By Billy Vaughn, PhD CDP
Jeremy Lin has arguably single-handedly made basketball even more exciting to watch. It reminds us of another Asian American sensation, Tiger Woods, who catapulted golf into mainstream television sports casting. Lin and Woods have something else in common—a lot of class when it comes to questions about racial insensitivity. Lin and Woods consistently acknowledge that insensitive racial comments do not feel good, but not all of them are intentional
As a psychologist who has spent most of my 25 professional years researching, teaching, and consulting about cultural competence, I am appalled at the lack of media sophistication in dealing with culturally insensitive comments. It wasn’t too long ago that sport commentators were allowed to say insensitive things intentionally or through ignorance and prejudice, but those days are all but over. There are a few stragglers like Don Imus, but for the most part people have learned that insensitivity is costly.
That is why suspending ESPN’s Max Bretos for his Chink in the Armor comment is absurd. He has apologized and understands how his comment could be construed as insensitive. Chink in the Armor means a weak spot in something that is otherwise tough. It was a poor choice of words, but it was clearly unintentional. Why would it be intentional? Why would any ESPN writer or commentator put themselves intentionally in a position to get fired?
Woods and Lin are among a growing population of Americans who get it. Baby boomers continue to struggle with how to do the intercultural thing. They are the ones who get embarrassed or upset when the “N” word is used before trying to sweep it under the carpet. Yes, the word is offensive, but that is the beginning of a larger conversation about things like civility, collegiality, promoting equality, what is comedic and what is not, etc. Avoiding the conversation all together to avoid controversy just feeds it. As I detailed in my article, Don Imus Needs “Heart” Surgery—Not a Vacation, coaching sports casters to help them get the impact of insensitive comments and how to avoid making the mistake in the future will pay off much more than firing and chastising them to protect the company stockholders against possible financial harm.
In addition, it is unwise to try to change anyone’s attitude. Instead, make certain that they learn to avoid making the foible in the future and that alone can lead to greater social change at a faster rate.
Learning how to navigate cultural collisions is an art form, but my experience indicates that it can be learned. It takes much more than Baby Boomer “sweep it under the rug and hope it goes away” mentality to promote sensitivity. Fessing up to one’s shortcoming and making amends are a good start, but firing and chastising people reinforce insensitivity and puts a band aid on the problem.
Consider that when a sports caster and a good part of the audience think that it is unfair to get fired for using terminology that others misconstrue, a sense of unfairness and double standards lead to controversy and people taking sides. This does little to promote better understanding because folks become more entrenched in their positions. That’s why we keep revisiting the racial insensitivity issue.
In the meantime, Tiger, Jeremy, and the sons and daughters of Imus and Bretos are sitting in a bar having a couple beers while joking about how mentally stuck their parents are in the early part of the last century.
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