Culture & Conversation Race

I Turned My Back on Omarosa Once. And I’m Doing It Again.

Jasmine Burnett

Feeling this way about another Black woman is hard. But I can't stand behind her when she stood beside a president who encourages violence against Black communities.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

On December 12, 2017, a Black woman was fired and dragged out the White House. Normally, this kind of disrespect would have meant an all-out war on social media, petitions calling for apologies and systemic changes, and public demonstrations. Normally, I would have been all too willing to join in the Black woman sisterhood thunderclap defending her dignity.

Except the woman was Omarosa Manigault-Newman, the Trump administration’s token Black woman.

The drama she’s cultivated as a reality TV personality followed her all the way to Washington—and got her fired by Trump for the fourth time (and this time, it was for real). Initially, all I could do was shake my head and chuckle. However, as much as I felt convicted about my position, I felt some compassion—and deeply conflicted—at the same time.

bell hooks continues to be a teacher for me in the ways of forgiveness. The author and feminist scholar once wrote, “For me, forgiveness and compassion are always linked: How do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?” Though Omarosa and I don’t share the same impulses toward liberation, for better or for worse, she makes me contemplate the terms of Black woman sisterhood. My love for Black women begins with support. However, with her, I have drawn a clear line in the sand where my support for Black women ends when we refuse to be accountable for the harm we cause, especially in our own communities. And Omarosa—a woman who claims President Trump is “racial” but “not racist” —has caused harm. So for the second time this year, I’m turning my back on her.

I see aspects of my Black womanhood in every Black woman I witness and encounter. As a third-generation Midwestern Black woman, I share region, gender, and race identities with Omarosa, who grew up in Youngstown, Ohio. But I am clear that my path and investment in Black liberation looks wholly different than hers. Yet, my deep compassion for Black women leaves me feeling uncomfortable about participating in any effort to destroy her by throwing her away, even though she essentially set her sacred Black card on fire by representing an administration that will have devastating effects on our communities for generations to come.

Feeling and talking about another Black woman in this way is difficult. The Black women in my life have always protected and defended each other. And I know the power of Black women collectively fighting for our liberation. I see it in campaigns like #YouOKSis and #MeToo. I was among the reproductive justice leaders and luminaries who founded the Trust Black Women partnership that pushed back against racist billboards with slogans such as, “The most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb.” The Black women I’ve encountered have always refused to be silent in the face of adversity.

But not Omarosa. I have seen first-hand how Omarosa refuses to hold herself accountable for her actions or those of the administration that employed her until recently.And though I’ve vowed never to turn my back on another Black woman whether I agreed with them or not, I have now turned my back on Omarosa twice. And the first time, it was literal.

On August 11, I was attending the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) conference. I was there representing Echoing Ida, a group of Black women and nonbinary thinkers who write for national media to create social change. Our namesake, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, wrote about the devastating lynchings of the Jim Crow area. Today, we write about police brutality and other state-based violence, reproductive injustices, and the ways Black people are leading and organizing ourselves out of oppressive conditions.

When I learned that Omarosa, then-director of communications for the White House Office of Public Liaison, would speak at a plenary about Black people and policing with relatives of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile (two Black men killed by police), I wondered how her palpable, understandable grief about the murders of her father and brother (by civilians) would fit on this panel. And I was equally confused about how she would represent the administration’s priorities, which have been to support increased local law enforcement use of force and weapons.

When asked basic and legitimate questions—to explain her job and how she communicated the concerns of Black communities to the administration and a white supremacist cabinet that has shown its disdain for Black people—she refused to address the question directly. She and moderator Ed Gordon of Bounce TV sparred over whether she should have to answer for the dangerous rhetoric that President Trump and other members of his administration have used to speak of Black people. When pressed to share examples of her accomplishments on behalf of Black people or regarding police brutality, she asked the audience to “Google my name and Eric Garner.” She later flippantly said police brutality was “not even part of my portfolio.”

I looked up and saw Brittany Packnett, an activist-comrade best known for her work in Ferguson after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in 2014, stand and turn her back toward the stage—and Omarosa. I joined her.

Omarosa acknowledged on the panel that President Trump’s then-recent comments condoning police brutality were wrong and claimed she told him so. Yet, she refused to share more details than that or to explain just what she was doing to prevent him and Attorney General Jeff Sessions from committing or encouraging violence against Black communities.

Omarosa represents the worst kind of Black folks: those who are merely invested in their own betterment and not the communities that made a way for them to hold the positions they currently have. These type of Black folks have always existed because Blackness is varied, and unfortunately, many Black people have made devilish bargains with white people to get ahead. As a people, we have to divest our emotions, energy, and precious cultural resources from people who fail to acknowledge the harm that they inflict on their own people. They discredit the radical human and civil rights legacy in this country when they support rhetoric and actions to dismantle the spaces and institutions that keep us safe.

My work as a reproductive justice advocate is grounded in the belief that our families must live in communities free from violence. That includes violence against those who would deny Black people basic human dignity—in rhetoric or in action. I have no choice but to turn my back on a Black woman who stood beside a president who has refused to adequately condemn the violent white supremacists marching in his name in Charlottesville, Virginia, or who has joked about physical punishment of people in police custody.

In response to the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, the president said there was violence “on many sides.” Time and time again, Ms. Manigault-Newman has chosen the wrong side of justice, and I believe Robin Roberts speaks for me and most Black women with her sentiment toward Omarosa: “Bye, Felicia.”

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