Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton laughed at and made light of a woman reporter on Wednesday when she asked about one of his teammates, saying it was "funny to hear a female" ask a question about wide receiver routes. Outrage to his response swirled around Twitter on Thursday, and I spent most of the day fuming at my desk. Many people on my social media feeds pointed to previous racist tweets made by the reporter, Jourdan Rodrigue, as an excuse to ignore the sexism in Newton's comments, while others brushed Rodrigue's racialized comments away.
Rodrigue's tweets were racist. That is a fact. The year the tweets were posted does not erase this truth. Newton's comments were also sexist. The fact that Rodrigue engaged in past racist behavior does not absolve Newton of his sexism. He has since apologized, and so has Rodrigue. But let's be honest: This was never about the two of them. This dispute has always been about the pain and baggage each of us carries.
"To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time," famed author James Baldwin once said. This sentiment, though undoubtedly true in the case of living as a black person in the United States, can also be applied to being a woman, a nonbinary person wanting to be seen, and a trans person just trying to live.
Experiencing oppression is an inescapable abyss that can swallow us whole. The weight of sexism, racism, classism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia, and how they intersect, is not something that can just be unburdened. It is constant. The pain these experiences can cause never quite heals. We stitch ourselves together, but there will always come a time when those wounds are ripped open and our pain pours from our hearts.
Just after he spoke about rage and consciousness, Baldwin followed it with, "The first problem is how to control that rage so that it won't destroy you."
Focusing solely on our own pain and the ensuing rage leaves no room to hear anyone else. What I saw on social media yesterday was hurt people hurting other people, sometimes inadvertently, sometimes not. The problem was not that the rage was invalid. Quite the contrary. It was that too few people paused to hear what someone else was saying to them. We all carried baggage into that conversation, but too many people insisted that their baggage was more important, that theirs was the heaviest.
The reality is that we all do this: We all prioritize our own pain. The privilege comes from not having to see beyond ourselves.
Somehow the situation between Newton and Rodrigue became Newton vs. Rodrigue, a proxy for racism vs. sexism. Dialogue, however, requires us to set aside competitive notions of winning and losing. I don't know the last time I saw that happen in a meaningful way, because it asks us to do something difficult -- to set down our bags and engage in good faith.
It is hard to do that when stitching up old wounds, when your wounds feel invisible to everyone else, or when you're told that your wounds do not exist. But instead of being defensive when someone says we hurt them, or when someone asks to be seen, we need to just listen.
In searching for answers, I've come to "Bag Lady," by Erykah Badu. My mentor plays this song to remind him of what's important. The lyrics are:
"Bag lady, you gon' hurt your back
dragging all them bags like that
I guess nobody ever told you
All you must hold onto
Is you, is you, is you
One day all them bags gon' get in your way"
Quit grabbing for all of your baggage when someone says they have baggage too. Just reach over and help them carry the load. I promise it's lighter when you share the burden.