Tonya Harding, Rodney King and Me

Is there a way to recognize the racism that produced the Rodney King beatings without ignoring the lives of people like Tonya Harding? 

February 23, 2018

I squirmed from beginning to end of I, Tonya, the new film about the Tonya Harding / Nancy Kerrigan / Olympic ice skating scandal. The general outline is familiar to anyone who lived through that era. Tonya Harding was a rough-around-the-edges champion ice skater whose husband had been involved in whacking the knee of her main rival, Nancy Kerrigan. It was a story made for the tabloids, which meant that it also ran incessantly on mainstream news.

The filmmakers chose a technique that I suspect was designed to make people like me squirm. They found actors who looked uncannily like the main characters in the story, and they interviewed them documentary-style. Which meant Tonya Harding was staring straight into my eyes when she said things like (I paraphrase):

Nancy Kerrigan gets hit once and everybody goes insane. I get hit every day of my life and nobody cares.

Actually, when I think back to that era, my sin was worse than not caring. I ridiculed Tonya Harding. She was a punch line on Saturday Night Live sketches and I laughed right along, maybe even louder than the rest.

I, Tonya, which is based on extensive real-world interviews with Tonya Harding and those close to her at the time, takes the audience into the life and mind of a poor white girl with an outsize skating talent. She is too poor to afford the fur coats that ice skaters wear, so she goes hunting for rabbits and sews the pelts together into a monstrosity that gets her laughed at by the competition. She is penalized by the judges for not being an American princess, even though she lands tricks on the ice that most other top skaters don’t even attempt. She is abused regularly, first by her mother, then by her boyfriend/husband.

The main events of the Tonya Harding story took place in the early months of 1994, a transformative time in my own life. I was just coming into race consciousness, recognizing how my brown skin had determined so much of my life experience, and how black skin was subject to far worse.

The figure I thought about most back then was Rodney King. His name came up over and over again in campus diversity discussions as an example of the mistreatment of black people at the hands of the police, and as a symbol of black systemic marginalization more broadly. I was embarrassed by how little I had thought about Rodney King when the beatings took place, or when the acquittal was announced.

I was in high school at the time, and the only people that I remember talking about Rodney King in and around the mostly white suburb where I grew up muttered about how he had probably deserved what had happened. They didn’t actually say why, but everybody knew: Rodney King was black, and so he must have done something wrong. Nobody talked about any other part of Rodney King’s life, about the kind of son, father, brother, worker, citizen, neighbor he was. His black skin meant he was a criminal, and the cops had to do what the cops had to do.

Those campus diversity discussions were the first time I realized how deeply I had internalized American anti-black racism. I resolved to never be that guy again. I would resist stereotypes and prejudices. I would be aware of the debilitating legacy of slavery and segregation and the corrosive effects of more contemporary forms of racism. I would take an empathetic lens into the lives of African-Americans, and I would call out the other side of the coin - white privilege.  

My emerging race consciousness and corresponding personal resolutions occurred during the same months that the Tonya Harding / Nancy Kerrigan events took place, in the middle of my first year in college. As I watched I, Tonya and thought back to who I was at the time, an uncomfortable thought took shape in my mind: were my heightened empathy to Rodney King and my ridiculing of Tonya Harding somehow related?

In other words, as my race consciousness and empathy for people like Rodney King grew, did I somehow -- maybe subconsciously, maybe more consciously than I’d like to admit – become less empathetic to people like Tonya Harding? Did all those conversations about black oppression and white privilege make me look at Tonya Harding and see white ice skater, and not physically abused girl who had to practice for the Olympics at a public rink hounded by tabloid reporters because she couldn’t afford private skating time?

Is there a way to recognize the racism that created the Rodney King beating and acquittals without turning around and ridiculing Tonya Harding?  


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top