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Roundup: Smart Thoughts On Ryan Lochte And White Privilege

Ryan Lochte of the United States attends a press conference in the Main Press Center on Day 7 of the Rio Olympics.
Matt Hazlett
Getty Images
Ryan Lochte of the United States attends a press conference in the Main Press Center on Day 7 of the Rio Olympics.

This week, in a tale of Olympic scandal and intrigue, Ryan Lochte is in the spotlight for an ugly encounter at a gas station in Rio de Janeiro.

To give a quick recap: Lochte, a 32-year-old U.S. swimmer who has competed in the last three Olympic games, told the press earlier this week that he and some of his teammates had been robbed at gunpoint in Rio de Janeiro early Sunday morning. Police reports, security footage, and testimony from witnesses contradict Lochte's original statement. As NPR reported, Rio's Civil Police chief said "multiple witnesses have described a scene in which the swimmers vandalized the bathroom, were asked to pay for it, and got testy."

After contradictory accounts of the alleged robbery surfaced, Mario Andrada, communications director for Rio 2016, came to the defense of Lochte and his companions. "Let's give these kids a break. Sometimes you take actions that you later regret. They are magnificent athletes," said Andrada. "Lochte is one of the best swimmers of all times. They had fun. They made a mistake. It's part of life. Life goes on. Let's go."

Lochte has also suggested it's time to move on. In a statement on Twitter, he wrote, "I want to apologize for my behavior last weekend — for not being more careful and candid in how I described the events of that early morning and for my role in taking the focus away from the many athletes fulfilling their dreams of participating in the Olympics. ... There has already been too much said and too many valuable resources dedicated to what happened last weekend, so I hope we spend our time celebrating the great stories and performances of these Games and look ahead to celebrating future successes."

Indeed, to many #LochteGate is but another ill-advised, yet ultimately harmless exploit undertaken by the erstwhile star of the reality TV series What Would Ryan Lochte Do? This is, after all, the same adult man who unsuccessfully tried to trademark the word "Jeah."

But others are taking the opportunity to engage in an interesting thought experiment: How would this have played out if Lochte weren't a white man? Britni Danielle, writing for Ebony,wondered:

"Can you imagine the level of racially charged outrage about over-paid 'thugs,' 'gangsters,' or worse, racial slurs that would fill up social media had Carmelo Anthony and his boys torn up the bathroom, then claimed to get robbed by fake police? I have no doubt President Obama would be asked to comment, Black Lives Matter would get blamed, and people would probably never let them live it down.

"Instead, Lochte is being given the benefit of the doubt by folks who are 'waiting for all the details' before they make a determination about the swimmer's story, or arguing that what he did wasn't actually lie but rather 'embellish' the truth."

Others compare Lochte's situation to the public scrutiny that Gabby Douglas, the Olympic gymnast, who is black, faced after not placing her hand over her heart during the national anthem. Huffington Post editor Emma Gray had this to say:

"Douglas, who is just 20 years old, failed to put her hand on her heart during the national anthem, and did not style her hair and/or face to every individual's liking. For those 'crimes,' she was widely criticized for being 'disprespectful,' 'unpatriotic' and 'un-American,' and called words that we'd rather not repeat in this piece. Lochte and friends reportedly defiled a gas station restroom, fought with a security officer, lied to national news sources, and may have filed a false police report. And the four of them get to be framed as talented 'kids' (reminder: Lochte is 32) having one debaucherous night of fun.

"The vast gap between these two public perceptions has everything to do with the identities of the people involved. Lochte is a straight, white man, who has long been beloved for his pretty face, doofy personality and charmingly slow demeanor during interviews. Douglas is a young, black woman who has battled racialized critiques of her appearance and attitude for years, despite winning three Olympic gold medals."

In an article for Nylon, Kristin Iverson writes that the public's reaction to Lochte wouldn't be so off-putting had it not come so shortly after Douglas was "viciously dragged through the court of public opinion," and argues that gender also played into the vitriol. She continues:

"We also happen to live in a society wherein women are mercilessly grilled about the minutiae of any accusations they level at men, where women are warned again and again that they could be ruining men's lives, where women are tacitly implored to keep silent rather than speak out, lest their stories of having their lives permanently altered, disrupt a man's life.

"Yet here is Ryan Lochte, who traded in on the not slightly xenophobic fears of crime in Rio, to paint himself as a victim of an armed robbery rather than admit the truth: He and his jock friends (who have since told police that Lochte made the whole robbery story up) got drunk, destructive, and caught, and had to pay up. And here we are, making jokes and laughing at his actions, rather than seriously thinking about what it means that a privileged white male American can literally piss wherever he wants, lie about it, and fly away from his problems, when other people, who aren't white and aren't men, can be shamed, ostracized, and harshly censured for not smiling enough while "The Star Spangled Banner" plays."

Of course, not everyone thinks it's fair to compare the Lochte story with what happened to Douglas. As one representative Twitter user wrote, "You people with the Ryan Lochte white privilege! Get over it. Not everything is about race. Sometimes it's just about being stupid."

And given Brazil's complicated history of colonialism, slavery and interracial marriage — Brazilians call their country the most racially mixed on earth — it's probably reductive to accuse Lochte, who never physically described his alleged assailants, of using black or brown people as scapegoats.

In Brazil, "the difference between black and white is not so black-and-white," writes Tim Rogers in a piece over at Fusion on racial identity in this corner of the world.

Arguably, Lochte's own background — he's half Cuban, another country with an extremely complex racial history — further complicates that narrative. But in a piece for Bustle, Cristina Arreola pushes back on that idea:

"Ryan Lochte doesn't get a pass on white privilege because he's Latino, though. No question about it, blue-haired dude-bro has white privilege in spades. You probably didn't even know he's Cuban-American, since it's not apparent in his appearance or his skin color or his name. Even if he is technically Latino, he appears to be white and so the world treats him as such.

"So what does it mean to have white privilege as a person of color? It means he meets the white standard of beauty. It means he won't be questioned about his immigration status. He won't be the target of racist assaults. He won't be unjustly targeted by police officers because of the color of his skin. There are countless ways in which he benefits from his white skin.

"Lochte is a white-passing person of color, which doesn't excuse his actions, but instead, makes them infinitely more disappointing. He's been given an incredible platform to speak on behalf of Latinos and POC who don't have his privileges, and instead he's squandered that opportunity."

Before the Olympics draw to a close on Sunday night, there will be more news to celebrate of athletes accomplishing great feats. It will be interesting to see whose accomplishments get lauded, and how. But the U.S. will leave Rio with an impression no one can be thrilled about: that of the "ugly American," who gets to walk away from a mess of his own making, while others have to live with it.

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Leah Donnella is an editor on NPR's Code Switch team, where she helps produce and edit for the Code Switch podcast, blog, and newsletter. She created the "Ask Code Switch" series, where members of the team respond to listener questions about how race, identity, and culture come up in everyday life.