Reposted from Blogger
Stereotypes in Race and Sports – February 7, 2007
I was listening to Dan Patrick’s radio show a couple weeks ago, and he came to an interesting topic. Dan and Keith Olbermann were discussing Joe Biden and George W. Bush’s recent comments describing Barack Obama as “clean” and “articulate”. Naturally, comments like that would cause an uproar, or at the very least, plenty of heated discussion. Dan and Keith were discussing those comments as seen through the filters of a sports fan. In sports, there are often coded words used to describe certain athletes of every race. “Clean” and “articulate” are often used to describe a black athlete who is generally media friendly. “Well-spoken” is another code phrase. Obviously, the general idea is that people are surprised to find out that a black person can actually be articulate and clean, and this is somehow a cause for astonishment and celebration. I do realize that words like that may not be intended by the speaker to be condescending, but in this age of political correctness, it would be naive of most people not to recognize how those words can sound.
I’m sure that Biden and Bush were not consciously using those words to express surprise at Obama’s intelligence or cleanliness, but they should have realized how it sounded. What, did they expect a United States Senator to be inarticulate? To have poor hygenie? To act like a punk or thug? To walk around acting like every negative sterotype of African-Americans? Bush isn’t that bright, but his handlers should have known better than to let him say that. Biden should have known better, period.
A lot of white Americans don’t seem to realize that blacks are not some monolithic, static group. There is huge variation between them. Some are smart and successful, some aren’t. Just like every ethnic group. Calling a black person, athlete or not, “articulate” and “well spoken” makes it sound like they aren’t normally that way. It is condscending, unconscious or not. In the sports world, you hear those cliches a lot. Black athletes are also often described as “athletic” and “physically gifted”, while their white counterparts are “gritty”, “hard working”, and “blue collar”. The idea there is that white guys can’t be good athletes, and have to compensate for their lack of athleticism with guts and determination. Conversely, black guys are naturally athletic, and don’t have to work hard to succeed.
These stereotypes are obviously absurd on the surface. And they aren’t usually meant to be used to stereotype people. I personally don’t try to find conspiracies and hidden meanings in everything. Sometimes though, these are code words used to describe someone’s actual feelings. And sometimes, the meanings behind these phrases are unconcious, playing at the stereotypes that many people often think of without realizing it.
Language can be a powerful thing. And when misused, it can hurt, even unintentionally. I don’t believe in censorship. Free speech is incredibly important. However, one consequence of free speech is the potential backlash from poorly thought-out commentary. Sure, Tim Hardaway can say he hates gay people, but he needs to be prepared for the understandable reactions to his ignorance. And senators and presidents can use thinly-veiled racial codes out of either malice or ignorance. But they shouldn’t be too surprised at the responses their words generate.