After losing her job as a TV anchor over her Facebook post about a deadly mass shooting in a Black neighborhood near Pittsburgh, Wendy Bell was frustrated that those who were offended by what she said had missed her point.
A White mother of five sons who had covered the city for nearly 20 years, Bell felt personally devastated by the shooting, and by the fact that some people deemed her attempt to put her anguish into words as tone-deaf.
“These are my neighbors, and these are my friends,” Bell told The Associated Press last week. “The story is we have a problem: African-Americans being killed by other African-Americans. I know it, and it makes me sick.”
Bell’s story illustrates the risks that White Americans face when they broach race online: Those discussing it are met with instant reactions and zero tolerance for the imperfect, if not racist, remark. And, for some, it can lead to real-world repercussions.
Her 650-word March 21 post read in part, “You needn’t be a criminal profiler to draw a mental sketch of the killers who broke so many hearts. They are young black men, likely teens or in their early 20s. They have multiple siblings from multiple fathers and their mothers work multiple jobs. They know the police. They’ve been arrested.”
She also praised a Black restaurant worker, observing that he went about his work “with a rhythm and a step that gushed positivity,” which also drew criticism.
Bell later apologized, saying she understood her words were “insensitive and could be viewed as racist,” but the damage had already been done.
Dom Mazzotta, a White man in his 60s who grew up near Wilkinsburg, the site of the shooting that killed five people and an unborn child, said Bell “didn’t say it right, but that’s not a reason to crucify somebody.”
“We’re coming to the point that we’re forced to talk past each other,” he said. “Because I’m White, I can’t comment on a problem in a racial neighborhood? Why is it off limits?”
Damon Young, an African-American native of Pittsburgh, was offended by the tone and content of Bell’s remarks.
“This is the perfect example of back-patting, well-meaning white obliviousness,” said Young, whose post about Bell on his blog VerySmartBrothas.com attracted more than 200,000 unique visitors.
For public figures, comments on race can damage reputations, jeopardize endorsements or, as in the case with Bell, mean losing a job. For everyday Americans, speaking up can mean hurting relationships or risking being viewed as racist.
The past year has seen several high-profile instances of White people who found themselves subject to criticism for broaching race, from Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus challenging Nicki Minaj when she spoke out about bias in music award show nominations to rapper Macklemore, whose song “White Privilege II” met with ire by Blacks on Twitter.
In making her original remarks, Bell was “giving herself permission to generalize about the family circumstances of Black men who commit crimes but also in singling out for her approval a single Black youth whose future she thought she could confidently predict would be a big success,” said Peggy McIntosh, a women’s studies scholar at Wellesley who first coined the term “White privilege” nearly 30 years ago.
“It is hard to recognize and work against the overly confident habits of mind that were taught to us who are White; it requires a lot of reflection on facts and systems we were taught not to see,” McIntosh said.
Young said he didn’t intend for Bell to get fired when he posted about her comments on his website, but he’s not sorry she’s gone, either. He knows her ouster, in part, was due to online backlash.
“The mood that we’re currently in contributes to a story like this getting this type of reaction,” he said.
Errin Haines Whack covers urban affairs for The Associated Press. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/emarvelous and read more of her work at http://bigstory.ap.org/journalist/errin-haines-whack