Her breast couldn’t have been squeezed in a more public forum. She was at a pulpit, during the funeral service for Aretha Franklin, with former president Bill Clinton, the Rev. Al Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson behind her, and live television cameras in front of her. That’s where singer Ariana Grande was groped by the officiating pastor, Charles H. Ellis III.
It was so fast, so nonchalant and so affable, you could easily convince yourself that it didn’t happen. Or that it wasn’t wrong. But it did. And it was.
Ellis, the pastor of the Greater Grace Temple megachurch in Detroit, wove nimbly between musical performances and eulogies honoring the Queen of Soul. Grande had just finished singing Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” a performance that drew wide eyes and whispers from Clinton.
Ellis pulled Grande to the pulpit, locking his arm around her in a side hug. Instead of resting his hand on her shoulder, as he did with other mourners, he slid it under her arm, above her waist and curled his fingers around her breast. Then he squeezed the 25-year-old Grammy-nominated singer whose concert in Manchester, England, had been targeted by a suicide bomber last year.
“I have to apologize because I have to brush up,” Ellis said, setting up a belittling joke. “My 28-year-old daughter tells me, ‘Dad, you are old at 60.’ When I saw Ariana Grande on the program, I thought that was a new something at Taco Bell.”
Grande played along, replying, “Me, too,” about the Taco Bell joke — while inadvertently narrating a #MeToo sexual-harassment moment in progress. She laughed awkwardly and tried to lean and dip away, but Ellis held firm, then pulled her in for a full embrace, calling her an “icon herself.”
It all happened in less than 30 seconds. But the moment, clipped up, zoomed in and viewed millions of times on Twitter with the hashtag #RespectAriana, feels like an eternity.
The blink-and-it-didn’t-happen breast squeeze has become a symbol of the casual sexual harassment that women suffer all the time. Oh, and that Taco Bell joke? Casual racism at worst, humiliation at best.
The pastor apologized in an interview with the Associated Press. “It would never be my intention to touch any woman’s breast,” he said, adding, “Maybe I crossed the border.”
Before this happened, I wouldn’t have recognized an Ariana Grande song if you played one for me. But I do recognize the hug and the hand that are too close for comfort. I don’t know a single woman who hasn’t experienced the panic of being fondled in public. By a relative, a subway passenger, a colleague at a Christmas party.
You walk away wondering, “Did that just happen? Maybe he didn’t realize that was my breast. Maybe he didn’t realize he was squeezing it. I shouldn’t have let him hug me.”
You walk away — I walk away — feeling small and dirty and alone.
You think of things to say afterward, but if it’s someone you know, you probably keep quiet because you don’t want to disrupt the balance. The family, the community, would have to pick a side, and because the tight hug or the grope or the comment was so subtle, people probably wouldn’t choose yours.
On social media, Grande has been blamed for wearing such a short dress — closer to her bottom than her knees. Others are saying that the side hug and joke are part of black church culture that white people like me don’t understand. Some are warning this will hurt the #MeToo movement against more overt abuse.
They’re missing the point: Sexual harassment and the objectification of women are so woven into our culture that they are considered normal. The problem is that only one person feels normal. The other wants to take a shower and maybe key a car.
I don’t know whether Ellis was aware that he was abusing his power. The men I’ve seen cross lines seem to revel in testing boundaries and feeling big, if only for a second. They often choose not to know they’ve hurt someone.
Ignorance is no longer an excuse.
This casual harassment, of faint boundaries tested and crossed, is what keeps society blind to the greater abuses at play. It is what gaslights women and the people around them into thinking that they imagined the offense. But this time, it was caught on tape.
Grande hasn’t commented publicly. Ellis said he hoped she would accept his apology. “The last thing I want to do is to be a distraction to this day,” he said. “This is all about Aretha Franklin.”
He is right about that. It is all about respect. We shouldn’t have to spell it out for him.