Suntosh Pillay
Suntosh Pillay

Being a straight white male silently cushions Armstrong’s plunge

“Armstrong ‘still a hero’ ” read the Independent on Saturday headline.

Lance Armstrong’s scandalous admission of guilt has got fans scratching their heads wondering how to feel about this anti-hero. The tour-de-farce of lies and denial has climaxed in a tacky American-style made-for-daytime-TV confessionary. Oprah tweeted; the world waited; and now it’s confirmed — cycling’s golden boy had taken us for a ride.

His path to public salvation and his choice of Oprah Winfrey as chief archaeologist of the truth, was strategic. Her façade of sympathetic eyes, well trained visage of concern and compassion, and almost neutral, non-judgmental tone of inquiry, lubricated what could have been a scornful and shameful journalistic inquisition had it been another host, on another show. There’s something about confessing to Oprah that makes you want to give the person a big, fat hug.

“Mixed feelings” summed up the mood in follow-up articles, as fans wondered whether their idol’s books will be moved to the fiction section. Scorn, it seems, was not the default emotion. There was an ambiguity; a desire to forgive.

“South Africans salute disgraced US cyclist” was the Independent’s by-line; USA Today ran a poll, “Give Lance a second chance?” and Matthew McConaughey is sticking by his buddy, saying he felt mad but also sad for his friend’s ordeal.

A blogger, Dustycat, posted: “We flock to athletic Hall of Fame buildings all over the world and marvel at the inductees, not having one clue as to whether they cheated or not. Lance Armstrong got caught! Now he’s disgraced. But one thing we know for sure: he was the best we’ve ever seen or will likely see again when it comes to cycling. Sure he ‘doped’ but, more than likely, his competition ‘doped’ as well … he cheated, I believe, to level the field.”

The subtle, creeping discourse of sympathy comes as no surprise, and one could argue that the silent variable of race is going to play a major part in whether or not public opinion sways in his favour. While there is nothing overtly racial about this story, or the public spanking of Bill Clinton, Tiger Woods, or Chris Brown, a tendency towards leniency when perpetrators are white is well-documented.

This discursive appeal to forgive and understand hovers over the headlines and bylines.

Xolela Mangcu, writing in 2008 about South African politics, argues that this is a frequent quality of white discourse, naming it a “racialised mobilisation of sympathy”. He says this rallying cry of solidarity, to forgive or to understand, can be seen in other events of white transgression such as former cricket captain Hansie Cronje being caught for match-fixing. Cronje was initially vilified in the media, but later rehabilitated as a repentant hero of national sport, especially after his unexpected death. But Mangcu argues that the same leniency is rarely offered by white citizens when the ”perpetrator” is black, but that this is consistent with the punitive, long-held stereotypes of black incompetence and the need to punish black people. He comments: “Too often executioners are able to mobilise public sympathy by hogging media conferences, and calling an amazing array of sophisticated diversions and metaphors … before we know it, a reversal of roles has taken place … the original perpetrator has become the victim.” (p104, To the Brink, 2008).

Despite its best intentions, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission epitomised the social reluctance to punish white wrongdoers. Using the motifs of forgiveness, reconciliation and compassion, white ”perpetrators” of apartheid atrocities became victims of their time, or victims of a cruel system where good people had to do bad things.

Consequently, the stigma of shame evaporates. Armstrong’s reputation management is what sociologist Erving Goffman called “the plight of the discredited”. Writing seminally in the 1960s on how stigmatised people try to save face, Goffman observed that stigmatised folk try desperately to reconstruct their humiliated identities to fit historical narratives of who they once were. Armstrong’s struggle with cancer may ironically be his saving grace; it humanises his character, as a suffering, flawed, but charitable figure. These will be highlighted as the trial by public opinion continues.

Even Robert Feldman, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts who studies lying and deception, commented that “the world is rife with great liars … nothing about the Lance Armstrong case is shocking. We all lie every day. We live in a culture where lying is quite acceptable”. He goes on to make the case that “we want superheroes” to believe in, implying that Armstrong probably lied for our sake.

This leniency, however unconscious it may operate, extends globally when one compares the newspaper coverage of black versus white villains. Similarly white criminals in the US seeking presidential pardons over the past decade have been nearly four times as likely to succeed compared to minorities, according to research by ProPublica. In response, Roger Adams, who served as head of the US justice department’s pardons office from 1998 to 2008, said “I’m just astounded by those numbers,” saying he could think of nothing in the office’s practices that would have skewed the recommendations. “I can recall several African Americans getting pardons.” The pro-white/anti-black bias remains hidden precisely because it has become normalised, with a few outliers used as anecdotal evidence that no bias exists.

Mercy, it seems, is statistically in favour of lighter pigmentation.

The prototype for perfect on the continuum of life has for centuries been the heterosexual, able-bodied, white male, and if a poster-boy was needed, Lance Armstrong would be it. His disgrace, however painful, is doubly cushioned by racial privilege and colonial cultural norms that are silently embedded in our discourse. Although race per se will not enter this debate, evidence shows us that white villains are reincarnated into victims much easier than their black counterparts. Using this as a case study draws awareness to hidden, silent privileges afforded to some and not others, hopefully enriching this debate in a meaningful way as we voyeuristically watch him cycle up the road to redemption.

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    • Mr. Direct


      “So, can a reasonable person who looks at the above academic evidence and then finds evidence in the media that Lance Armstrong is receiving sympathetic coverage right off the bat, argue that perhaps – just maybe – an established set of variables are at play?”

      A reasonable person could argue that Lance Armstrong is receiving sympathy from the media. Could this be based on the etablished set of variables as defined in your article – of course.

      Maybe this has more to do with his charity work through his foundation, and less to do with the colour of his skin. Although you have not presented any statistics that show how people who contribute to charity fair in the press and in the courts.

      Must be the colour thing though – In our South African tinted glasses, it can only be the colour thing…

    • Momma Cyndi


      I haven’t seen any media coverage which puts Armstrong in a good light or is overly sympathetic to him. Maybe we are looking at different media? Other than the Oprah show (and she has sympathetic trademarked) and perhaps one or two other articles, most of what I have seen has been ridicule and anger towards him

    • Garg Unzola

      OK enough pussyfooting you’re not just getting it:

      Any reasonable person would not play the race card. The post above is nothing but good old fashioned racism. You are grasping at straws and your ‘research’ is nothing but grasping at straws.

    • Sharon

      Wow, never thought of it this way. Thanks, it does shed a lot of light and even reminds me of instances where I’ve seen this in my regular daily existence.

    • Hameeda

      WOW this has been one good read, both the article and the passionate comments that have followed. Thank you Suntosh for inspiring such debate, hate mail (I’m sure) and controversy.

      I personally do not think that Lance will get away with anything because he is white, or because he is from the West. I strongly believe that he will get away with what he did purely because of the media. Lance has already been shown the door by all the authorities and national bodies involved in cycling. He won’t get any of that that back. Right now he is on trial by the media. Right now it’s the “in thing” to hate Lance publicly, to tell on him for how he crushed our dreams and killed our hopes. But once all the anger subsides, he will become a lost soul that needs our sympathy, someone that makes mistakes and someone who is human. Then he will release a book, a movie and an album about how he lost his way, and why we should understand him. Everyone will watch it, everyone will be overwhelmed. This is not because he is white. This is because we live in a Capitalist society that likes to milk any story for all the cash its worth. Give modern day Capitalism a black Lance and the same tune will play.

    • Momma Cyndi

      I’m with Hameada on this. Both for the conclusion and the synopsis of the conversation

      Possibly one of the best conversations on Thought Leader and surely one that I will be sad to see fall off the bottom of the page.

      Well done Suntosh

    • Suntosh Pillay

      Thanks all for engaging in this conversation. It’s been an intense debate, and I certainly take the substantial points and criticisms made by some writers, and also challenge others to rethink their own positions.

    • Sduduzo

      The initial reaction to Oscar Pistorious shooting Reeva Steenkamp is interesting when one reflects on this article. It is regrettable that there are people who assume mentioning race is racist.