Immediately after the Seattle Seahawks beat the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, Richard Sherman gave an intense, boastful post-game interview.  This triggered the always-present racism, as illustrated by many tweets that followed.  Here is just a sample from Public Shaming:

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These are obviously cruel and full of hate, but the ones in which he was called a “thug” got somewhat less attention:

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In interviews about the racist response, Sherman made some really nice points about what this means about the state of America and the specifically racial insults.  In a press conference, for example, asked about being called a “thug,” he argued that it’s just “the accepted way of calling someone the n-word these days.”  He points out that, in no way was what he was doing thug-like:

Maybe I’m talking loudly, and doing something… talking like I’m not supposed to, but I’m not… there’s a hockey game where they didn’t even play hockey, they just threw the puck aside and started fighting.  I saw that and I said, “Aw man, I’m the thug? What!? What’s going on here?”

In another video, he expands on this point, saying: “I’m not out there beating on people, or committing crimes, or getting arrested, or doing anything; I’m playing a football game at a high level and I got excited.”

Sherman’s making two points.  First, that there was nothing thug-like about his behavior.  Thugs are violent criminals.  He’s just playing a game.  And, second, the term is decidedly racial, applied to him largely because of the color of his skin.  Meanwhile, hockey players, who are overwhelmingly white, as well as other white athletes, don’t as often get these sorts of labels even if they are physically violent in ways that exceed the demands of their sport.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.
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