Lena Dunham has apologized for racially charged statements she made about New York Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. during an interview with Amy Schumer. In the apology, the Girls star acknowledges the “often violent history of the over-sexualization of black male bodies, as well as false accusations by white women toward black men.”
In her newsletter Lenny, Dunham had this to say about a close encounter with Beckham:
I was sitting next to Odell Beckham Jr., and it was so amazing because it was like he looked at me and he determined I was not the shape of a woman by his standards. He was like, “That’s a marshmallow. That’s a child. That’s a dog.” It wasn’t mean—he just seemed confused.
The vibe was very much like, “Do I want to [f–k] it? Is it wearing a … yep, it’s wearing a tuxedo. I’m going to go back to my cell phone.” It was like we were forced to be together, and he literally was scrolling Instagram rather than have to look at a woman in a bow tie. I was like, “This should be called the Metropolitan Museum of Getting Rejected by Athletes.”
Yes, that happened. You can read Dunham’s Instagram apology below:
I owe Odell Beckham Jr. an apology. Despite my moments of bravado, I struggle at industry events (and in life) with the sense that I don’t rep a certain standard of beauty and so when I show up to the Met Ball surrounded by models and swan-like actresses it’s hard not to feel like a sack of flaming garbage. This felt especially intense with a handsome athlete as my dinner companion and a bunch of women I was sure he’d rather be seated with. But I went ahead and projected these insecurities and made totally narcissistic assumptions about what he was thinking, then presented those assumptions as facts. I feel terrible about it. Because after listening to lots of valid criticism, I see how unfair it is to ascribe misogynistic thoughts to someone I don’t know AT ALL. Like, we have never met, I have no idea the kind of day he’s having or what his truth is. But most importantly, I would never intentionally contribute to a long and often violent history of the over-sexualization of black male bodies- as well as false accusations by white women towards black men. I’m so sorry, particularly to OBJ, who has every right to be on his cell phone. The fact is I don’t know about his state of mind (I don’t know a lot of things) and I shouldn’t have acted like I did. Much love and thanks, Lena
Dunham does not mention her attempts “to grind [her] ass on Michael B. Jordan for an additional twenty minutes” before leaving the Met Gala. She has since edited that line out of her interview with Schumer.
As for her completely “narcissistic assumptions” about Beckham, The Root’s Stephen Crockett Jr. noted, “The Girls creator took all her self-loathing and placed it on the New York Giants star receiver.” Put differently, she weaponized her body against him while centering herself as the victim.
These kinds of “assumptions” and lies about black masculinity and predatory behavior have led to such cases as the 1944 execution of George Stinney Jr. Stinney, the youngest person executed in the United States in the 20th century, was 14 years old and weighed 95 pounds when he was accused of murdering two white girls with a railroad spike. After a long legal battle, his wrongful conviction—which was handed down by an all-white male jury in 10 minutes—was overturned in 2014.
These assumptions and lies also led to the 1931 false imprisonment and wrongful convictions of Alabama’s Scottsboro Boys, who were accused of raping two white women; the false imprisonment and wrongful conviction of William Harper after Dorothy Skaggs accused him of rape in Virginia that same year; the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till by white supremacists for allegedly whistling at a white woman; and the 1989 false imprisonment and wrongful convictions of New York’s Central Park Five, who were accused of raping a white woman.
These are just a few examples of the more high-profile cases.
The hypersexualization of black men in the United States goes back to the antebellum South, when slavery was built and maintained by continued sexual violence against black women. Enslaved black men were often forced to rape enslaved black women in order to produce children who, of course, would be born into slavery. White women were able to fulfill their desires and assert their power on the bodies of black men—and cry victim if the need arose. These interracial “relationships” were somewhat accepted as long as a child was not produced. If, by chance, contraception failed and an abortion was not obtained, the resulting biracial children were either placed into slavery or became victims of infanticide.
According to Lisa Lindquist Dorr’s White Women, Rape, and the Power of Race in Virginia, 1900-1960, that tepid societal acceptance ended after the Civil War. White womanhood had always been a privileged racial class—though they, too, were raped by white men. But after Reconstruction, the “rape myth” of the black male beast that hungered for white female flesh began as a way to protect and perpetuate white supremacist capitalist patriarchy:
After Reconstruction, whites conflated black men’s desires for white women with their desire for political rights as men, thus creating the rape myth. By the twentieth century, the rape myth was at its height, and it structured most white southerners’ beliefs about the consequences of allowing interaction between white women and black men. The rhetoric about black men’s propensity to rape and the corresponding need for white men to protect white women flourished both in debates about black men’s civil and political rights and in discussions about new freedoms and opportunities for white women. The rape myth thus enforced white women’s subordination to white men and the social, economic, and political power of whites over blacks.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett risked her life to challenge this “rape myth” in the 1890s by circulating anti-lynching pamphlets that called out white women’s complicity in the criminalization of black men. Read her 1892 Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases here.
Still, the method of using white female bodies as a means to ensure the economic and political power of white men continued and was evident in both the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, which led to the destruction of “Black Wall Street,” and the Rosewood Massacre of 1923. Both incidents were sparked by a white woman alleging that a black man had raped her, but the mob violence was flamed because many black men in both areas were doing better financially than their white counterparts.
And into this fraught history steps Lena Dunham, who has now realized several things:
Black male bodies are not the property of white women. There is no mandate that black penises must jump to attention in the mere presence of white female bodies. There is no decree that states that black men must stare with admiration while white women hold court. Black men are allowed to attend a fancy event and not want to “f–k” the white women sitting next to them.
Dunham’s statements do not exist in a vacuum, especially now as the resurfacing of the 1999 rape allegations against Nate Parker—for which he was acquitted—have brought discussions about toxic masculinity, racism and rape culture to the fore. The woman who pressed charges against Parker was, just like most of Bill Cosby’s alleged victims, white.
In both cases, black feminists have worked relentlessly to unbind race and gender. They have concentrated with laser-sharp focus on society’s collective need to learn and unlearn the definition of consent—informed, implied, explicit, active or otherwise. Despite their best efforts, the narrative that continues to raise its ugly head is “This is just another white woman accusing a black man of rape”—and any black women who say differently are in league with the White Man™ trying to bring a brother down.
This deeply entrenched stereotype is largely due to the racist history touched on here, but it may also stem from the reality that black women and girls are less likely to report being raped. Why? Because black women and girls who grow up being called “fast” and “whore,” their sexuality policed and baptized away from them, have also been taught that there is a racist system that victimizes black men and boys—because there is. Rarely is focus placed on the criminalization of black women and girls who also face both state and community violence, while still laboring under the expectation that it is their responsibility to protect black men and boys at all costs.
Unequivocally, no man—black, white or other—is absolved of his responsibility as a human being not to rape other human beings. And it is critical to note here that despite a history of racist false accusations, only 2 to 8 percent of rape allegations are false, and 97 percent of rapists will never spend a day in jail. Despite these sobering statistics, when white women etch their own assumptions, privilege, insecurities and desires upon the bodies of black men, particularly black men who have not shown interest, discussions about rape culture become mired in racial tension and often come to a screeching halt.
Dunham’s apology and acknowledgment of her racism in this incident is important and duly noted; however, it is equally important for her to understand that her reckless words help perpetuate a toxic culture that continues to oppress and endanger all women—even white, privileged ones like herself.
Kirsten West Savali is a cultural critic and an associate editor at The Root. She was awarded the 2016 Vernon Jarrett Medal for Journalistic Excellence which honors exemplary reporting on black life in America. She was also named to Ebony magazine’s 2015 “Power 100” list and awarded a 2015 Harry Frank Guggenheim fellowship. Her provocative commentary explores the intersections of race, social justice, religion, feminism, politics and pop culture. Follow her on Twitter.