After Her Infamous Emmys Tweets, “General Hospital” actress Nancy Grahn Comes To Atlanta’s King Center To Discuss Lessons Learned
Like most of us, “General Hospital” actress Nancy Lee Grahn has carelessly fired off opinionated missives on social media without checking her facts. But since Grahn’s now-infamous tweets last September reacting to Viola Davis’ historic win as the first black woman to score an Outstanding Lead Actress Emmy for her work in “How To Get Away With Murder,” she’s had a lot of time to do her homework.
With over 156,000 Twitter followers, Grahn’s comments instantly went viral and she became a trending topic online after she criticized Davis’ Emmys acceptance speech, tweeting: “I’m a f**king actress for 40 years. None of us get respect or opportunity we deserve. Emmys not venue 4 racial opportunity. ALL women belittled.”
“The bottom line is this: I didn’t see the speech,” Grahn explained this week during an exclusive interview with Eldredge ATL, her first since the controversy erupted last fall. Since 1996, Grahn has portrayed Emmy-winning fan favorite legal eagle Alexis Davis on the long-running ABC daytime drama. “I didn’t know was what going on and shame on me for not knowing it was a historic win and shame on me for getting on Twitter and making comments about a speech I didn’t see. I made a terrible mistake.”
It wasn’t until a friend called and filled her in that Grahn discovered the historic nature of Davis’ win and the context of her acceptance speech. Grahn then stayed up all night apologizing on Twitter. But the damage was done. By Monday morning, she was a trending topic on Facebook and the media was camped out on her lawn.
But instead of shrugging off the hatred directed at her, Grahn began a journey of self-discovery that will bring her to The King Center in downtown Atlanta Saturday as one of the panelists for a community talk, “The Race Factor & Rights vs. Responsibilities,” with King Center CEO Bernice King, the youngest daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King.
Explains Grahn: “Here’s what I learned. When Viola Davis was talking about race that night, I didn’t get it. It’s because I have white privilege. I grew up not seeing race and I grew up mistakenly believing that not seeing the color of someone’s skin was a sign of respect. That’s probably true of a lot of white people. When Viola Davis was up there, I didn’t see a black actress. I just saw a great actress. And that’s the problem. People of color don’t have that privilege. It wasn’t something I had investigated. I never thought about white privilege because I didn’t have to. After all, the Band-Aids are manufactured to match my skin color, aren’t they? Now I’m digging into all of this. I’m learning and I have more to learn.”
As Grahn bore the brunt of the aftermath of what US Weekly described as “hate-tweets” last fall, she received a phone call from King Center Global Curriculum Initiatives Director Vonnetta West. Turns out, West has followed Grahn’s career since her days on the NBC soap “Santa Barbara” and also follows the self-described left-wing half-Jewish actress on Twitter. It’s the social media platform where Grahn has tweeted her outrage over GOP disrespect toward President Barack Obama, the treatment of protesters in Ferguson and where she demanded that the confederate flag come down from southern state capitols. Grahn has worked behind the scenes as a family court reform advocate in the effort to get child custody reform passed in the California state legislature in 2011.
Recalls Grahn: “Vonnetta knew my bend on social issues and she said to me, ‘You made a mistake but the fallout hasn’t been equitable. I keep up with you. I see the type of person you are. Let’s turn this into something good.’”
At West’s invitation, Grahn flew to Atlanta to meet with Bernice King at the King Center. A warm reception awaited her. Recalls Grahn: “I was still feeling pretty devastated and this woman walks in the room with her father’s face and her mother’s smile and put her arms out and gives me a hug. The King Center shined light on me and shined light on the situation for me.”
The real irony of Grahn’s social media missteps criticizing Davis last fall? The Emmy-winning ABC daytime actress and the Emmy-winning ABC primetime actress are fighting the same fight for women over 50 in Hollywood. Grahn is such a Davis fan she DVRs “How To Get Away With Murder” weekly. “Just so I can study her,” Grahn says. “Viola Davis was incredibly gracious when she was asked about my idiotic tweets. I felt terrible that she had to take even five seconds to talk about an actress she shouldn’t even know. The whole thing was so humiliating.”
Last fall in Atlanta, Grahn went through diversity training with veteran King Center nonviolence educator Charles Alphin Sr., toured the civil rights center and listened to “The Drum Major Instinct,” MLK’s final sermon preached on Feb. 4, 1968 at Ebenezer Baptist Church, just eight weeks before his assassination. The sermon’s message for Grahn was simple: “If you’re going to speak, know what you’re saying.”
The actress returned to Atlanta in November to do a 30-minute Periscope chat online with Bernice King and she says she wants to use her time at Saturday’s community dialogue to express her thanks and to detail what she’s learned.
“The experiences I’ve had at The King Center bring me to tears,” Grahn says. “It’s embarrassing that I never saw my privilege. It’s embarrassing that I’ve never spoken about my privilege. It was never a part of my education. When I was growing up, unless you were studying to be a lawyer or a social worker, the value of diversity training wasn’t discussed. If my story can be a cautionary tale for someone else, if it can be a teachable moment for other white people like me who are living in a white privilege bubble? Let’s do it. Look, I’m a reasonably smart woman who was unintentionally being disrespectful. My goal is to use this to promote more understanding, more compassion and more learning. White privilege is real. It’s a fact. And we need to have a conversation about it. My goal is to turn this around and create something positive.”
For more information on the Beloved Community Talk “The Race Factor & Rights vs. Responsibilities,” Saturday, January 9, 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at The King Center downtown, go to The King Center website.
Richard L. Eldredge is the founder and editor in chief of Eldredge ATL. As a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta magazine, he has covered Atlanta since 1990.