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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.