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A Scholar’s Perspective on the Jemele Hill Controversy

During an exchange on Twitter last week, ESPN reporter Jemele Hill posted the following: “Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/ other white supremacists.”

In agreement with ESPN viewers who condemned Hill’s statement, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee-Sanders chimed in calling Hill’s post a “fireable offense.”

For Dr. Karsonya Wise Whitehead, an associate professor of communication at Loyola University Maryland, the controversy surrounding Hill indicates the complex role that new media is playing in today’s cultural and political landscape. For Whitehead, Hill’s treatment not only reveals certain hypocrisies but the changing mechanics of public speech.

“This is not something new, people have been talking about how Donald Trump is a white supremacist since his campaign,” she said. She noted that journalists, athletes, and even Miss America contestants have made similar comments. “I believe she has nothing to apologize for.”

Whitehead argued that the vicious response to Hill’s Tweet has to do with the discomfort about being called out as a racist. The problem goes beyond racism, she explained. “It’s that Black people have dared to call them racists.”

While ESPN’s chief John Skipper said Hill violated company standards for social media use, Hill’s colleagues refused to go on air without her. Whitehead said she was impressed. “That’s the type of solidarity we need to show.”

Referencing athletes like Colin Kaepernick who have mixed sports with political commentary, Whitehead said that there are often calls to keep the two realms separate. “They want people to stay in their lanes,” she said.

For Whitehead, the term “white supremacist” also needs to be unpacked. She noted that the 140 character maximum on Twitter does not allow for these types of inflammatory comments to be properly explained. However, Whitehead said that the use of these provocative terms draw the most attention not just to illicit angry responses but also to start a conversation.

“I don’t think Hill is unaware of her impact,” she said. “She was opening herself up to another and deeper level of engagement.”

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