An Observation On Brittney Griner
A hostage has to be worth more than their citizenship.
THE CONVERSATION WAS ONE of those that you never forget. It took place during that uncertain handful of days in the fall of 2018 when many in the world were learning the name Jamal Khashoggi for the first time. We only knew this much: that he had walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to get some paperwork done, hadn’t come out. TV anchors were still looking up how to pronounce his last name—it’s not a hard K?—and there was a kind of benevolent urgency to call him an “American” journalist (which he was) because the president might otherwise not have taken an interest in him.
I was at my first real, big, political journalism internship, and I had pitched a story on how the families of other American hostages were reacting to what, at that point, we were still calling Khashoggi’s “disappearance.” I managed to get on the phone with the parents of one American who is still not safely home, and whose capture has garnered widespread attention on social media and in Washington.
As one does, I had kind of explained the story I was working on, angling toward some questions, when the mother said, of Khashoggi:
“I mean, he’s not even an American citizen, right?”
This much was true. At the time of his brutal murder, Khashoggi was not an American citizen—he was a green card holder living in Virginia. He was an immigrant. Like me, he was an immigrant writer. The crudeness of it all struck me at once: Though he was an American journalist, the woman was saying, he wasn’t really American. Meaning, we weren’t really responsible for him. Meaning, he wasn’t like her child.
Honestly, my vision went black for a second. She made it clear she wasn’t interested in offering further comment for the story, and we wrapped up the call. I walked back to my desk and eventually moved on to another, more pressing assignment. But the remark has stuck with me, both for its off-hand nature and its weight.
Five months have gone by in Russian detention for Brittney Griner, a basketball star. The New York Times reports that the United States had offered to free the Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for Griner and a U.S. Marine in a swap deal that appears to hold some promise. I’m not the first to point out how Griner’s race, gender, and sexuality play into her detention, but those words from 2018 have rung ever more resonant in my head these days.
I won’t pretend to have any inside information about the current state of hostage negotiations between the Biden administration and Russia, but what is apparent to me is this: The muted volume of our public outrage for Griner is directly correlated to our perception of her citizenship. It is undisputed that Griner is an American citizen—it’s what has made her name well-known, and what in international politics makes her capture so “valuable”—but the fact that her release has taken as long as it has demonstrates how our culture undervalues some nominal citizens over others. These five months have also been punctuated by subtler tyrannies, like the fact that Cherelle Griner, her wife, attempted to call her 11 times on their anniversary and couldn’t get through to her, which the White House called “an unfortunate mistake.”
I don’t think the White House has overtly denied responsibility for Griner. But I think our culture, to an extent, has. I’m sure some will dismiss this argument by pointing to the fact that Griner’s being queer and Black have earned her sympathy with certain sectors of the media and blaming identity politics somehow. The sad reality on the ground is that many still don’t even know Griner’s name, much less care about her detention, an ignorance that is a product of Griner’s perceived American-ness. Second, a culture that gives preference to white men in ennobled professions, claiming it as the default, is also participating in identity politics.
Grief makes us do unexplainable things. I can’t say what the intentions behind that remark in 2018 were. The woman probably didn’t know that I was an immigrant. But it did make me wonder if anyone would physically come for me in the event that ICE detained me. If the United States would feel responsible. Whether I could ever do enough for that duty to attach.
Who will come for Griner?
If you’re interested in reading more about how racial progress is brought about less so to correct inequality and more so to advance American primacy on the world stage, read Derrick Bell’s crucial interest-convergence theory and this primer from The Atlantic.
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