[Precursor disclaimer of sorts: I have struggled with whether writing this post is appropriate for DGWUSports (what with our insistence on dick and fart jokes and offensive humor of all stripes), whether I have anything of value to say (what with the general agreement that I am, indeed, an idiot), and whether the value of whatever I can say about this story is worth the potential backlash and confusion and little shitstorms that might come my way (what with our communal inability to process issues of race with any shred of civility...but more on that below).
I don't know everything, and despite the impression you may take from my overzealous and wordy stab at this topic, I'm not pretending to be any final arbiter of race and language and morality. These are my opinions, and mine alone, and are presented here as a mere contribution to a greater conversation that is ongoing and needs to continue in the wake of stories like the one coming out of Ken East.]
Now that my ass hath been sufficiently covered - I hope - some facts, briefly, free of links and such, since I trust that you already know about this story and/or know about Google.
First fact: this post will have little to do with sports. I hope you read it anyway.
It's incredibly difficult to know what to say about something like this happening. Moments like this call for greatness, for perfect phrasing and artful analysis, for Herculean arguments that just might lift the debate to another level of discourse. Of course, I could easily unleash some quintessential Barrister rage at parents or teachers or coaches, simply call foul, drop a couple F-bombs, maybe even dish out some poorly thought out insults at white people who apparently can't figure out the basics of human decency.
But that's not where my head is at with this today.
Instead, a thesis of sorts: That this happened in 2011 is shocking, yet ultimately not surprising. That we still lack socially acceptable and accessible tools to discuss something like this in 2011 is tragic.
In wake of the Ken East story, there are a fair share of people in the racial majority (and I use that term to reflect the power structure of race in our country, rather than just the numbers) who would have us believe that the chants used by the team are not actually offensive (or at least not that offensive) because they were allegedly created as some sort of bonding ritual between a white player and a black player who used to play for the team. Taking it a step further, some have argued that the white players are now being subjected to heavy-handed reactions and prejudice by being unfairly held to account for a history of racism that they neither chose nor had any hand in.
This desire to deflect blame, while understandable, falls into a dangerous trap, as it purports to have the seemingly accepting opinion of one individual represent the opinion of an entire group of people. In other words, it implies that Tyra can't very well be offended by the chant since a person of color previously thought that the chant was ok. At it's core, the argument dehumanizes Tyra in a serious way by disallowing her from holding an opinion all her own, implying instead that she must accept and adopt the opinion of a person she may not know and who certainly does not speak for her.
This line of defense also tends to ignore the reality that, while a thing of the past, racism is also a thing of our present and future; that there remains a very real risk that racism will continue to be as pervasive as ever, even after our country has worked towards racial equality. Surely, the history of racism we've all inherited is not our fault, and it's not the fault of these Ken East players. But, with racial divisions still pervading our cultural, governmental and capitalist institutions, and with racial minorities still facing violent forms of oppression throughout our nation and world, the need to call spades is as urgent as ever.
I do think it's fair to say - and necessary to recognize - that every person on the planet likely feels, from time to time, with varying degrees of frequency, that they're being unfairly treated on the basis of some characteristic about which the have little or no control, and from which it is completely unreasonable to draw conclusions about a person's actual character. That said, some prejudice is supported by history and institutional power structures, and some is not. For better or worse, white folk and rich folk and men folk and straight folk all need to be aware of the impact that even their well-meaning acts can have on people who identify with a minority group. Even if it is, in a sense, unfair that anyone should have to account for the unintended consequences of their actions, the hurtful impact of using the N-word, for example, is eminently foreseeable and that forseeability creates a moral responsibility to steer clear of using the word. Especially when a teammate asks you to stop.
Indisputably, this is a teachable moment for the teammates at Ken East, but even the most optimistic among us have no choice but to assume that the moment will be largely lost. We still haven't figured out the basics of how to talk about these kinds of issues, and instead find ourselves - from the outset - rushing to assign blame and take sides and put our foot down for what we think is right. In the end, that gets us very close to where we began: angry, partially if not wholly isolated, and at risk of exacerbating the problem further with misunderstandings. The conversation becomes one focused only towards defining the conduct as racist or not, as offensive or not. Nuance and the possibility of gray area is abandoned in favor of gut reactions and lines in the sand.
There's a danger in simplifying any instances of alleged racism as a simple matter of right or wrong. To call what happened at Ken East "wrong" is certainly a valid point, and one that I would certainly not begrudge anyone for holding. Indeed, I believe it myself. But, a curt dismissal of the team's behavior is also woefully inadequate, to paraphrase Lisa Delpit in her book "Other People's Children," because it does little to identify the truest nature of the problems at East. Dismissing these players as wrong or stupid or hateful, in other words, is of little use in paving a path towards actually solving those problems.
Of course, this begs the question of what ought to be the next step. Assuming for a minute that these teammates were truly clueless as to the real impact of their words, they are in desperate need of some real education about the interplay between race and language, and the absurdity of attributing the opinion of one person to an entire group of people just because they have the same skin color. That need for education is even more acute if they were actually less clueless than they'd have us now believe. They need to be given an opportunity to listen and learn and, perhaps most importantly, talk out loud without fear of further chastisement about where and why they apparently missed the point.
Moments like this call for greatness. These are the times educators and coaches can take the problem head on and create opportunities for growth and mutual understanding, opportunities which have been missed by too many of us already. While it remains to be seen what kind of appoach Ken East will take in trying to recover from this incident (all we have now is a sketchy report that "cultural sensitivity training" is on it's way for the team, via an "outside agency" ... forgive me, though, if I don't hold my breath), I fear that, instead of a holistic and humanizing approach to the issue for everyone involved, the players from Ken East will instead get the status quo inability to confront these tough issues with anything resembling honesty and true, mutual empathy. And, as much as those words spoken at Ken East make me absolutely sick, the likelihood that another generation of students may continue on with anger, confusion and resentment over issues of race makes me even sicker.
I hope you liked this, and even if you don't, I hope you comment below. Don't we need smart, well-intentioned people to chime in on this and keep the conversation going? Be that guy. Please.
On Twitter @theycallmedubs.