Why ABC shouldn’t be praised for firing Roseanne

Actress and comedian Roseanne Barr during an appearance on Jimmy Falon's show earlier this year.
Actress and comedian Roseanne Barr during an appearance on Jimmy Falon's show earlier this year.

Last night social media networks and news outlets were ablaze with news about Roseanne – and for all the wrong reasons.

Kate Aurthur from Buzzfeed reports that popular TV network ABC cancelled her show following a racist tweet in which the actress directed bigoted and derogatory remarks towards Valerie Jarrett, former advisor to Barack Obama.

In the tweet she compares Jarrett to an ape and refers to the Muslim community as a brotherhood. Her tweet was in response to an already suspicious conspiracy-theorist source which claimed that Valerie played a role in helping to cover up CIA spying.

Not a good look.

Her first response was to be defensive and claim it was a joke.

But here’s the thing – black people have had to put up with hurtful monkey and ape references for over a hundred years. And still the dehumanisation of black people persists.

You don’t get to call someone an ape and shrug it off as a joke. Especially not if that’s never, ever in the entirety of your privileged existence formed part of your life experience.

Just earlier this year, international retailer H&M had to learn this the hard way when they posted a picture of a young black boy modelling a hoodie with the phrase “Coolest monkey in the jungle.”

Needless to say the backlash was fierce, especially in South Africa where EFF members staged protests and trashed some of the branches.

The heated response is a strong indicator that a big source of hurt and frustration from black communities is that there can be such a lack of empathy and disregard for how hurtful a phrase that’s rooted in stripping black people of their humanity is.

Social media has been quite divided in terms of how ABC has responded. On the one hand, many people are applauding them for taking such firm and decisive action.

READ MORE: How to call out problematic family and friends

 On the other, some are up in arms decrying the fuss - "how dare liberal folk be offended by a joke" and "whatever happened to free speech". 

I am not going to sully this piece with any of their opinions because the point that is so glaringly being missed here is that a) this wasn’t a joke and b) a “joke” that punches down usually carries with it the intent of hurting the marginalised.

It comes as no surprise that many of the people defending Roseanne are ardent Trump supporters (I stumbled across one user whose very name shows he takes pride in being deplorable.

The third group of responders have been the ones that I’ve been most interested in so far and bring me to the point that I really want to make.

READ MORE: Ashwin Willemse, quotas and other microaggressions in the workplace: how do you deal with it?

The thing is that I have no problem recognising that ABC did the right thing. I can acknowledge that in a world where we still have a long way to go in terms of addressing racism and seeing people experiencing the consequences of their words, actions and behaviour, seeing such decisive action being taken is a small victory.

But, the problem as Buzzfeed’s list of receipts prove, is that Roseanne had been tweeting a lot of bigoted things before her show and when the reboot of her show first started running. From being anti-Semitic and Islamaphobic to more awful ape and racist comparisons, the strong visibility of her profile means that ABC should have seen this coming.

And now while Roseanne is certainly paying the price, cast and production members have lost their jobs because of her.

While she has since apologised (although that apology has been marred by the fact that she keeps retweeting people who are defending her – we really need to talk about apologies by the way), the big lesson here is that being a controversial figure shouldn’t be the benchmark for being employable.

WATCH: Roseanne cancelled after racist tweet; Valerie Jarrett responds

As bestselling author Roxane Gay notes in her opinion piece for the New York Times, Roseanne may have lost credibility and her job, but the culture that has enabled this behaviour is still prevalent.

We’ve seen it happening when a big publishing house first picked up Milo Yiannopolous’s highly problematic (read: racist, misogynistic, transphobic) book, Dangerous, only to drop it when reports emerged of Milo appearing to endorse sex between older men and young boys.

READ MORE: Sean Penn’s new book includes a #MeToo movement poem - and it’s every bit as awful as you’d imagine it to be

And I’m doubly sure we’re going to see it again.

The problem is that this narrative is driving the idea that being controversial takes priority over the dignity and humanity of the people they’re hurting.

And in any case, as Roxane adds, the problem with Roseanne’s character in her rebooted show portrayed her as a Trump supporter, inevitably providing a platform that while attempting to address racism and xenophobia, only seems to endorse it.

So yes, ABC you did the right thing, but you don’t get any cookies for a situation that could have been avoided that has now resulted in great offense and lost jobs.

Sign up to W24’s newsletters so you don't miss out on any of our hot stories and giveaways.

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For only R75 per month, you have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today.
Subscribe to News24
Voting Booth
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
Yes, I believed it was authentic
7% - 395 votes
Yes, I didn't want to spend that much money on the original item
20% - 1138 votes
No, I always shop at reputable stores
13% - 752 votes
No, I don't wear designer clothing
60% - 3438 votes