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Onion’s tweet about young star no laughing matter

Lauren Carter | 2/27/2013, 7:36 a.m.
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” star and...

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“Beasts of the Southern Wild” star and Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis.

At the Oscars on Sunday, 9-year-old Best Actress nominee Quvenzhané Wallis took in her first Academy Awards sporting a fancy blue dress, sparkly headband and puppy purse. Though she didn’t nab the Oscar that night, she was seen pumping her arms in triumph when she was announced as a nominee, signifying that in one sense, she had already won.

And then, during the award show broadcast, news satire outfit The Onion saw fit to tweet the following message to its Twitter audience of 4 million: “Everyone else seems afraid to say it, but that Quvenzhané Wallis is kind of a c---, right?”

With the worst of all gender slurs attached to the young “Beasts of the Southern Wild” star, the Twitterverse naturally exploded in outrage. There were mass calls to unfollow The Onion’s Twitter account and directives to contact Onion editors with complaints; phone numbers and addresses for The Onion’s offices were blasted out in succession. Celebrities and ordinary folks alike expressed their disgust. Many said they were so enraged they couldn’t breathe.

An hour later, The Onion’s offending tweet was deleted. Monday morning, Onion CEO Steve Hannah issued a rare apology via the publication’s website and Facebook page, calling the tweet “crude and offensive” and declaring that “no person should be subjected to such a senseless, humorless comment masquerading as satire.” He promised better Twitter judgment and discipline for the parties involved, and affirmed that Wallis is “young and talented and deserve[s] better.”

The apology seemed genuine enough. But one has to wonder why the statement that so clearly warranted an apology was made in the first place.

Many felt that this sort of violation would never happen to a young, white actress such as Dakota Fanning. Many surmised that if Quvenzhané Wallis had blue eyes and white skin and her name was Madison and not Quvenzhané, the “joke” would have been far more benign, a quip about her puppy purse, perhaps, or maybe a commentary on the fact that — in a room full of supposedly intelligent and talented people — no one could figure out how to pronounce her name.

Instead, we got the c-word. To describe a young black prodigy in a blue dress.  

Some have dismissed the offending tweet as no big deal. Just a joke. Get over it already. Stop overreacting and being so sensitive. The Onion didn’t mean anything by it. It was just a criticism of our celebrity-gossip culture.

Some even claim that the real problem is the outrage about the tweet — and not the tweet itself — because that outrage has drawn more attention to a message they say would have gone largely unnoticed.

These excuses and deflections are not surprising. It is easy for those who have never been marginalized, targeted and oppressed in society to ignore and invalidate the feelings of those who have.

But this was not just a joke or a failed attempt at satire. This was a glimpse at how some in this society see young, successful, self-possessed black girls who carry puppy purses to the Oscars and tell reporters who want to call them Annie that their name is not Annie — it is Quvenzhané. This was an indication that some of us are not as comfortable with black achievement as we’d like to believe.

Nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis has accomplished something that most of us will never accomplish in our entire lives. She has risen to the top of a fiercely competitive profession at an age when many of us are still struggling to learn our multiplication tables. She is extraordinary, and she deserves praise, respect and admiration. Anything less is laughable.