Illustration by Emmalia Godshall for an article on Olivia Jade
What rich people can get away with — especially when it comes to merit-based activities — is something that's often pushed under the rug. (Illustration by Emmalia Godshall, Columbia University)

Olivia Jade, the College Admission Scandal and Class Privilege

While the young influencer’s appearance on ‘Red Table Talk’ proves that the discussion around the controversy is not over, we must shift the dialogue toward one that addresses class.

Thoughts x
Illustration by Emmalia Godshall for an article on Olivia Jade

While the young influencer’s appearance on ‘Red Table Talk’ proves that the discussion around the controversy is not over, we must shift the dialogue toward one that addresses class.

21-year-old beauty influencer Olivia Jade Giannulli, colloquially known as Olivia Jade, sat down in a new episode of “Red Table Talk,” hosted by Jada Pinkett Smith, to speak out for the first time about the college admissions bribery scandal that entrapped her entire family.

The scandal in question began when Jade’s mother, actress Lori Loughlin, and Jade’s father, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, bribed college official William Rick Singer with a grand total of $500,000 to ensure the admission of their two daughters into The University of Southern California (USC). Singer falsely doctored the daughters’ applications to make it appear as if they were talented rowers who would join the women’s rowing team at the university, despite the girls having no actual rowing abilities.

Charged along with 50 other individuals — including actress Felicity Huffman — by the FBI and U.S Attorney’s Office for fraud and bribery-related offenses, Loughlin and Giannulli initially rejected a plea deal and maintained their innocence until May 22, 2020. The pair pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud and honest services wire and mail fraud.  While Loughlin was sentenced to two months in prison, Giannulli was sentenced to five months. However, prison time may not be over for Loughlin, as federal prosecutors have revealed that she is facing additional charges for her role in the scandal.

In the aftermath of the college admissions scandal in March 2019, Jade lost all of the brand deals she acquired in her years as a YouTuber, and left USC. For most of the legal battle, Jade remained rather quiet on social media. She broke her silence only three times: with a (now deleted) Instagram throwing up the middle finger to all of the media outlets (which she tagged in the post) that reported on the scandal and two YouTube videos, one expressing her desire to move on and create more videos on the platform and another being a rather awkward everyday makeup routine.

Thus, in a perhaps desperate but strategic move to curate a new public image based on repentance, Jade requested to have a seat at the table in “Red Table Talk.” Joined by Smith’s mother, Adrienne Banfield-Jones (also known as Gammy) and Smith’s daughter, Willow Smith, Jade acknowledged the severity of the crime committed by her family, apologized for her involvement within it and insisted that she wanted to further learn from her mistakes by acknowledging her privilege as a rich white woman.

While Smith and her daughter seemed to mostly sympathize with Jade, Gammy appeared to take a much harsher tone by publicly expressing that she fought Jade’s appearance on the show. “I fought tooth and nail,” Gammy admitted at the table. “I just find it really ironic that she chose three Black women to reach out to for her redemption story. I feel like here we are, a white woman coming to Black women for support when we don’t get the same from them. It’s bothersome to me on so many levels. Her being here is the epitome of white privilege to me.” To which Jade stated, “I understand that I, just based off my skin color, I already had my foot in the door, and I was already ahead of everybody else.”

“I can recognize that going forward. I do want to do stuff to change that and to help that.” Olivia would express that she “grew up in a bubble” where using her privilege to achieve certain ends was normalized, and she had trusted her parents to guide her correctly.

Gammy is not alone in wanting Jade to fully acknowledge her racial privilege and how the term is synonymous with her very presence. The public’s comments about her return to social media have been overwhelmingly critical, particularly when she posted about George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement on social media, with many telling her to “Shut up about anti-racism” because she was a symbol of white privilege.

The women on “The View” also chimed in on the scandal. Ana Navarro, a co-host, stated, “Look, I really have no interest in talking about this entitled brat and her enabling parents. They’re going to be okay.” Sara Haines, Whoopi Goldberg and the other co-hosts on “The View” would convey their disapproval as well. Haines said, “I don’t believe the ‘I grew up in a bubble’ excuse … She’s 20 years old,” but still placed most of the blame on the parents.

Move the Discourse Toward Class

It is precisely these comments that inspired me to shift this discourse on Jade and her family toward a much-needed discussion on class privilege rather than the current dialogue, which has focused too heavily on the family’s race.

I do believe that racial privilege helped ensure the socioeconomic standings of Jade and her family; they all are conventionally attractive, able-bodied and white, which has certainly helped them all amass the wealth that they now enjoy. However, seeing this through a solely racial lens is ignoring the massive amount of preferential treatment rich people receive in seemingly merit-based activities.

I personally find it rather ironic that Jada Pinkett Smith would berate Jade for using the privilege that she was born with when her own son’s and daughter’s careers are products of nepotism. Both Willow and Jaden are rather talented, but I doubt either of them would see the popularity they have today without the help of two incredibly famous and rich parents backing them. Scolding Jade for using class privilege in her favor would be hypocritical, and force them both to confront the actions they have undertaken to further their children’s careers.

This applies just as strongly to the women on “The View,” who have multi-million dollar net-worths and yet want to (extremely inappropriately) call Jade an “entitled brat.” Navarro especially seems hypocritical for reprimanding Jade so harshly for being racially unaware. Navarro proudly advised John McCain in his racist presidential campaign against Barack Obama. He launched personal attacks in speeches and ads, which also enabled far-right conspiracies. One could say that perhaps Jada, her mother and the women on “The View” were simply scolding Jade for using her privilege in an illegal way — but does legality really matter in this conversation? Would it have been better for Jade to use her parents’ wealth to be admitted into college in a way that would not have been so glaringly illegal and obvious?

Should the family have donated a massive amount of money to the school legally, and subsequently raised the chances of their daughter’s admission into the school exponentially? Does the absence of illegality make using class privilege ethical?

If the answer is no, then it is clear that most celebrities and society’s treatment of their wealthy, but truthfully, likely mediocre, children would be unethical.

We constantly see individual and systemic examples of celebrities and the upper class unethically but legally asserting their status to facilitate nepotism in education. For example, despite his low academic marks, Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior aide, was admitted to Harvard (most likely) on account of his father’s $2.5 million donation to the school.

Legacy admissions themselves are, by their nature, a tool to give applicants from wealthier backgrounds preferential treatment. A 2011 study of admission decisions at 30 highly selective colleges and universities indicated that legacy admissions were “three times more likely” to be admitted. Prestigious universities assume that children of wealthy alumni will be more likely to donate once they become alumni as well. These practices are again very legal, but still propagate the same use of privilege as in Jade’s situation.

While I do understand that people, especially students, are frustrated at Jade, I personally do not find it fair to place the burden of nepotism and class privilege on a then 19-year-old girl, especially by celebrities and members of the one percent who use their privilege in the same way as Jade’s family, simply without being caught. She is a product of the system, and shifting the discourse to perhaps unproductive lenses only further enables that system.

Therefore, I implore you to critically analyze the media surrounding this scandal, and try to remember that this warrants a much deeper analysis than just one surrounding racial privilege. Those who try to frame it as such are being calculated.

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