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January 24, 2014

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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January 21, 2014

‘That’s So Gay’: Language That Hurts, and How to Stop It

The phrase “that’s so gay” has persisted as a way for students to describe things they do not like, find annoying or generally want to put down, while it is promising that fewer students are hearing homophobic slurs than in previous years.

The phrase is used so commonly that many students no longer recognize it as homophobic because it is “what everyone says.” When educators and other adults intervene, common student responses include “I was just joking,” “I don’t mean actual ‘gay people’ when I say ‘that’s so gay’” and “My friend is gay, and she doesn’t mind.”

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) No Name-Calling Week. In its 2011 National School Climate Survey, GLSEN’s findings remind us of the work that still needs to be done.

  • 84.9% of students heard “gay” used in a negative way (e.g., “that’s so gay”) frequently or often at school, and 91.4% reported that they felt distressed because of this language
  • 71.3% heard other homophobic remarks (e.g., “dyke” or “faggot”) frequently or often
  • 61.4% heard negative remarks about gender expression (not acting “masculine enough” or “feminine enough”) frequently or often

These kinds of responses represent the slippery nature of bias and how easily youth can reflect larger social attitudes about difference. Biased language, when it isn’t checked, can escalate to harsher behavior like bullying, and may contribute to an emotionally, and potentially physically, unsafe school environment.

Here are three things adults should consider when intervening against biased language:

  1. Assume good will. Bias is pervasive, and in all likelihood a student is unknowingly reflecting a bias they heard from peers, the media or family members. The student will likely be open to feedback and dialogue. If they do not believe LGBT people should be mistreated, their language should reflect that.
  2. Stay focused, and do not allow yourself to be immobilized by uncertainty or the enormity of the topic. Intervening in homophobic remarks does not require a discussion about sexuality or the history of anti-LGBT slurs. It is about using language appropriately and in a way that shows respect for diversity.
  3. Be clear about the bias behind the words. Good people sometimes say cruel things. It doesn’t matter if the student didn’t intend to be homophobic, because a negative comment about any group has the potential to hurt individuals and whole communities. While intervening doesn’t require a discussion about sexuality or teaching about the history of LGBT people and/or slurs, the teacher may decide that some classroom instruction in these areas is useful.


For more resources, visit ADL’s additional resource page and Curriculum Connections to download Unheard Stories: LGBT History curriculum resource.


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