He was angry, emotional. He felt disrespected. He was ready to assert his position as the best cornerback in the National Football League. And that he did. In front of millions of sports fans, Richard Sherman stared fiercely into the camera and gave notice not to test his coverage skills with a “sorry receiver”.
By now Sherman’s outburst is old news. Sports fans witnessed Sherman’s athletic prowess, as he helped the Seattle Seahawks close out their dramatic victory over the San Francisco 49ers in mid-January. We have since watched the Seahawks’ Super Bowl blowout over the Denver Broncos.
And we have read the commentary about Sherman – the high school athletic and intellectual standout, the Stanford graduate now pursuing a postgraduate degree – an African American male athlete playing a violent sport who was pigeon held to a narrowly defined identity grounded simultaneously in racism and sexism. In the aftermath of Sherman’s well-known January 19 interview, he was labelled by many across social media in criminogenic form, “thug,” simply because he was emotionally expressive on, of all places, a football field.
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Never one to shy away from public discussion, Sherman unveiled what should have been obvious for everyone else. Since we now live in a time where overt racism is socially unacceptable, less inflammatory words and phrases are used by sectors of society to perpetuate racism in ways that protect the perpetrators. No doubt Sherman was correct in proclaiming that “thug” is “the accepted way of calling somebody the N-word nowadays.”
Code words and everyday racism
In short, “thug” is a code word that in itself has no inherent tie to social understandings of race, but when used in a particular social context is very much racially charged. However, because words that have clearer connections to racism are not used (e.g., the N-word), those who tag big, aggressive, black men “thugs”, can declare themselves racially unbiased.
In 1991, Philomena Essed expanded our understanding of the ways that racism operates in contemporary society. Relying on extensive interviews with black women in the Netherlands and United States, Essed illustrated how modern day racism frequently functions in ways that only become apparent if we pay attention to patterns, if we are more conscious of the repeated questions and statements directed towards ethnic minorities that insinuate – but don’t overtly state – incompetence, inferiority, distrust and/or criminality.
Essed called this phenomenon everyday racism, defined more specifically as “practices that infiltrate everyday life and become part of what is seen as ‘normal’ by the dominant group”. In many cases, everyday racism is so normalised that perpetrators of it are unaware of their racialised attitudes and behaviours, view themselves as colour-blind, and therefore become defensive when they are alerted to their biased actions. Sometimes perpetrators of everyday racism may even use code words in racialised contexts without realising the racially charged elements that their statements carry.
But everyday racism, including the use of code words, has grave consequences. The repeated, normalised association of big, black men with a “thuggish” identity preserves racist and sexist stereotypes, along with public policies that rely on those discriminatory narratives. As Khaled A Beydoun writes, these tropes serve as 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.”
Clearly, everyday racism is not unique to sporting contexts or the United States. In Aotearoa New Zealand, students from particular ethnic backgrounds are forced to reconcile their aspirations for higher education with experiences of everyday racism on a regular basis.
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Maori students are indigenous specifically to New Zealand, while an ethnically diverse array of Pacific students are also well represented across New Zealand universities, whose indigenous ancestries are tied to neighbouring countries across the Pacific: the Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Niue, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tonga, and Vanuatu. Since the 1940s, larger waves of Pacific migrants have moved to New Zealand to fill gaps in the working-class labour sector and provide a better life for their children.
Although distinct and important diversity exists across and within Maori and Pacific student groups, what these students share are varying experiences of modern-day colonisation and racialisation. In light of the colonial histories that Maori and Pacific people share, coming to university is an important achievement not only for many Maori and Pacific students, but also for their families. With that said, coping with these historical circumstances puts added pressure on Maori and Pacific students who often times also juggle heavy cultural commitments, work obligations, and religious responsibilities as they study to make themselves, their parents and families proud.
In somewhat similar fashion to standout student Richard Sherman, Maori and Pacific students must navigate holding personal educational aspirations with patronising colonial expectations from others, who assume they are a step or two behind their Pakeha (New Zealand European) and Asian peers, only good as rugby players, loud “fob’s” (fresh off the boat), or were only admitted into certain disciplines, such as law and medicine, through ethnic-specific admissions programmes.
It is hardly uncommon for Maori and Pacific students to witness their peers’ judgemental stares, eye rolling, and disparaging remarks that they “only got in because they’re Maori or Pacific”.
Adding a further layer of complexity, Maori and Pacific cultures typically share similar values of collectiveness and community that are rarely demonstrated within western universities’ Eurocentric, competitive, and individualistic pedagogy. Facing this barrage of neo-colonial challenges, some in the mainstream suggest that for Maori and Pacific young people to succeed in the whitestream world, they must shed their indigenous cultural identities.
To extend Philomena Essed’s concept of everyday racism, this is the everyday colonialism that Maori and Pacific students, and indigenous peoples worldwide, face on a regular basis.
Across New Zealand universities, culturally-based counterspacesthat promote collective, interdependent learning, provide indigenous role models, include non-indigenous allies, and offer safe spaces to offset the array of institutional challenges that Maori and Pacific students face. These counterspaces are critical in advancing decolonisation. On the other hand, they are a decentred response to the everyday colonialism that emanates from the centred whitestream.
A true push for decolonisation would also entail whitestream centres relinquishing their privilege and centring indigeneity. A true push for decolonisation would not simply leave the problem on the side and burden indigenous peoples and their allies with creating marginalised counterspaces for indigenous learning, but instead would call on majority group members to alter their curricula in ways that are more inclusive of indigenous cultures.
A true commitment to decolonisation would involve resource redistribution that adequately supports indigenous interests and thwarts everyday colonialism.
This is not to argue that a numerical majority of those within New Zealand institutes of higher learning hold racial biases or enact everyday colonialism.
In fact, New Zealand tertiary institutions have many non-indigenous staff and student groups who support Maori and Pacific decolonising efforts. Unfortunately, those fighting the battle against whitestream culture feel like they are incessantly paddling upstream.
Robyn Janine Antoinette Sieni Aniva Lesatele is a Samoan third year undergraduate student undergoing a Bachelor of Law and Arts, majoring in Pacific Studies and Sociology at the University of Auckland.