I tell this story often.
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 I was 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 that 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 again—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, hosted by one of my lawyer friends and primarily attended by lawyers. The young lady lawyer who mistook me for a criminal defendant and I talked and laughed about the whole thing. She told one of her friends—a public defender with whom 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 who was pretty darn good at this trial thing.
And to tell you the truth, I never really thought about it until these past couple of weeks, while watching the coverage of cornerback Richard Sherman from my beloved Seattle Seahawks.
Richard Sherman—a 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. For those of you living under a rock, Sherman made the game-saving play in the end zone against the Seahawks' bitter rivals, the San Francisco 49ers, in the NFC Championship game. That's a big deal, and he acted like it was a big deal.
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 substantial 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 and sad. But in the response to the response, the Sherman defenders have been equally guilty of 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—“Thriller” would be killing the game right about now, Cosby Show coming up, I’d get to the “Purple Rain” experience anew, and the Wayans family would still be actually funny), people chose a particular kind of rhetoric to defend Sherman.
Take, for example, Isaac Paul at the Huffington Post (not to pick on Paul, 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…
There are some key facts that those folks who come to the defense of Richard Sherman usually point out: He’s from Compton, he graduated from Stanford, and he's never been arrested. Also, he’s never cursed in a post-game interview. Moreover, he doesn’t have reputation as a “dirty player.” And finally, they note that he appealed and won when he was supposed to have been suspended for allegedly using 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 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. 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 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 has 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…”
The “defenses” to the overt racism and white privilege are pretty damn loaded too. When that incident with the young prosecutor lady happened, I really didn’t think about it a whole bunch. Mistakes happen, whatever—I wasn’t mad. I mean, I recognized the “stereotype” part but it’s no big deal; I actually thought it was kind funny.
And I certainly didn’t think about the guy who pointed out my credentials and came to my defense. He undoubtedly had good intentions. Yet now, looking through the lens of this Richard Sherman incident, I see it slightly differently. Yes, my co-worker bravely told the young lady how silly she was by explaining my credentials: I’m a lawyer. I went to Columbia Law School. That’s cool.
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 have been OK to assume that a huge Native man in the courtroom had to be a criminal defendant if he didn’t happen to have gone to Columbia Law School?
How would she have known 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'd 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.
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.
Things have changed. Right? I mean, now in 2014, instead of simply saying, “Big Brown Men you all have to know your places” folks who congratulate themselves on not being racist say, “Big Brown Men, now you can be loud or big or brown just as long as your credentials are stellar.”
Maybe it’s just me, but that seems to send a very troubling message, a message that the nation is in no shape, or rush, to understand.
Gyasi Ross is a member of the Blackfeet Nation/Suquamish Territories. He is an activist, attorney, and author of the book, "How to Say I Love You in Indian" www.cutbankcreekpress.com. He can be contacted @BigIndianGyasi