In March 2019, the largest US college admissions scandal unfurled when 50 people were charged for their organized efforts to buy their children’s admission to America’s most prestigious universities. Among the group were notable celebrities and public figures such as Michelle Janavs and Felicity Huffman, but the most outrageous case was that of the actor Lori Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli. When their daughter Olivia Jade Giannulli was admitted to the University of Southern California on a fictitious rowing scholarship, accompanied by $500,000 paid to college counselor Rick Singer for the acceptance, the family’s devious activities were not out of the norm – at least for people within their social circle and of their privilege.
On Wednesday, daughter Giannulli, who was a famous YouTuber and influencer before the scandal’s publicity, appeared on Red Table Talk to publicly apologize for her role in the scam. While host Jada Pinkett Smith seemed to welcome the 21-year-old with open arms, Adrienne Banfield-Norris was not so welcoming. “I just found it really ironic that she chose three Black women to reach out to for her redemption story,” Banfield-Norris said. “White women coming to Black women for support, when we don’t get the same from them.” It’s not surprising she was cynical. When the allegations first came out, Giannulli neither apologized nor attempted to understand her wrongdoing, let alone the vast inequalities it exposed. Instead, Giannulli tried, without success, to revive her influencer career.
For centuries, Black women have brought white women to social consciousness and educated them about racism within their own communities. Black women were the unsung leaders of the women’s suffrage movement, which resulted in the 19th amendment. But while white women benefited, most Black women were still denied the right to vote. Pauli Murray, a Black women’s rights activist, ignited a fight for constitutional protections against sex discrimination when she noticed how all women were falling victim. Her efforts resulted in the recognition of women’s rights as a top priority, yet Black women still face sex discrimination in the workplace at greater levels than their white counterparts.
Oftentimes this labor is expected, and rarely is it rightfully acknowledged or mutual, an issue that Banfield-Norris could not get behind. “At the end of the day, I really feel like she’s gonna be OK,” she said, speaking to Olivia Jade’s privilege as a young, rich, conventionally beautiful white woman.
While the 30-minute conversation addressed the wrongdoings of Giannulli and her family, the apology’s tone still basked in a PR direction (“What’s so important to me is to learn from the mistake. Not to now be shamed and punished and never given a second chance”) and the fabricated crew scholarship was never confronted. Giannulli might have publicly admitted that she acknowledges her white privilege, but public acknowledgment doesn’t change the fact that her coxswain position on USC’s rowing team could have gone to an actual deserving athlete, especially when being an athlete is sometimes the only route people of color have for attending prestigious universities.
What Giannulli did imply is that before the incident she was living in a “bubble” but since then her awareness has changed, leading her to spend time volunteering with children in an after-school program in southern Los Angeles. It isn’t clear whether her contributions will be routine.
Hopefully, this won’t just be an opportunity to learn a lesson from her parents’ mistakes, but to make concrete changes in her life that include inspiring her following and social circle to embark on similar life-changing work.