Big Brown Men, Richard Sherman and the Fire Next Time
“Yes, I knew two or three people, white, whom I would trust with my life, and I knew a few others, white, who were struggling as hard as they knew how, and with great effort and sweat and risk, to make the world more human. …I suddenly had a glimpse of what white people must go through at a dinner table when they are trying to prove that Negroes are not subhuman. I had almost said, after all, ‘Well, take my friend Mary,’ and very nearly descended to a catalogue of the virtues that gave Mary the right to be alive. And in what hope? That Elijah (Muhammad), and the others, would nod their heads solemnly and say, at least, ‘Well, she’s all right—but the others!’”
James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
“If white boys doin it, well, it's success
When I start doin, well, it's suspect…”
Mos Def, Mr. Nigga
ON BIG INDIANS IN SUITS
I tell this story often. I figure, Why not tell it? It’s a true story PLUS it’s semi-entertaining. I don’t have that many entertaining stories.
My first legal job was as a public defender in Seattle. When I was getting ready for my first jury trial, I scoped out the empty courtroom that would ultimately host the trial. While scoping and practicing my (compelling) cross-examination, I wore a suit (my first new suit!) and tried to replicate the experience of trial—no surprises. Know where the jury box is, where the defense table is, etc., etc. No surprises.
While practicing my cross-examination, a young white lady came into the courtroom. I smiled at her and continued pantomiming the interrogation. She smiled back—very cordial. Then, with a smile on her face, she asked me very politely, “Excuse me sir, are you waiting for your attorney?”
I know, I know.
Anyway, I didn’t let on that I was a lawyer. I smiled—it was actually cute. I mean, it reeked of white privilege, but it was cute. She was sweet. She later found out and apologized profusely. I believe that her apology was sincere and that she was very embarrassed. Whatever—I get it. I wasn’t even mad or offended. White privilege—a huge Native dude with long hair in a suit and a courtroom??? Seriously?? Who knows—maybe I’d think the same thing.
Still, the fact remains that unlike the general legal presumption of innocence—that a person is innocent until proven guilty—the big brown guy (suit or not!) was guilty until she later found out that I was innocent.
The lawyer world is quite small and socially inbred in Seattle (and most other places as well). As a result, inevitably the little young white prosecutor who cast me as a criminal defendant and I found ourselves at the same event. One of my lawyer friends hosted an event that was primarily attended by lawyers, and the young lady lawyer who mistook me for a criminal defendant and I talked and laughed about the whole event. She told one of her friends—a public defender with which I played basketball (he sucked)—the story. He was a very nice white guy, thought of himself as a progressive, and we all laughed at the story. “Yeah, little did she know that the huge, long-haired Native American guy was not only a lawyer, but a lawyer who went to (expletive) Columbia Law School!”
We laughed. It was funny. Yeah, I mean what are the odds? The big ass Indian that she asks if he was waiting for his lawyer happens to be an Ivy League law school-trained lawyer that was pretty darn good at this trial thing.
ON BIG, LOUD BLACK FOOTBALL PLAYERS
The Richard Sherman “issue” is silly. And fraught with white privilege. On both sides—the people who hate AND the people who defend him.
Richard Sherman—young NFL cornerback who made the biggest play of his life in the biggest game of his life(!!)—got excited and passionate and competitive in a league that values excitement, passion and competitiveness. When asked about the play (we’ll just call it The Play), he screamed his response. He didn’t curse, didn’t threaten anybody and he spoke in complete sentences.
A rarity in pop culture viral videos these days.
Yet, there was a substantial amount of outrage and backlash about the spectacle. Comments sections of websites that ran footage of The Play are filled with comments calling Sherman “dumb nigger” and “jungle monkey” and saying that he makes black folks look stupid (these are actual comments from twitter and other websites). Some silly man—a black man—named Damien Wayans said that Richard Sherman “set black people back 30 years.” (In an interesting sidenote to the Richard Sherman “controversy,” while Sherman got lambasted for being too loud and vocal, his teammate Marshawn Lynch gets crucified and makes people feel “uncomfortable” because he doesn’t speak enough to the media and athletes are expected to talk. Mixed messages anyone?)
Obviously these comments are silly, racist (yes, Damien Wayans, you’re a racist black man) and sad. But the response to the response—yes, the Sherman defenders have been equally guilty of this silly, racist and sad behavior. Let me explain:
To balance out the racist insults—“nigger,” “monkey” and/or allegations that Sherman somehow magically set Black folks “back 30 years” (which I actually wouldn’t mind, FYI—’84 was a pretty good year. Some highlights: Thriller would be killing the game right about now, The Cosby Show coming up, I’d get to the Purple Rain experience anew and the Wayans family was actually funny), people started the “Defend Richard Sherman” rhetoric. Take, for example, Isaac Saul at the Huffington Post (not to pick on Mr. Saul, because there were plenty of defenses like this):
Firstly, we're talking about a 25-year-old who came out of the streets of Compton, California. Sherman graduated from one of the worst school districts in the United States, one that boasts a high-school graduation rate of 57 percent. In a country where 68 percent of all federal and state inmates are lacking a high school diploma, you could say Sherman avoided a horrifying fate. But to say he "got lucky" or "escaped" would be foolhardy. He didn't "just graduate," either. He finished with a 4.2 GPA, second in his class, and went on to Stanford University, one of the most prestigious places to get an education in the entire world. He busted out in a rocket ship. He went from a world of gang violence and drugs to everything that Palo Alto and Stanford University represent…
These defenses of Sherman usually also talk about:
• He’s a Stanford graduate from Compton who has never been arrested,
• Never cursed in a post-game interview,
• Doesn’t have reputation as a “dirty player,”
• Started his own charitable organization,
• Appealed AND won his suspension over whether or not he used performance enhancing drugs
Then, those defenses of Sherman will usually contrast Sherman’s immaculate record with the sins of other NFL players. They might cite that 31 NFL players were arrested for everything from gun charges and driving under the influence to murder in the past year.
And it sounds innocuous enough. Noble even. And no doubt, these folks—like Mr. Paul—who presented these sorts of defenses have good intentions. But the road to hell is littered with good intentions…
And white privilege.
We all understand that the people who make the initial damning racist conclusions in these two quick stories are dead wrong. Racists. Terrible and harmful. Specifically, the little white prosecutor who thought that I was a criminal defendant is an easy target—yes, of course she should know better than to assume that this big brown dude in the courtroom has to be a defendant.
Likewise, obviously the folks who call Richard Sherman a “nigger,” a “monkey” or say that Richard Sherman somehow set black folks back 30 years, those people are clearly stupid. Racist. Easy to categorize. And we judge them and write articles about them and sit very regally in our liberal sensibilities, “We KNOW that Richard Sherman is not a nigger or a monkey or a set black folks back 30 years. We know that, instead, he is a Stanford-educated, non-troublemaker who gives charitably.”
And we sit proud of ourselves that we set those racists straight.
But, in the immortal words of Nate Dogg, “Hold up wait…”
When I think about it a bit more, the “defenses” to the overt racism and white privilege are pretty damn loaded too. They reek of privilege. They’re very much like the situation that James Baldwin envisioned, in The Fire Next Time, where they’re telling their friends, “Yeah, I know the others are messed up—but this one is special. He’s ok!”
He’s the right kind of big, brown man.
I think about it: my co-worker pointed out how wrong the young lady was by explaining my credentials—I’m a lawyer. I went to Columbia Law School. But why would the fact that I happen to be a lawyer matter when the young white lady assumed that I was a criminal defendant? Why did it matter that I happened to attend Columbia Law School? Would it somehow be ok to assume that a huge Native man in the courtroom had to be a criminal defendant if he didn’t happen to go to Columbia Law School?
How would she know the difference?
Similarly, these defenses to Richard Sherman imply that it would, somehow, be ok to say that he’s a dumb nigger, jungle monkey or that he set black people back 30 years if he didn’t have those outstanding credentials. That, somehow, those credentials create some insulation from those insults and that, while we might feel that way about some black folks, he’s different.
To paraphrase the words of James Baldwin, white folks are ok to say, “That Sherman’s all right (I mean, good gawd, he attended Stanford!), but the others!”
Richard Sherman, despite being loud and physically intimidating to poor white women reporters, is still the right kind of big brown man.
We big-ass brown men are taught from an early age: don’t be too big. Don’t be too brown. Don’t be too loud. People get scared. That message has been reaffirmed throughout centuries—brown men’s biggest and strongest men get forcefully reminded that they need to know their places.
Things have changed. Right? I mean, now in 2014, instead of simply saying, “Big Brown Men you all have to know your places” we say, “Big Brown Men, now you can be loud or big or brown just as long as your credentials are stellar—you went to Stanford or Columbia and you never got in trouble and…” If your resume and recommendation are solid enough, non-racists will defend you by pointing out to racists that you have serious qualifications and really wouldn’t hurt a mouse.
You’re different than all the rest. ‘Well, he’s all right—but the others!’”
Maybe it’s just me, but that seems to send a very troubling message.
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