Let me tell you a story about two families. For ease, we’ll call them Family A and Family B.
Family A, a mother with two daughters, lives in Ohio, USA. Living in a poor neighbourhood, the mother was keen for her children to attend better schools. To do so, she used her father’s address as her own residence. When the school district accused the mother of lying about her address, she was confronted by the authorities and was sentenced to nine days in jail and three years’ probation for falsifying her residential records. The school officials also told her pay $30,000 in back tuition fees.
Family B, lives in California, USA. Again, they have two daughters and also wanted their children to go to better schools. To do this, they paid $500,000 to a college counselor and a fictitious rowing scholarship was invented to admit both daughters. Unlike Family A, Family B is wealthy. Once again, the authorities uncovered their actions, but this time their findings brought to light a national admissions college scandal. Even so, both parents have been sentenced to no more than five months, and one is due to be released in weeks.
Can you guess which family is White and which one is Black?
When it comes to the legal system, such disparities between Black and White offenders are nothing new. However, as activists continue to push for change, society is being forced to accept that the law does not treat us all the same, and that the privilege of being White plays a key role.
This acceptance was somewhat recognised by Olivia Jade Giannulli when she appeared on the Facebook Watch show, Red Table Talk. If you’re not aware, Giannulli’s family (along with many others) were caught in the admissions college scandal (Family B as mentioned above) that saw people buying their children’s entries into the top US universities. As a result, Giannulli, a one-time YouTube influencer lost her endorsements and her parents are serving short-term prison sentences, which many people believe should be longer. Red Table Talk is hosted by Jada Pinkett-Smith, Adrienne Banford-Norris (Jada’s mother) and Willow Smith (Jada’s daughter).
This blog isn’t here to either pardon or condemn Giannulli’s actions or her parents’; enough people are doing that already. What mostly stood out for me from the show was a) her openness to accept her privilege and b) the anger Banford-Norris displayed towards Giannulli.
Banford-Norris made it very clear that Giannulli’s decision to redeem herself with the support of three Black women was a privilege in itself. She explained that throughout history, White women have chosen to restore their reputations by using Black women, yet many fail to return the favour when their support is needed.
The interview became even more intense when Banford-Norris further expressed her dismay at the fact that Black people in America face “violence, dehumanisation on a daily basis”. She clarified that the pandemic had blown-up the inequalities and inequities many people of colour face around the world. I related to Bandford-Norris when she relayed that she was “exhausted” and that the idea of giving any emotional space to Giannulli was limited, if non-existent. The reality is that Giannulli and her family will be fine. Yet those on the receiving ends of inequality and inequity face even bigger mountains on the route to achieving social mobility, especially post coronavirus.
Nevertheless, I found the conversation therapeutic. My therapy came from the truths Bandford-Norris spoke, her articulation of the past generational pain clearly guided her emotions. If Giannulli had been Black, would her outcome have been different? My example of Family A suggests the answer.
Both Giannulli and Banford-Norris’ arguments are valid. At twenty-one, Giannulli doesn’t expect sympathy but she is desperate for a second chance, and this got me thinking. When someone recognises their privilege, how do people who have been discriminated against forgive?
One half of my ancestors were slaves. Yet, it would give me little pleasure if a White person apologised on their ancestors’ behalf. You say you’re sorry, now what? That isn’t to say I dismiss the atrocities of slavery and its agonising legacy. Yet, it would be far more constructive to have honest conversations about dismantling systemic racism to prevent only one ethnicity from benefitting. And yes, such discussions will be awkward, painful, embarrassing and both parties would prefer not to have them, but how else can we move forward?
By the end of the show, Giannulli voiced her commitment to do better, now that she knows better. Some viewers felt that she had not gone far enough. Giannulli failed to acknowledge the many students whose only path to college is via a sports scholarship. This raises the question of whether had Giannulli’s family’s actions not been discovered, would she have taken up a space that should have been awarded to a more deserving student?
Bandford-Norris confirmed that her anger was not personal, but her frustrations rested at the door of a system that allows life-changing disadvantages. Giannulli listened and accepted the outrage thrown at her. For me this was key, those who are oppressed must be given the space to express their feelings and those who see themselves as allies must listen to truly understand where the other party is coming from in order to find a middle ground.
I only hope Giannulli stays true to her words and creates a pathway that gives a platform for those who are less fortunate to voice their stories and educate others. For Bandford-Norris, her heartfelt argument has been supported by many viewers, both Black and White. One can even suggest it has set a precedent; progress cannot happen without recognising the pain of the past. Maybe then, both women will be on the frontline fighting for equality.