It would take a really churlish, cranky, Grinch of a viewer to turn Kirk Cousins’ release of enthusiasm and excitement after a stirring comeback win—“YOU LIKE THAT?!? YOU LIKE THAT!”—into anything negative.
So of course I found myself thinking back to Bomani Jones’ comments a few weeks ago, positing a racial component to the way people treat the team’s quarterbacks. I wondered if people would’ve been quite so amused if it had been Robert Griffin III celebrating, or if they would have just seen a young black dude with braids glaring angrily into the camera and shouting.
When Jones’ opinions came into the spotlight, many local fans and media got defensive. This is reasonable, as very few people enjoy being called racist, and those who do enjoy it generally don’t wind up in sports media.
I didn’t take Jones’ comments as actually accusing people of conscious or overt racism, though. I think what he was talking about is the unconscious assumptions that people make, and the conclusions those assumptions lead them to. To use a completely non-race-related example, it’s similar to the way Ryan Fitzpatrick’s Harvard-educated interceptions always seem to be afforded more leeway than those thrown by someone from a Southeastern Conference school.
I know ESPN 980’s Thom Loverro and Kevin Sheehan a little bit, and I want to be explicitly clear here: I don’t think either man is even remotely racist. But to hear the two hosts, both of whom are white, not only brush aside Jones’ concerns but bristle at the very implication… that doesn’t seem likely to help anything.
“I’m just incensed at this notion that the D.C. media is somehow racially biased in their coverage of the quarterbacks of the Washington [Pigskins],” Loverro said.
“I just don’t see how any reasonable person would come to the conclusion that Cousins is being treated differently because of racial motivation,” Sheehan said.
To me, this kind of thing is only reinforcing Jones’ point: If you’re a white guy outright dismissing the very idea that there might be a subconscious racial component to your thinking, it raises more questions than it answers.
It’s also exactly the same kind of thinking that leads to dismissing the concerns that people have with the team name. It’s embedded in ideas like “we don’t mean it to be offensive to your people so it isn’t” or “well, there aren’t enough people who are upset.”
The most fundamental dismissal is “Oh, people will complain about everything.” There’s an othering and diminishing of the very idea of complaint in that dismissal, an eye-rolling sense of, “Oh, just suck it up, you whiners.” It’s the sort of dismissal can only be made by someone who isn’t part of the group in question.
An anecdote from personal experience: I’m pretty comfortable in my own skin as a Jewish guy, and at this point in the 21st century (and in this part of America), most people would tell you that Jews are barely a marginalized or persecuted minority—that any claim that we’re other than white is being overdramatic, and that we only encounter the most “minor” of discrimination.
A few years back, a realtor made a comment during discussions of an offer for a house: We should, she said, “put our Jewishness aside for a minute” and up our offer.
I was furious and humiliated, and felt demeaned by being painted with the most tired stereotype in the history of the Jewish people. The realtor was apologetic. She’s a kind-hearted woman who thought that I would take it as a bit of light-hearted ballbusting. She sobbed throughout her apology. And I’m a pushover of a human being, so I lied and said it was OK.
I’ve been fortunate to only have a few such incidents in my life, but each of them still makes me feel nauseated to recount. I’m not comparing my situation to the plight of anyone who faces genuine, day-to-day oppression, but I am comfortable extrapolating from my own weird blend of anger and embarrassment and nausea.
And what I get from that feeling is this: When people of a minority group say “This bothers me” or “I suspect that there’s some subconscious racial motivation to your actions,” it’s not helpful at all to immediately dismiss those concerns. No one brings up these issues if they’re only casually concerned. These things get in deep, and they sting for far longer than you expect.
What is helpful is to address it, to discuss it openly, to acknowledge the potential problem and figure out how to overcome it.
The idea is to discuss race more openly, not less. The idea is to engage with and confront issues like this, not to brush them off in a moment of sports radio theater, appalled. And that applies whether you’re talking about the person depicted on the side of the helmet or the person wearing it.
Follow Matt Terl on Twitter @Matt_Terl.
Photo via Flickr user bowenmurphy/Creative Commons.