don’t say any other week. It just surprises me that for all their power, influence and privilege in this country there are White people who still find a way to take offense when a person of color merely references their oppression. I truly wonder why it affects them so strongly and so negatively. Is it guilt? Are they threatened or is it just uncomfortable? Perhaps it would be easier for the collective White ego if we were to just pretend that discrimination doesn’t exist in the entertainment industry and Hollywood at large?
Either way, those days are over. I want to say that Grahn’s assertion that Davis had never experienced any discrimination was elitist or entitled. But what it really was, was just stupid. How dare she believe that she could speak to another individual’s experience, as if she had been there with her through every step of the journey that led to last night’s win? She wasn’t there. She doesn’t know. And though she’s been fighting for human rights for decades, there’s clearly more work to be done when she believes she, as a White woman, can tell a Black woman’s story better than the Black woman who already told it.
In my frustration, I just have two words for Nancy Grahn and the millions of other privileged White men and women who seem to believe Black folks are just speaking out about discrimination and injustice as a way to pass the time: Shut up.
Instead of finding ways to discredit your fellow actresses, women of color, listen, really listen to what they have to say. A Black woman saying she has experienced discrimination doesn’t mean that women, even White women, don’t have a hard time in the game. No one’s ever denied that. But why do you want to silence a colleague when she’s speaking about what’s real for her and others like her? The opinions expressed in the tweets may or may not have solidified Grahn’s status as a racist. I don’t know her. But I do know that the act of ignoring and then attempting to discredit or silence Black pain, experience and triumph is one that is deeply rooted in racism. And I hope Nancy sees that now.