Ponsetto’s story follows a pattern we’ve become familiar with when White women are caught on video engaging in racist behavior: She denies that she is racist; she apologizes, insisting that this behavior is out of character. Her denial coupled with an apology fuels a narrative of White women’s racial innocence.
Ponsetto repeats the mantra used by people seeking to revamp their image in every field including sports, business, academics and the arts: One mistake does not define me. This refrain gives people who stumble the courage to go out and succeed, conquer their fears. They don’t want their self-image bound up in what the mistake represents, because they are not that person. The mistake is an aberration, and, especially when captured in public, a teachable moment. But the phrase is often used with the subjunctive, that word or phrase that indicates doubt: One mistake should not define me. In other words, the mistake can ruin you, not only because it changes one’s self-image, but also because it changes how others perceive you.
In stories about racial reckoning, the singular mistake is a recurring theme. Offenders — most recently rioters who stormed the Capitol building in Washington — draw on this notion because of their self-image: They do not think of themselves as being racist. They don’t want the rest of the world to think so, either. It is an appealing idea, not just confined to recent news stories. Octavia Butler’s novel “Kindred” examines this idea. In it, a 1976 Black woman, Dana, is pulled back in time to slavery in 1815. She assumes her task is to save her White slaveholding ancestor, Rufus. Each time, he asks her to trust him, saying he will do better than before. But, as Dana’s White husband tells her, Rufus is a product of his environment. He is not making a singular mistake. His behavior constitutes a pattern.
Miya Ponsetto is not a literary figure.
Ponsetto attempted to capitalize on the one-mistake narrative in her recent interview with King. First, she described herself as “super sweet.” She framed the incident as a disconnect between intention and impact. She appealed to emotion by asking, “How would you feel if…?” She plugged “sincerely” and “bottom of my heart” into her apology. She reiterated her own false story of victimhood by accusing Harrold Sr. of assaulting her. Last, she tried to portray herself as a “22-year-old girl.” Not only did she try to draw on that portrayal in her speech, but she was also wearing a black cap emblazoned with “Daddy.” For those who know it refers to the sex advice podcast “Call Her Daddy,” the cap functions as a dog whistle for White women’s need for both freedom and male protection. For those not in the know, it functions as a dog whistle for pure White womanhood. Ponsetto was attempting to change the narrative about her behavior and her personhood.
Ponsetto, who has been arrested and charged with assault, couldn’t have scripted her interview better to demonstrate a pattern of disrespecting Black life. She compounded her original assault by denying, blame-shifting and painting herself as a victim. She attempted to mobilize the same narrative used by Amy Cooper, the White woman who falsely accused a Black male birdwatcher of attacking her in Central Park after he asked her to leash her dog. She also refused to acknowledge what King tried to tell her: Young Harrold Jr. was a teen, and she is not a girl, but a grown woman.
To make matters worse, she attempts to dictate the interview, saying “Okay. I apologize. Can we move on?” This is more than the frustrated outburst of a petulant woman. Here, Ponsetto undermines King’s professional expertise as an interviewer. Black women experience this kind of disregard in their workplaces, frequently dismissed as nonexperts in the fields in which they work. King was guiding Ponsetto through a set of questions that would have allowed her to take responsibility, demonstrate remorse, and have that all-important “teachable moment.” Rather than trust King’s expertise, Ponsetto disrespects King in an attempt to dictate the terms of the interview. Ponsetto’s desire to move on, to rush the interview along to the part where she was absolved, attempts to circumvent the questions that might have led to her being believed.
King says that her favorite part of the interview (and mine) is when Ponsetto puts her hand up to the laptop’s video camera and makes her fingers kiss her thumb, a gesture that indicates one should shut up immediately, saying “All right, Gayle. Enough.” Be clear. This is not someone merely speaking with their hands. This is a milder middle finger. It is a gesture that signals your own authority and simultaneous irritation with the other person. This gesture has its genesis in the late 1980s and 1990s when Black women were mocked as immature and threatening for a finger-waving and neck-rolling communication style. Phylicia Rashad was praised for this kind of communicating when she used it to demonstrate her own authority in the fictional Cosby household. But Ponsetto is no Clair Huxtable. The appropriated gesture, when combined with attempting to dictate the interview again, multiplies the already formed pattern: a disrespect of Black professional expertise and personhood.
Like other White women who’ve become infamous for abhorrent racist behavior, Ponsetto’s actions in the lobby of the hotel and her disrespect of King constitute a pattern. These so-called singular instances of weaponizing Whiteness remind me of the words of another Black woman, Maya Angelou, “When people show you who they are, believe them the first time.”