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January 24, 2014 5

Richard Sherman and Enduring Racial Stereotypes

We recently had a reminder of the endur­ing power of stereo­types in Amer­i­can when an inter­view by Seat­tle Sea­hawks cor­ner­back Richard Sher­man prompted a slew of racist remarks on Twit­ter and a main­stream media com­men­ta­tor referred to him as a “thug” and an “ape.”

Richard Sherman

Richard Sher­man

While per­haps unin­ten­tional on the part of media com­men­ta­tors, the lan­guage sur­round­ing Sherman’s inter­view evoked painful stereo­types of African Amer­i­cans.  Racist imagery that por­trays African Amer­i­cans as beasts, espe­cially mon­keys, emerged dur­ing the Jim Crow era as a means to legit­imize unequal treat­ment of African Amer­i­cans.  Unfor­tu­nately, these stereo­types endure today.  And to many African Amer­i­cans — indeed all peo­ple of good will — these stereo­types remain as inap­pro­pri­ate and offen­sive now as they were in the 20th century.

Stereo­types of African Amer­i­cans harken back to a time when bla­tant racism was com­mon­place in our nation.

The his­tor­i­cal mean­ing of this imagery is often not on most people’s radar, but it should be. It is likely that many Amer­i­cans do not even real­ize they are actu­ally per­pet­u­at­ing age-old racism when they refer to African Amer­i­cans in these terms.

Part of the work of untan­gling the legacy of racism involves edu­cat­ing our­selves and our youth not to engage in it. Words carry our his­tory with them. We can­not pre­tend that refer­ring to a black man as an “ape” is not rooted in racism, and that it is not hurt­ful.  The same goes for stereo­typ­i­cal remarks about other minor­ity groups such as Jews.  Whether such hurt­ful lan­guage is man­i­fested in pro­fes­sional sports, in polit­i­cal dis­course or in school hall­ways, we must counter racist imagery and ter­mi­nol­ogy with con­dem­na­tion and expec­ta­tions that we can be better.

On the pos­i­tive side, the lan­guage we use has the power to change the future and to advance much-needed inter­cul­tural group dynam­ics in our country.

Teach­ers who work with mid­dle and high school youth can uti­lize cur­rent events and social dis­course to start con­ver­sa­tions about how our his­tory of racism con­tin­ues to impact us today.

Moments like these hurt and are rep­re­hen­si­ble, but they can also be oppor­tu­ni­ties to edu­cate and inspire a gen­er­a­tion to end racism.

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