There are a number of reasons I love being a teacher; not least among them is that I get to think. Not all the time, mind you – there are plenty of days that go by without any strenuous mental activity on my part – but often enough, I get challenged to see something in a new way or to come up with an articulate and logical defense of my own thinking.
This past week has been my favorite of my public speaking classes. This is the part of the semester where I bring up the First Amendment and the idea of the intersection between “free” speech and “ethical” speech. This unit never – ever – fails to spark my thinking about something important, and this semester was no different.
In the past, I’ve used Imus as an example of how, just because “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech,” people can still get in a boatload of trouble just by opening their mouths without having their brains in gear. The clutch pops, the engine stalls, and all hell breaks loose. The fact of the matter is, though, that Imus is old news and, people being what we are, there’s ALWAYS another example of poor decision making to fall back on.
This term, I decided to look at the Kelly Tilghman-Tiger Woods-GolfWeek fiasco. The short version of the story is that Ms. Tilghman is a golf commentator, and in an ad-libbed, time-filling bit, responded to Nick Faldo’s claim that young players are going to have to “gang up” on Tiger Woods in order to beat him by saying that they should “lynch him in a back alley.” A longer version of the story can be found here.
The upshot is that Ms. Tilghman apologized to Woods (with whom she is a personal friend) and Woods essentially brushed the whole thing off. Tilghman has no record of racist thinking and, it seems, really didn’t know what she was saying; lynchings were rarely done in urban areas and almost NEVER done in private. They were violence with a purpose, and were intended to be public and outrageous. They were often photographed; there was nothing “back alley” about them.
The real problem came a week later, when Golf Week magazine decided to make their cover article about the incident, and to illustrate their point with an image of a noose on the front of the issue (they’ve done an amazing job of scrubbing the internet of the image. Go here to see an article with the cover still embedded in the text). To say that it was a poor decision would be a lovely example of understatement.
The students read about the incident and the magazine cover, and then I gave them this article by Mike Wilbon. Wilbon is someone I admire and respect. He’s smart, he’s insightful, he’s calm and considered, and he’s funny as hell (watch him and Tony Kornheiser go at it on a few episodes of ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption and you’ll see what I mean). I think that Wilbon does an excellent job of deconstructing the entire affair; he speaks intelligently about Ms. Tilghman and adds his own personal experiences with her to further the idea that she meant nothing by the remark, he brings up the larger questions of racism and sexism as they pertain to the incident, and he brings up the very real point that those who don’t understand history are doomed to make poor decisions because they simply don’t know any better.
One thing Wilbon said that I don’t agree with, however, was this:
What tends to go unexamined also is the number of black producers working in positions of impact at networks such as the Golf Channel (or ESPN or the national networks for that matter) or black editors working at magazines and newspapers who sit in on meetings where covers are discussed and ultimately decided. Were these staffs more racially inclusive, certain thoughts and notions would be challenged before something becomes a finished product.
I’ve been pondering this line of thinking, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it is, essentially, a racist comment.
I can assure you that you’d be hard-pressed to find someone whiter than I. My heritage is almost entirely Scots; I’m a red-headed, white skinned woman who’s lived her entire life in an essentially all-white environment, New England not being known for its vast racial diversity. I can also assure you that, were I on the staff at Golf Week magazine, I would have taken strong issue with the decision to put a noose on the cover.
I resent the assumption – and it’s one that’s widely held by many, many people – that if one is a member of a minority group, one is automatically open-minded. I’ve run up against this over and over again – my students make assumptions about race and class and gender and open-mindedness; some of my friends and colleagues make the same assumptions. Black people are more sensitive to race issues than white people. Gays are more sensitive to discrimination than straight people are. Poor people feel the sting of classism more keenly than do middle-class folks.
Where do these ideas come from? Does the fact that I’m white, straight, well-educated and middle class mean that I am completely oblivious to the injustice of discrimination, racism, and homophobia? Who’s to say that a black person wouldn’t have allowed the noose to go on the cover? It was a powerful image, it sold magazines, and there’s nothing that says that every black person is affected by the baggage that image carries with it.
To make assumptions about people on such a broad scale is utterly ridiculous, completely unfair and, in the end, potentially dangerous. I know for sure that it’s also offensive – at least to me.
In the end, I really hope our conversations as a class helped to pry a few minds open a little bit. There will always be some students who won’t understand what I was trying to teach them until they themselves are the targets of some wrong-headed assumptions. My dearest wish is that, when that happens – and it WILL happen – they’ll remember our class.