More than thugs: The case of Richard Sherman and other men of colour

Discussions on gender in the US have ignored issues that men of colour face.

Richard Sherman caused much noise in the US media with a controversial interview after a game win [AP]

Black and boisterous, dread-locked and deviant. This is how much of America saw Richard Sherman. The standout Seattle Seahawk defender was branded a “hood”, a “hooligan”, and a “thug” after his post-game interview with Erin Andrews. It was as if Sherman trespassed into every American’s living room on Sunday, January 19, and threatened the safety of the millions that tuned in to watch the NFC Championship game.

Sherman was lucky to be on the football field instead of the streets of his native Compton minutes after making the game-clinching play that secured his team’s place in Super Bowl XLVIII. Indeed, the racially-charged slurs aimed at Sherman through social and conventional media were those routinely used to profile, stop-and-frisk, and prosecute black and brown men in Los Angeles, New York City and every city and town in between.

Black and brown men, like Sherman and the millions of anonymous men linked to violence, criminal activity and subversion, occupy an intersection that combines racialised threat with masculine menace. Being called a “thug” or a “terrorist”, a “gangster” or a “criminal”, are commonly identified as racist stereotypes, but are seldom understood as gendered racist stereotypes almost exclusively assigned to men of colour.

At the intersection of sexism and racism

Gender discrimination is overwhelmingly discussed and examined within a vacuum, divorced from the racial realities that broaden its practical relevance. As a result, gender discrimination – in both lay and academic circles – is largely understood as animus endured by women, and most frequently, white women. This one-dimensional denotation has cultivated prevailing understandings of gender bias and hostility, which in turn, have eclipsed and marginalised the most pressing forms of gendered discriminations taking place in the US today.

Discrimination endured by men of colour is framed within liberal circles as racial or ethnic animus, but seldom – if ever – examined from a conjoined gender lens. The distinct tropes associated with black and brown masculinity, however, attract a distinct brand of gendered racism reserved for men of colour. Indeed, being both minority and male in the US today invites a brand of gendered stigma that is under-discussed in media and academic circles, and marginalised by a narrow conception of gender discrimination.

Inside Story – Is the US still divided by race?

In her landmark piece, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Colour”, Kimberle Crenshaw highlights how racism and sexism converge to stigmatise women of colour. The article, published in the Stanford Law Review in 1993, highlighted how, “contemporary feminist and antiracist discourses have failed to consider intersectional identities such as women of colour”.

In short, Crenshaw exposed how discussions about gender overlooked the salience of race, while intellectual and practical interventions grappling with racism neglected the impact of gender.

“Intersectionality” not only sought to integrate these isolated conversations about race or gender, but in the process, retrench the underlying narrative constructed by white feminists that gender discrimination was largely a white, female phenomenon. For Crenshaw, and the cadre of race scholars that preceded her and followed in her footsteps, race was far more than merely an under-examined metric. 

Male, minority and at the margins

A Google search of news articles related to “gender discrimination” will collect a range of stories linked to sexism faced by women. Although “gender” encompasses both sexes, the functional application of the term when related to bias or discrimination is overwhelmingly linked to women.

The prevalence of patriarchy, violence toward women, and the feminisation of poverty, among other structural obstacles uniquely faced by women in the US and elsewhere, cannot be overstated. However, the pervasive forms of gendered bias and violence that are specifically reserved for men of colour, in the streets of the US, within its halls of power, and its public and private institutions, must be figured into prevailing conceptions of gender discrimination.

The gendered violence targeting black and brown men in the US is deeply rooted in the nation’s history. The fear of black male slaves led to the enactment of slave codes that made “insurrections, and the conspiracy to stage one… punishable by death (Virginia Slave Laws, 1726)”. The Virginia law, which was adopted by every state in the Antebellum South, was driven by fear of black masculinity.

The anti-insurrection slave codes not only punished rebellious activity, but also more frequently prosecuted casual congregations involving a handful of black male slaves. Stereotypes attached to black slave masculinity – uncivilised and insubordinate, savage and violent – engendered a paranoia that brought forth over-prosecution, and the mass murder of black male slaves that did not partake in rebellious activity.

Over-prosecution today is also fuelled by stereotypes branded upon the bodies of black and brown men. Systems of policing, such as the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk have not only disproportionately targeted men of colour, but more importantly, were created to police the bodies of black and brown men. Stop-and-frisk equips NYPD police with near carte blanche to stop and search African, Latino and Middle Eastern American men, who by virtue of nothing more than their race and phenotype, are associated with criminal activity, imminent violence, and national security threat.

Before stop-and-frisk, the US Patriot Act ushered in a set of laws that violated the civil liberties of both men and women racially or religiously linked to “suspected terrorism”. After 9/11 Arab, Muslim, South Asian, Latino and African-American men, who fit within the brown-skinned, beard-cladded caricature of the terrorist, were branded subversive and violent, irreducibly foreign and bent on harming Americans.

These tropes shaped a brand of gendered discrimination targeting men of colour that includes: singling out by airport authorities, removal from airplanes, phone-tapping, increased rates of incarceration, and mass murder. Outside of the national security context, men of colour are vulnerable to being linked to gang activity and drug dealing, theft and sexual deviance. Indeed, the incarceration rates of Black and Latino men, which are far higher than the those of Black women and Latinas, highlight the distinctly menacing threat posed by being male and minority in America today.

Demystifying the feminine mystique

For far too long, white feminist academics advanced narratives that e-raced the stories of women of colour from the gender discrimination discourse. However, the work of academic, advocates and activists of colour demystified the mystique that sexism was a struggle limited to white women.

This article does not seek to compare the victimisation of women and men of colour. Nor does it aim to question the sexism faced by women at large. But rather, it offers a wider and more inclusive understanding of gender discrimination that unravels today’s one-dimensional and mono-racial conception, and integrates the common biases and violence faced by men of colour as a marginalised brand of gender discrimination wholly neglected from the existing discourse.

The black and brown bodies of men of colour incite an overwhelming fear for onlookers, whether politicians, policemen, or television viewers, who interpret their minority masculinity as threatening and deviant. Terrorists instead of American citizens, gang-members not undergraduates, and dreadlocked thugs instead of Stanford graduates – is the confined view of black and brown men that still prevails today. This in part, must be attributed to the confined discourse and definition of gender discrimination.

Khaled A Beydoun is the Critical Race Studies Teaching Fellow at the UCLA School of Law.