When Racism and Anti-Semitism Get Together on a Podcast

I’m not sure how much overlap there is between my community and the people who follow/followed Leandra Medine Cohen of the now defunct Manrepeller, but since her latest interview is currently what is occupying my brain (and all of my direct messages on Instagram), I’m going to start a discussion about it here, so that anybody interested can talk about it with each other.

I’ll give you the backstory in shorthand, because I think the majority of the people who will want to talk about this are already very familiar. Leandra was a fashion blogger who focused on dressing for yourself instead of dressing with men in mind (hence, Manrepeller). She was able to transition her personal blog into a very successful media company and ran it for about ten years. Back in May 2020, after the death of George Floyd and during the Black Lives Matter protests, when a lot of white people woke up to their privilege in this country, Manrepeller posted their black square on Instagram and said they stood for diversity and inclusion. Then followers and former employees challenged Leandra on whether that was actually true, especially in light of laying off their only full time Black employee at the beginning of the pandemic. Leandra was accused of leading a toxic work environment that did not give Black people the same opportunities as white people and running a fashion site that lacked diversity. She decided to step down and Manrepeller shut down a few months later.

One would assume stepping down was admitting wrongdoing or at least giving herself time to learn and self reflect. A recent interview on the podcast The Cutting Room Floor suggests otherwise. Leandra explains that her departure was something she had wanted to do for awhile and that her cancellation gave her a way out. She also says she wishes she had fought the allegations instead of accepting them. She denies being a racist and attributes any mistakes made in running her company to just being a bad boss and an asshole.

The host Recho Omondi tries to get Leandra to understand that she wasn’t being accused of being a racist, so much as a woman who did not see her own privilege and bias. Arguably, if Leandra admitted that she was unaware of her implicit bias and the microaggressions she was perpetuating in the workplace at the time, but now has come to understand them, she would have put herself in a much better light. Instead she doubled down and tried to get the host to sympathize with her. She said she grew up thinking she was poor and only recently realized that she was rich, because she was the least privileged of the privileged people in her incredibly privileged community. This of course, sounds absolutely ridiculous and is probably the last thing you should actually say out loud, let alone on a Black woman’s podcast where you are trying to redeem yourself for past mistakes towards a marginalized group.

I want to be clear that Leandra Medine Cohen asked for this interview, had numerous times to rerecord it and has no one to blame but herself for how self-involved and delusional she sounded. It is especially bizarre as to why she even wanted to be on Recho’s podcast. She has her fanbase and has explained herself to her Substack audience, but clearly, that wasn’t enough. She needed to win over a community who was no longer listening to her, which just demonstrates she is still seeking approval rather than actually trying to better herself. In the interview, she does all the things that if she had actually done some anti-racist work, she would know are problematic— making it all about herself, not taking any accountability for her actions, and trying to equate her struggle to the Black experience in America. It was very difficult to listen to her try to play the victim, even when she says she is taking off her “victim shoes.” Or the example of her crying on the phone when she laid off Crystal Anderson, the Black employee who got laid off at the beginning of the pandemic, as if the decision was more painful for Leandra than for Crystal. I also think Recho brought up some very eye-opening points that I hadn’t heard described as clearly before like the “pet to threat” issue at the workplace, where white people hire a Black woman and treat them like a positive asset, until that Black woman gets too good at her job. Based on what I heard during the interview, and based on what I know about working in an office in general, I can definitely see this as being the case.

But there were many levels to this podcast, because the other issue was that the interview was bookended with very anti-semitic language and stereotypes. For instance, at the beginning, Recho says many founders and slave owners in America were also Jewish. This is false because Jewish people made up such a small fraction of the American population at the time. It is true that there were some Jewish slave owners but this is estimated at around 1%. The myth that Jews controlled the slave trade is used to spread the anti-semitic conspiracy theory that Jews are secretly in charge of everything. Recho also includes a clip of a woman saying “Jews were slaves too. You don’t hear us complaining about it.” This is a recorded bit from a non-Jewish comedian and not actually said by a Jewish person, although that is not clarified in the episode. But the most offensive part for me came at the end, after the interview was over when Recho says, “I couldn’t stomach another white assimilated Jewish American Princess who is wildly privileged but thinks she’s oppressed. At the end of the day you guys are going to get your nose jobs and your keratin treatments and change your last name from Ralph Lifshitz to Ralph Lauren and you will be fine.”

I totally get that white Jewish women have an easier time assimilating in America than most minorities, but I can’t imagine any of this being said to another ethnic or religious group and it being acceptable, let alone applauded.

So. Here you have a privileged white woman not taking accountability for racism in the workplace and a host using anti-semitism to prove just how privileged her guest is, which just makes the whole thing so difficult to process. Leandra might represent a certain kind of person in the fashion industry, but she definitely doesn’t represent all Jewish women.

Recho got tons of praise for the interview when it first came out, including an article in NY Mag making fun of Leandra that didn’t even mention the anti-semitic comments. Meanwhile, NY Mag is as guilty as anyone for propping up privileged NYC elite. I know because for most of my young adult life, I poured over the pages of their magazine wondering who these socialites were who were mingling with celebrities in designer dresses at fancy parties. If there was anything that could make little kid Leandra feel like she might be rich, but not RICH RICH, it was NY Mag. The idea of them making fun of Leandra’s privilege is pretty hypocritical, in my opinion, even if she is deserving of the criticism.

Which leads me to the comments on Recho’s Instagram, which she has since shut down. Most of them were complimenting Recho on the takedown of Leandra. There were a few comments from Jewish people calling out the anti-semitism in the episode. These comments were met with responses that were largely anti-semitic. People saying things like, “I like your wigs” and “interesting how everyone calling out anti-semitism looks like Leandra’s twin.” I think Recho felt uncomfortable with the anti-semitism in her comments as well, because she posted on her Instagram story that she would be removing all anti-semitic comments and blocking the people who made them, somehow not realizing that what she published in her podcast was just as bad, if not worse. At the very least, you would hope she would wonder why people suddenly felt so comfortable expressing their anti-semitic thoughts on her Instagram page.

One of the main themes in her comments and pretty much whenever someone mentions anti-semitism is that Jewish people are imagining it or using it to deflect a larger issue. I have honestly considered this at other times this year when it was brought up in liberal circles I trusted. I have seen certain individuals do this and I think Leandra tried to use her Judaism as a way to equate her experience to a Black person’s in America, which made me cringe big time. As a Jewish woman, I know I benefit from white privilege and do not experience the systemic oppression that exists for Black people in this country. But there is no denying there was anti-semitism in the podcast and the response to the podcast, so please don’t tell Jewish people that they imagined it or that we need to reflect on why it made us feel so uncomfortable, as if racism is not okay but anti-semitism is deserved.

Last night, Recho edited out the comments about Jewish slaveholders and about Jewish American Princesses from her podcast episode. She has not made any public comments about the deletions yet, so to people listening to the podcast for the first time, it will sound like the Jewish people in her comment section are making much ado about nothing. I am hoping she addresses this because it doesn’t seem fair to just delete and pretend it didn’t happen.

Now, one can presume that Recho realized her mistake and took the comments down to reflect. But just like Leandra taught us, we cannot assume people do things with purely good intentions. More likely, Recho let us see her true feelings and then didn’t like the backlash, while also feeling uncomfortable with the support.

It’s a lot to unpack. Both on how it’s possible that Leandra didn’t see her own privilege and on how Recho didn’t see her words as anti-semitic. Any thoughts?

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