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January 31, 2014

Derrick Coleman: Creating Conversation About Differences

The Super Bowl is arguably one of the biggest days in American sports, and with good reason. In addition to being a competition of the best two football teams in the most popular sport in America, this year it is also the kind of celebration not often associated with professional sports.

Derrick Coleman, a running back for the Seattle Seahawks, is the only legally deaf athlete in professional football history to play offense. In early January 2014, Coleman served as the inspiration for a major brand’s commercial where he talks about the impact his hearing impairment has had on his life. The video went viral and in less than a week, and had 5.5 million views.

Coleman’s personal story provides an excellent teaching opportunity to discuss disabilities and the importance of safeguarding the rights and dignity of people with disabilities in our communities and around the world. As the U.S. Senate debates whether to ratify an international treaty on disability rights , Derrick’s story provides an opportunity to put a human face on the impact that treaty can have on people’s lives.

Education can be formal and informal. We have created a new classroom lesson for teachers, but adults can create a lesson in their own living rooms during the Super Bowl. Here are a few questions to the get the conversation going with your friends and family.

  • Do you know what a disability is?
  • What’s unique about Derrick Coleman?
  • What do you think it’s like to feel you are different from everyone else?
  • What are some ways you could help others who are treated unfairly because they are different?

It’s not necessary to have all the answers.  The very act of creating a conversation about difference is a healthy and productive way to raise awareness that being different is ok, and is in fact something to celebrate.

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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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