On Jeff Varner, prejudice, and absolutely instant regret

There are incidents in all of our lives that come back to us over and over. I believe it’s because we haven’t finished fully wringing out their meaning, and I’ve been revisiting one of mine a lot in the last year or so. I’ve considered writing about it, because when I write I often surprise myself with my own thoughts. I haven’t found a way that made sense. I don’t want this to be a confession because I’m not seeking absolution. And I didn’t want to write something that sounded like a clickbaity “The Time I Said A Racist Thing” article you’d see on Upworthy.

And then this morning I watched the clip of Jeff Varner outing Zeke Smith on Survivor this week. (That link, by the way, is not a link to the Survivor clip; it’s a link to Zeke’s piece on the experience, which is incredibly good reading, even if like me you quit watching Survivor after you got tired of Rupert. The Survivor clip is through-linked in that article, but you should read the article.)

To summarize: a desperate Survivor castaway, Varner, knew he was on the way out, and decided to make the argument that one of his teammates was a more practiced liar and therefore bigger game threat because he is transgender and therefore “capable of deception.” What’s interesting about both the CBS clip and Varner’s subsequent apology is that he has absolutely no legitimate explanation for his action, and knows it, and knew it immediately. Like, the second the words came out of his mouth. He stops making sense, starts spinning in circles, knows he just lost a million dollars, apologizes, tries to rationalize — but fundamentally, you can see it all over him, he knows there is no rationalization and he’s horrified at himself and he just hasn’t had time yet to really sit with what just happened but he knows on some gut level that his upcoming introspection is going to hurt.

So here’s my story. First of all, this may shock some of you — and for some of you I mean that sarcastically — but as a kid I wasn’t exactly socially successful. I went from the pretty bad playground interactions of elementary school to a better, quieter kind of social failure in junior high. But even there I ran into problems, and one of the problems was a young lady we’ll call Jaye. I’m not sure I should quite call Jaye a bully, because as far as I can remember the only person she bullied was me, but who knows. In any case, I was in Jaye’s sights, and we could never fully decide whether we actually had a lot in common or loathed each other passionately. You know, in the way one flip-flops on those issues when one is eleven years old.

Just believe me when I say that Jaye made me cry. She was legitimately, empirically mean. And smart and sharp-tongued mean in a way I couldn’t dismiss as I’d dismissed previous bullies. She was up in my face and she hurt me and also? She was black.

And that’s how we ended up at the day when she was hounding me and hounding me — it’s probably telling that I can’t remember the specifics, just that I was at the end of my rope — and I yelled at her, right there in the hallway, “Leave me alone, BROWNIE.”

I did not use the n-word. I knew better than that. But I meant it, and we both heard it, there behind my nonsensical half-assed euphemism.

And here I experienced what I suspect Jeff Varner experienced mumblesomething years later: absolutely instant, absolutely complete regret. That feeling when you realize what you just did was not okay, not even a little, not something you ever would have thought you’d do, but you just did it, and it’s absolutely devastating to your understanding of yourself.

I remember, viscerally, all these years later, how I felt for the rest of the day. The adrenaline didn’t quit. I couldn’t process what I’d done. I tried to rationalize it and knew in my own head there wasn’t a rationalization. I didn’t know which way to direct my brain. I went home and confessed to my parents, who reacted with appropriate horror. Despite my lifelong aversion to the phone, they made me call every adult in the phone book (remember those?) with Jaye’s last name until I located Jaye’s parents and apologized to her, that very evening. And I did, and in fact Jaye apologized right back, and we even became friends. But it didn’t feel like absolution. Nothing ever has — and it never should.

In my case, I was a kid. I don’t say that as an excuse for what I said, not even a little bit, but rather as an excuse for why it took me so long to really understand what was going on there. This thing happened and I learned from it, in a way, but I didn’t have the labels I have now. I just vaguely realized that even when we think we’re good people, allies, we can carry some dark stuff around that we don’t realize we’re carrying, and it can pop out, whoops!

It was much later, when I started reading the right things and asking the right questions, that I realized I keep coming back to this moment because it’s my touchstone example of the fact that allyship isn’t a one-off decision or an identity, but rather a process of work. I have to get a flashlight and poke around down in there and see what’s there that might pop out whoops, and then I need to clean that shit out. And it’s on me and me alone to do that. And I’m not sure we can ever fully get clean, which isn’t exactly a motivational realization.

But the work is not mine to finish, and yet I am not free to take no part in it.

So hi, Jeff Varner. I see you. I see the half-assed apology statement you’re circulating in which you’re not entirely sure which direction to head. And I believe you: you appear to be a decent guy, an activist, a member of the LGBTQ community, and this isn’t how you would have defined yourself. The real test will be what you do now with the realization that it is nonetheless who you are. Zeke says in his post that he sensed you were dealing with some self-loathing; that’s armchair diagnosis and in hindsight, so it isn’t worth a lot, but it’s a data point. What else is in there?

Because trust me, you’ll be holding this particular whoops up to the light for maybe the rest of your life. And it will mean different things in different contexts. But it has to be examined.


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