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Geno vs. "the Nation of Cowards": What Auriemma's comments tell us about racial dialogue in the U.S.

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Far more interesting to me than Geno Auriemma’s initial comments about the racial stereotyping of Stanford and Connecticut women’s basketball players is the ongoing commentary about the "incident".

Of course, there have been many different reads of Auriemma’s comments on race…which is pretty much what he anticipated with the opening line of his statement:

I know this is going to get played out the wrong way. But I'm going to say it anyway. And I know I'm going to get criticized for this.

But what has caught my eye in the current political environment (you know, people think we’re all post-racial now that we have a black president) is the way race is talked about in response to Auriemma’s comments. However, rather than critique others and make a negative argument of how not to talk about race, I was in the process of writing a piece about what I thought we could learn from this latest Auriemma episode.

Then I saw a Sunday article by Casey Gane-McCalla on Huffington Post about Auriemma's comments that I think is worthy of our attention:

The problem with stereotypes in sports is that they often lead to general stereotypes. If you say "white men can't jump," why not "Black men can't read defenses"? And if Black men can't read defenses, maybe they can't read books either?

Sports stereotypes have a real effect in the real world. Most employers are not concerned with employees' natural athletic abilities, so stereotypes of African-Americans being athletically superior for the most part do not help Blacks in the real world. However, the stereotypes of whites being hard working, disciplined and smart are helpful to them in finding employment.

The problem is not that Auriemma "inserted" the issue of race into an otherwise racially neutral social context – race does have an impact on how we see athletes. Nor is the problem that he detracted attention away from the success of an outstanding University of Connecticut team (as described nicely by the Women's Hoops Blog). Race is there like it or not and it’s worth talking about.

The problem in my opinion is actually perfectly phrased by Phil Sheridan of the Philadelphia Inquirer (although I’m not entirely sure we should agree with his conclusion):

Honestly, I think we often fall into this trap of blasting anyone who tries to address racial issues. It is OK and even necessary to discuss the role race plays in various situations and circumstances. The problem here isn't that Auriemma decided to "go there." The problem is he apparently got himself lost on the way.

So building upon Sheridan’s comment, I want to extend Gane-McCalla’s argument and suggest that in addition to the harms of stereotyping on society, Auriemma’s comments and the ensuing responses demonstrate a fundamental difficulty that we in the U.S. have with talking productively about almost all topics regarding race – whether it be the significance of having a black president or the "achievement gap" in education or gang violence and police brutality.

Are we a "nation of cowards"? Not quite. But we do still have a long way to go when it comes to racial dialogue on the path to challenging racial injustice.

The U.S. is a Nation of __________ (???)

Just to be clear, I am not advancing the argument of Attorney General Eric Holder by calling the U.S. "a nation of cowards" in all matters of race.

Aside from the fact that I found the comment to be politically unproductive, I think it may even misrepresent the problem we’re facing regarding racial dialogue. What’s worse is that it may have even done more harm than good in terms of moving race relations forward – antagonizing the nation that you’ve been appointed to lead in some capacity is probably not the best strategy for moving people to action.

Instead, I would identify a different problem and an important consequence:

First, contrary to what Holder states, I think we do talk about race quite a bit, but in a number of coded and implicit ways. This is essentially what Auriemma has alluded to…or really should have alluded to more clearly – implicit racial stereotypes shape how we describe and talk about athletes (and people in the real world) everyday. A very simple point.

Second, racial discrimination, racial stereotyping, and structural racism have differential consequences on men and women that cannot be ignored.

When we consider the dearth of mainstream black female role models in our society, the way we discuss and portray female athletes therefore has "a real effect in the real world" on how we think about black women. Moreover, considering that the WNBA is the most prominent and well-established professional sport, the way black female basketball players are portrayed and perceived takes on more significance than I think some people grant it.

So consistent with Gane-McCalla, I am going to just state up front that the way we apply racial stereotypes to athletes does indeed matter. Second, I think it’s important to continue this conversation as a lens or platform with which to understand issues of race in broader society.

But sticking to women’s basketball, once again I think this goes back to that issue of narrative creation and maintenance – what are the narratives we are presented about black female athletes and how does that affect how we understand women’s basketball generally and the WNBA in particular?

Not Just a Matter of Finding Examples, But Thinking About How We Describe Those Examples…

I first read about Auriemma’s comments on Jayda Evans’ blog. Given that Ms. Evans is quickly becoming one of my favorite writers, I almost just accepted her thoughts about Auriemma’s statement:

I mean, as far as the color divide on toughness goes, hello, does Auriemma have Alzheimer's? While I'm not going to say former UConn PG Sue Bird (Seattle) is the toughest beak on the block, does he remember Diana Taurasi (Phoenix)? What about Svetlana Abrosimova (Connecticut)? With the Storm, I'm drowning in tough "white" examples from Michelle Marciniak to Lauren Jackson, so it's ludicrous to spend much time on the subject.
And my first thought was yeah, I agree – and she even forgot Janel McCarville and Lindsay Whalen!! (I assume they were somewhere in that body of examples she was drowning in.)

But then as I thought about and read more about the story, I began to disagree with the notion that it’s "ludicrous to spend more time on the subject". In fact, I think it’s the perfect time to discuss race.

At issue here is not whether there are examples to counter the stereotype, but how people perceive others through the lens of these stereotypes. We do hear these stereotypes often in sports. Auriemma is not just making that up, although it is unclear exactly what he was responding to in that moment.

And even in this world in which we can find plenty of examples to contradict our stereotypes, stereotypes carry with them quite a bit of inertia – they are extremely hard to break once they are established. And as long as they go unspoken and thus unchallenged, they will continue to persist and influence the way we think.

Michel Martin describes this phenomenon nicely in her story last month on NPR in response to Holder’s comments:
Is this active hostility, fear, resentment of blacks? At one time, sure it was. But right now, maybe it's more likely unchallenged assumptions you've forgotten you have — the store clerk who assumes the black woman can't afford the dress she's trying on, the law firm hiring partner who just assumes the black kid made it through Harvard on a wing and a prayer, the cop who just assumes every black motorist is a gangbanger in training.
In other words, even when we don't think we're talking about race, we sort of are. It's not that we don't talk about it.

Leaving these subtle forms of stereotyping unchecked will do nothing to move this country forward in terms of race relations. And as I think Gane-McCalla and Martin point out, they happen all the time in our daily life – whether we are talking about sports, at work, or even among friends. If we believe that challenging racial discrimination is important, then finding ways to unearth and challenge these assumptions is of great value.

But how on earth do we do that?

Petrel from the Pleasant Dreams Blog made a great comment on Chantelle Anderson’s blog post, "The choice between sports and sex appeal" that addresses the issue of stereotyping and the trouble with combating them (it’s comment #47):
One of the common putdowns of women in sports is "women ballplayers are ugly" - and how do you fight someone's loaded personal opinion? Trying to prove that you're pretty is just playing the same game - "I'll show you!" To some men out there, "female" and "athlete" are contradictory terms…Posing has the power to break the All Female Athletes are Ugly stereotype - if you look at Lauren Jackson's photos and still think she's ugly, there's no help for you but opthamology. Anything that expands the boundaries of what a woman can be - athletic, attractive, intelligent - is a good thing. Posing not only highlights the "attractive" side, but throws positive light on the "athletic" and "intelligent" sides as well.
Although the problem Petrel and Chantelle are pointing out concerns gender, I think a very similar argument can be applied to matters of race.

The problem -- that I think Petrel rightly pointed out -- is that if you directly attack the stereotypes, you are essentially playing on the turf of the ignorant. It’s similar to the argument George Lakoff makes in his book, "Don’t Think An Elephant" – if political candidate 1 presents platform X and candidate 2 presents a counter platform of anti-X, candidate 1 has already won because she's controlling the discourse (which is what the Republicans had mastered in the past eight years).

This is why it’s even more difficult to undo these racial stereotypes when race and gender meet – already it’s hard to imagine an athletic and intelligent woman. It has to be doubly hard to imagine an athletic and intelligent black woman. And likewise, in broader social interactions, black women are routinely facing more barriers than their black male counterparts – it’s hard to simultaneously fight racism and sexism…and not always at the same time.

And yet the only way to break a stereotype seems to be to provide frequent and substantial evidence that changes the way people see patterns that create the stereotypes. So hmm… how do we avoid that bind?

Breaking the Inertia of Our Entrenched Stereotypes

It does seem like the first thing to do is call out a stereotype for what it is…

Obviously, Auriemma attempted that.

And obviously, it didn’t go over so well.

However, what I think we should pay attention to is that it’s not like it was blatant white supremacists coming out of the woodworks to lambaste the guy.

Most of the critiques that I read have been of a different nature – color-blind dismissals of race discussion.

Color-blindness is what might inform a comment such as the following in response to a pretty good article about Auriemma’s comments from Uncle Popov on Bleacher Report:
I would say that hardly anyone thinks of race when they are watching Tiger Woods and Venus Williams, two of the most visible black athletes in history.
And of course if nobody is thinking about race when they watch sports – or politics for that matter given that the heads of both major political parties are black – then there can’t possibly be an appropriate time to discuss race. Especially in this post-racial society we live in (please someone explain to me how a post-racial society is even possible). Race just becomes nothing more than a distraction, as described in the following quote:
Is it time to talk about race in college athletics? No, not really. What purpose would it serve? What territory are we supposed to be driving towards by noticing that there’s only one white guy playing meaningful minutes in this Final Four game between Michigan State and UConn, and he’s not even from America? That’s a fact. So what?
So one of the primary problems then with confronting racial stereotypes (much less than discrimination or structural racism) is that many people don’t even think there’s a problem to begin with, as nicely summed up by Uncle Popov:
Nevertheless, it is much easier to generalize and it happens so much that we tend to overlook it and not think about the consequences of doing so. It is as though we have naturalized these labels and do not critically challenge the notions of the "gutsy" white player or "naturally gifted" black player. It tends to be accepted unproblematically.

These generalizations fuel some people's longstanding beliefs about what type of players can play which position or in which sport. This was part of the central thesis of my previous article on race in sports.
And what’s worse, is that in the current climate, if I do accuse you of having these assumptions you don’t think you have, you assume I’m calling you a racist…and that’s a whole separate (though obviously related) matter. The very acknowledgement of race becomes completely taboo.

It’s a sort of strange paradox – it’s politically correct to denounce racism and it’s incorrect to be a racist. So it’s easiest to prove one is not a racist by not talking about or ignoring race, which means that when confronted with a situation in which race cannot be avoided we simply go silent.

Race talk thus becomes the territory of extremists – those dangerous black radicals pumping their fists and threatening to occupy a state capital near you or those evil hooded Ku Klux Klan guys who are looking to burn a cross on someone’s lawn. Either way it supports two completely false beliefs: race is a thing of the past and people who discuss it are some hardline wingnuts trying to shove some racialized agenda down your throat.


So let’s bring it back…

Really, it’s not about going around calling people racists or proving to people how stupid they are. It’s about finding a way to clearly represent the world so that we discuss it on some sort of common ground and begin to make well-reasoned arguments about how to collectively move forward and (hopefully) create a better, more just society.

Ultimately, anti-racism is not even about talk (which is why these discussions about implicit biases and stereotyping usually annoy me)…it’s about action of some sort. And ideally, it's about collective, targeted multi-racial action that critiques the elements in society (institutions and people) that maintain racial inequality and presents alternative ways of existing as a happy community.

(That feels so much better.)

But we can’t even reach the fantasy world of a racially just society unless we can talk to one another and respect one another as human beings, who are different but ultimately have a stake in each other’s success.

So I argue the problem here is not that race is a distraction that should never be brought up, it’s that race is a "distraction" because we have no language to collectively discuss it or listen to it in a productive way.

To take the point further, what incentive is there for a white person – particularly a rather privileged white male – to talk about race anyway? (Whole other discussion – see George Lipsitz’s "Possessive Investment in Whiteness" – decades and decades of white supremacy create a whole system of white privilege and maintaining that system often becomes a motive at the expense of non-whites, whether intentionally or not)

This tangle of complexity summarizes why most people won’t even venture into that feared territory of race talk.

Auriemma did…and did so with a disclaimer…because he knew there was no way to clearly communicate anything about the topic as a white man without getting himself into trouble. So he fumbled through a discussion of the issue and tried to end with a joke about how the West Coast is full of pansies to sort of relieve the tension. Which of course made his point even harder for some people to decipher.


Resolving Race Talk Dilemmas in U.S. Sports…and How That Might Push Racialized Assumptions

Mica Pollock has described this strange paradox of not talking about race but always talking about race in her book "Color Mute: Race Talk Dilemmas in an American School". Gloria Ladson-Billings summarizes the main argument nicely in the foreward to another book, "Courageous Conversations About Race: A Field Guide for Attaining Equity in Schools":
Race is the proverbial "elephant in the parlor." We know it’s right there staring us in the face—making life uncomfortable and making it difficult for us to accomplish everything we would really like to do—but we keep pretending it isn’t.

We do not know what to call each other or if we should call each other anything that has a racial designation. But Pollock demonstrates that even when we avoid talking about race, we are talking about race; that is, even in our avoidance of the subject, we are engaging it.

Ladson-Billings goes on to present us with a kernel of insight that sort of explains why talking about race is relatively important:
…in a study of teachers teaching early literacy (Ladson-Billings, 2005), my colleague and I observed teachers regularly talking about students’ failure to read without ever mentioning race. Almost all of the struggling students were Black or Latino. It was not until six months into the project that teachers recognized the salience of race in the students’ achievement. At this point, we were able to deal honestly deal with the students’ academic issues.
So let me try to make the leap here: if we cannot talk about black women in the sphere of a basketball game, it will be a whole lot more difficult to talk about black women in society at large. In recognizing the salience of race in everything we do and that it has "real effects in the real world", we can start to honestly deal with the huge elephant in the parlor that Auriemma wanted us to pay attention to.

But why bother placing so much weight on sports? Can’t we just enjoy the game? Why does someone always have to make it about race?

Sports are not some panacea of facilitating race talk, but it’s a contained context in which there are some very clear racial undertones. There’s no reason not to talk about race in sports as a pre-cursor to the much more significant problems we face. Why not check our assumptions on something so small if it could pave the way to eliminate general stereotypes?

And a Brief Response to Eric Holder…

So if we’re color mute as a society, then we can’t possibly be cowards, as described nicely by Michel Martin:
I have been thinking a lot about what Attorney General Eric Holder said in his now-famous Black History Month speech, that we are a "nation of cowards" when it comes to race. But I wonder whether it's really that we are just comfortable. Cowardice requires consciousness — a conscious awareness to choose not to do something you know you should do.

But what if you don't know?
And that’s exactly where I would argue we are – we simply don’t know what to do (and many whites – not to mention non-whites -- are never encouraged to know). Those of us that do know what to do get sick of dealing with those poor saps who don't have it figured out yet...which is (again) a whole separate problem of the self-righteous anti-racist that must be addressed with equal tenacity.

Auriemma’s comments and the responses demonstrate our struggle with finding ways to talk about race in public. The question, as described by Martin, is what we do about it:
I think if we are honest with ourselves, we can admit that we all do it. We make assumptions, and we don't bother to test them because we don't have to.

So now the question really does become one of moral courage and, yes, cowardice. What are we prepared to do to break free of untested assumptions? What hard questions are we prepared to ask ourselves? What are we prepared to do to know what we don't know?
And these are questions that extend well beyond basketball and manifest themselves in national politics…even after we have elected a black man president, as described by Barbara Crosette of the Nation just yesterday:
Would an American delegation bearing a message from Obama have made a difference? Critics will say no. Nicole Lee, executive director of the Washington-based TransAfrica Forum, has long argued that the United States belongs at the Durban review. In a message in March asking advocates of American attendance to write to anyone and everyone in Washington, she recalled the comment by Attorney General Eric Holder that Americans are a "nation of cowards" when it comes to discussing race.

What she wrote then still rings true: "The decision to boycott the Durban Review Conference not only underscores the difficulty that we have discussing race, but it also potentially undermines the solid progress made by groups and governments around the world that have worked hard to address racism and intolerance. And, unfortunately, for many in the US it raises questions about the racial lens through which this administration develops and implements policy."

Real effects…in the real world…on real people.

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