What do Ellen Pompeo and Kidney Woman Have in Common?

A truly glaring lack of self-awareness, for starters. Okay, AND they both recently told stories that they think make themselves look good, but instead illuminate their white privilege.

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Stacy Lee Kong

Oct 08 2021

12 mins read

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Image: Shutterstock

Okay, I fully acknowledge that this might just be me but… does this week’s Kidney Woman discourse kind of remind you of last week’s Ellen Pompeo discourse? Because I am seeing some clear parallels, especially when it comes to race and power, and I think we need to discuss them. Read on for a close reading of these two recent viral stories.

Kidney… who?

If you have somehow managed to miss the literary beef between writers Dawn Dorland and Sonya Larson—which was extremely obscure until it was featured in a little paper called the New York Times on Tuesday—and/or Pompeo’s comments about Denzel Washington, strap in, because they’re both extremely wild.

First, the writers. It all started in 2015 when essayist and aspiring novelist Dorland decided she’d donate a kidney to a stranger in what’s called a nondirected donation, which gets organs to recipients who don’t have living donors in their own networks. Cool; I love to see it. Then, Dorland, who is white, started a private Facebook group to share her story with friends, family and some members of Boston writing centre GrubStreet, Larson among them. Still cool, although she did take it a little too personally when people did not engage with her kidney donation-related content to a degree that she deemed adequate—years later, while talking to NY Times contributing editor Robert Kolker for this piece, she unironically said the words, “It was a little bit like, if you’ve been at a funeral and nobody wanted to talk about it—it just was strange to me. I left that conference with this question: Do writers not care about my kidney donation?” Um... 😬

But then, she learned that Larson, who’s biracial Asian-American, had written a story that included a kidney donation plot point inspired by her good deed, including a letter that was suspiciously similar to one of her Facebook posts. As the other writer began to accumulate accolades and opportunities for a story Dorland believed was hers, including being chosen for a summer reading program from the Boston Book Festival, she became increasingly angry–and motivated to make sure Larson paid, literally and figuratively. The piece is a journey and while Larson is not a ‘perfect victim’—she did use one of Dorland’s posts as the basis for a letter her character writes, and she said mean things about Dorland in a group chat—I only got halfway through it before I went from ‘Everyone here is the asshole’ to ‘Wow, Dawn Dorland is terrifying.’

Race definitely plays a role in both of these stories

Larson pointed out the weirdness of a white woman claiming ownership of a racialized woman's work years ago in a statement to the Boston Globe, writing, “My piece is fiction. It is not her story, and my letter is not her letter. And she shouldn’t want it to be. She shouldn’t want to be associated with my story’s portrayal and critique of white-savior dynamics. But her recent behavior, ironically, is exhibiting the very blindness I’m writing about, as she demands explicit identification in—and credit for—a writer of color’s work.”

What she didn’t touch on was the way Dorland has consistently leveraged white victimhood in an attempt to punish her. Kolker starts his piece by describing Dorland’s “sunny earnestness” and “un-self-conscious openness that endears her to some people and that others have found to be a little extra.” But he also admitted that she desired, and in fact felt entitled to, retribution. He positions it as “pushing back,” but what actually happened is Dorland embarked on a multi-year campaign to ensure Larson faced consequences for her ‘theft.’ She sent complaints to all the organizations Larson was connected to, even tangentially: the Boston Book Festival, GrubStreet, American Short Fiction, the Bread Loaf writing conference, Vermont Studio Center and the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics and Writers. She emailed editors at the Boston Globe and tried to get the Times’ “Dear Sugars” podcast to weigh in, making sure to stress that she’s “not suited to jadedness” but has been the victim of artistic betrayal. According to author Celeste Ng, who’s one of Larson’s friends, Dorland spent three years pitching this story to journalists with no success—until the New York Times eventually bit, of course.

In 2018, Larson sued Dorland and her lawyer for defamation and tortious interference. Two years later, Dorland counter-sued, accusing Larson of violating her copyright and intentionally inflicting emotional distress. She said Larson’s actions—writing a story about organ donation inspired by, but not retelling, Dorland’s own—caused her to experience sleeplessness, anxiety, depression, panic attacks, weight loss “and several incidents of self-harm.” I don’t actually care to re-litigate where writers can and can’t find inspiration (they are constantly stealing shit, okay? Them’s the breaks) though yes, it was shitty of Larson to lift portions of Dorland’s letter verbatim. But to pin the blame for Dorland’s self-harm on Larson? It’s almost perverse how perfectly this encapsulates the white women’s tears trope.

As Ruby Hamad writes in her essay collection, White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color, “when challenged by a woman of color, a white woman will often lean into her racial privilege to turn the tables and accuse the other woman of hurting, attacking, or bullying her. This process almost always siphons the sympathy and support of onlookers to the apparently distressed white woman, helping her avoid accountability and leaving the woman of color out in the cold, often with no realistic option—particularly if it is a workplace interaction—but to accept blame and apologize.”

Ellen Pompeo’s story about Denzel Washington is also super weird

Then there was Meredith Grey. Last week, Ellen Pompeo was roundly dragged on Twitter for a story she told about Denzel Washington’s 2016 guest-directing stint on Grey’s Anatomy. I’ll just let her words—from the Sept. 29 episode of her podcast, Tell Me with Ellen Pompeo—speak for themselves, shall I?

“[Another character] made this choice to speak very softly. And I was pissed that I had to sit there and listen to this apology, and he wasn’t looking me in the eye. Again, we love actors who make choices, right? And I yelled at him, and I was like, ‘Look at me when you apologize. Look at me.’ That wasn’t in the dialogue, and Denzel went ham on my ass. [He said,] 'I'm the director. Don't you tell him what to do.' I was like, 'Listen, motherfucker — this is my show! This is my set! Who are you telling? You barely know where the bathroom is!’”

Pompeo makes some notable linguistic choices here. Washington—who, as an aside, has a sterling reputation as a director and by her own account, said 10 words to her throughout their interaction—went “ham,” did he? That’s such an interesting way of describing it, since to me it just sounds like a Black man didn’t defer to her and she was annoyed about it. Of course, we can't know that; we don't have audio or video of their interaction to judge for ourselves. But Pompeo has a history of telling on herself when it comes to race, so it's difficult to extend her the benefit of the doubt. The actor is married to record producer Chris Ivery, who's Black, and has variously claimed to be a victim of “reverse racism,” a thing that does not exist, tried to speak for the Black community about the necessity of the NAACP Awards and HBCUs, reportedly vetoed Shonda Rhimes’ original plan of casting a Black man to play McDreamy and told Viola Davis it was okay that people perceive her as “less than classically beautiful” because it makes a good teachable moment… then proceeded to use her husband and biracial children as a shield whenever she was criticized for her insensitivity.

Pompeo also isn’t the only white woman to imply Washington had disrespected her. Katie Couric came under fire last year for recounting an interview with Washington that she says left her “shaken” and “uncomfortable.” During a 2004 conversation with the actor, his Manchurian Candidate co-star Meryl Streep and director Jonathan Demme, Couric asked Washington what he thought of the idea that “Hollywood folks” should stick to acting, a question he clearly didn’t want to answer. Couric rephrased it a couple of times, but Washington was not having it and eventually the conversation moved on. Can I just say, as a person who interviews others for a living—and who has experienced her fair share of difficult or resistant interview subjects—I am casting some serious side-eye at the word “shaken”? I think it’s telling that she didn’t say she was annoyed or frustrated, both of which would be perfectly reasonable reactions. Instead, she used a word that immediately evokes harm, not exasperation.

In both cases, a white women exaggerating the details of an interaction with a Black man for a self-serving narrative track. I mean, it's happened before, right? In fact, there’s a very long history of white women using their privilege to subjugate racialized people, especially men. As academic Mia Brett wrote last year about Central Park Karen Amy Cooper, “the ‘damsel in distress’ [is] a figure that offers protection only to white women. It is also a guise that for centuries has been used as an excuse to enact racist violence on Black people in the name of white women’s safety. [In fact,] the claim that white womanhood required protection has been used to justify all kinds of bigoted laws and actions.”

Why would anyone say these things in public? Just… why?

To be fair, I don’t think any of these incidents is only about race. Dorland’s need for validation and attention is certainly intensified by the professional jealousy she feels over Larson’s literary success, while Pompeo and Couric are public figures who have found economic and social capital through their connection to their audiences, which further encourages this type of sharing. And the most salient factor is probably that in all three cases, there’s just a total lack of self-awareness. (If only even one of them had paused and thought to herself, “Hm. Maybe this is a bad look for me. I'm gonna stop talking.”)

But each of these factors is exacerbated by racial dynamics—and not everyone seems to understand that. I think most people, regardless of race, get the dynamics of a white woman claiming a Black man had “gone ham” on her, though there were still Pompeo fans, and even some casual observers, who claimed her and Washington's respective races weren't a factor and instead she was just passionately defending her show or some B.S. like that. But if you look at both Twitter conversations and media coverage of the Kidney Woman story, Dorland and Larson's races are seemingly irrelevant.

Every defence of Dorland I’ve seen hinges on whether Larson had committed plagiarism or was a mean girl. I've seen more than a few people say she “gaslit” Dorland. A reminder that gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse where one person in a relationship undermines the other person's sense of reality; what Larson did when she downplayed how much inspiration she took from Dorland's Facebook posts is actually called “lying.” And while the texts that have come out during the litigation process are not kind, they're also not evidence of bullying, as I've seen some people claim, since a key element of bullying is being cruel to someone. But isn't it kind of classic that those who defend Dorland also use deliberately provocative language that exaggerates the harm Larson caused? These defences also tend to completely ignore the details in the second half of the story, which pretty clearly lay out a harassment campaign that verges on stalking. I mean, during COVID, Dorland attended three virtual events Larson was speaking at just so she could watch the other author’s face fall when she saw her.

I don't think Dorland, Pompeo or Couric would ever consider themselves racist. (Pompeo in particular would likely lose her shit at the idea.) But whatever high-minded ideas about equality they might have, those values clearly go straight out the window when their authority and white privilege is challenged. And same goes for the people defending them, who are perfectly illustrating a thing I've noticed recently: white people’s willingness to engage in conversations about racial harm can seemingly be put aside when they feel it’s justified—like, when the racialized person has done something ‘wrong.’

Clearly, for some people, the cause is conditional.

And Did You Hear About 

The backlash against Dave Chappelle’s latest special, The Closer. Vulture’s review is spot-on, as is this Twitter thread on who’s not offended by Chappelle’s transphobia. (Content warning for that last one: gender-based violence, transphobia, death.)  

The dark side of apple picking.

Bustle’s well-reported debunking of Noom, the diet program that tries to play like it’s not a diet program.

This fascinating piece on the links between Britney Spears’ conservatorship and the evangelical Christian movement.

Slate’s Lili Loofbourow on John Mulaney, Olivia Munn and how we think we ‘ought’ to talk about celebrities.

Bonus: This hilariously random tweet. Also this thread. (Why yes, I did go back to my old habits of obsessively refreshing Twitter while IG was down on Monday. I’m done with that now, but I did find some gems, at least.)

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Ellen Pompeo
Dawn Dorland
Sonya Larson