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‘I didn’t know’ is not a defense for sexual harassment or racism

Powerful men have long claimed ignorance as an excuse for misdeeds. That privilege is finally fading.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo prepares to board a helicopter after announcing his resignation in New York earlier this week.Seth Wenig/Associated Press

In announcing his resignation after accusations of sexual harassment, soon-to-be-former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said, “In my mind, I’ve never crossed the line with anyone, but I didn’t realize the extent to which the line has been redrawn.”

Translation: “I didn’t realize the extent to which I would be held accountable for my actions.”

Cuomo’s “line” reportedly allowed nonconsensual kissing and touching, personal questions about infidelity and dating older men, and at least one terribly rendered chorus of the Contours’ “Do You Love Me?” according to 11 women interviewed during a New York state attorney general’s investigation into the governor’s conduct.


There has never been a time when a man putting his hand on a woman’s breast without her consent was acceptable. Men simply expected to get away with it. Yet Cuomo, who rarely missed an opportunity to burnish his image as a proponent of women’s rights, is now playing that hoary old “Times done changed and no one told me” card.

It’s a kind of shell game played by men, especially powerful white men — ignorance as absolution. How can they be at fault when they just didn’t know any better?

That’s the same defense Morgan Wallen, a country singer, tried when he was captured on tape last February casually dropping the n-word with a group of friends. First he said he was drunk, as if alcohol causes racism the way a mosquito bite causes an itch. Later, Wallen claimed he “didn’t mean it . . . in any derogatory manner at all” and “in our minds, it’s playful . . . that sounds ignorant, but it — that’s really where it came from . . . and it’s wrong.”

It’s unfathomable that a white man, who must have noticed the cries for racial justice that filled America’s streets last summer, didn’t recognize the hate embedded in a word that’s probably been one of the last heard by thousands of Black people in this country before a white supremacist’s noose or bullet ended their lives.


These men never acknowledge that what they’ve done is wrong until they’re publicly called to account for it. And then it’s all reputation repair and excuses of naivete.

“I didn’t know” is not a defense for racism or sexual harassment. Too many men are so accustomed to saying and doing whatever they want — think of former movie producer now convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein telling young actresses “That’s how it works” as a prelude to sexual assault — that accountability feels like an affront. They can’t understand why behavior long tolerated is now a problem.

Earlier this month, Matt Damon spent days trying to mop up his own self-inflicted mess. In a interview with The Sunday Times, a British newspaper, he said he “made a joke months ago” that compelled one of his daughters to write “a very long, beautiful treatise” on the “dangerous” history of what he said she called “the ‘f-slur for a homosexual.’”

“I said, ‘I retire the f-slur!’” Damon said. “I understood.”

More difficult to understand is why a 50-year-old man didn’t “retire” that anti-gay slur decades earlier. In lambasting Damon, some even said that a “Harvard-educated person” should have known better — Damon attended the university but left to pursue an acting career — as if that guarantees moral decency or common sense. Don’t forget that both Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas are also Harvard educated.


Damon later released a statement to Variety claiming he has never used that derogatory word in his “personal life” and does not “use slurs of any kind.”

While the actions of Cuomo, Wallen, and Damon vary, they meet at the familiar junction of privilege and patriarchy where indulgence is assumed and repercussions are usually few. That’s why Cuomo meant it when he said he “didn’t fully appreciate” the “generational and cultural shifts” in how his interactions with women might be perceived.

Cuomo also told on himself. Even as he publicly championed the #MeToo movement and denounced workplace sexual harassment, he privately overlooked his hypocrisy and failed to notice that survivors of sexual misconduct find no sanctuary in the silence that only benefits perpetrators.

Ignorance is a false excuse for objectionable behavior. That “line” Cuomo mentioned about appropriate behavior hasn’t been “redrawn.” What changed is that men are finally being forced to recognize not only that it exists but that, when crossed, it demands accountability.

Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.