Incidents at Fenway — And What It Means for Educators

By TWW Staff

Last week, Adam Jones, a player for the Baltimore Orioles, reported that a Red Sox fan threw a bag of peanuts at him (hitting a police officer instead) and repeatedly called him the N-word. A few days later, while Mercy Mungai, a Kenyan woman, was singing the national anthem, another Red Sox fan turned to fellow fan, Calvin Hennick, and made racially insulting comments about the singer. Hennick, who is white, was attending a game with his bi-racial son and his African-American father-in-law. He asked the man to repeat the statement, then reported him to the Red Sox organization.

For us, these two incidents and the responses to them were revealing on a number of levels.

One would expect the Red Sox organization, when called out in the press about racial taunts directed by fans toward players, to express shock and dismay — as it did. One would also expect that the second incident a few days later would result in a racist fan being barred from Fenway (although barring him for life — the first Red Sox fan to ever be barred for life — is actually impressive).

We hope the Red Sox will remain vigilant and respond clearly to any future racial incidents.

But we also think the expression of shock is a bit disingenuous. Our guess is that, to most readers, these racial incidents at Fenway -- and similar incidents at other parks and arenas nationally — aren’t all that surprising. If someone were to take a survey of African-American professional baseball players, we’re fairly certain we’d find that many if not most have been recipients of racial taunts in Fenway and elsewhere. This is probably true of African-American athletes in most sports. We’d also bet that if you surveyed white athletes, they would say that, while they’ve never been the recipients of racial taunts, they are aware of African-American teammates who have been.

After the second incident at Fenway, Calvin Hennick, a former Boston Globe freelance writer, said, “People are feeling very comfortable with bigotry that we haven’t seen in a long time.”

We agree, and could spend time here digging into the reasons why this is so. But we want to focus on what white people can do in response to these incidents. Since this blog is focused on white teachers, we also want to offer a few thoughts for those who may want to talk with their students or colleagues about these or other racial incidents.

Our basic point is that when it comes to addressing racism, the intentions are almost always better than the outcomes. At Fenway, for instance, we have no doubt that the Red Sox leadership does not intend to tolerate racial taunting. But revelations by players both on the Red Sox and other teams make it clear that the use of the N-word and other racial taunting has been going on for a long time. And this is true in most regions of the country. In other words, our white-dominant nation tends to tolerate a certain level of racist behavior as long as that behavior doesn’t rise to the level of press attention or public outcry.

Sam Kennedy, president of the Boston Red Sox, may tell the Boston Globe that the team “wants to be at the forefront of this discussion and try to improve in this area,” but in a better world, it shouldn’t take a clearly offensive racial incident reported in the press for an organization to jump to action.

The problem, as we see it, is that most of us who are white are overly cautious about even mentioning race or acknowledging the larger culture of racism. Some of those who acknowledge it do so in a defensive manner — acting as if every incident is an anomaly, or claiming that such behavior is not representative of them (or, in this case, the organization, the fans, or the city). And then there are some, like former Red Sox pitcher Kurt Shilling, who are quick to attack anyone who claims they are the recipients of racial hatred.

Shilling’s response, in fact, follows a classic pattern, which Globe writer Christopher L. Gasper pointed out in a follow-up opinion piece, “Racial Taunts Stir Up Ancient Pain in Boston.” Whenever racial incidents rise to the level of front-page news, many white people tend to shift quickly into some kind of defensive posture. Gasper argues that, instead of slipping into this defensive mode, the first step should be “admitting there is a problem.” Pretending the incident is an anomaly won’t prevent future incidents and attacking the reputation of the whistle-blower only makes things worse. Open dialogue is a better approach.

It was wonderful to see Red Sox fans applaud Adam Jones the next night — as a sign of support for the player and appreciation for him standing up for racial justice. But applause is not the same as dialogue. We get it that Bostonians would prefer not to have the nation pointing fingers at the city. We know that most Bostonians want the city to be a racially welcoming city — and many do what they can to make that true. But the reality is that city has a long history of racial incidents such as the ones at Fenway. There is much more to the city than this, of course. And Boston is not alone when it comes to racism, not by a long shot. But the city is not free of racism — and this fact needs to be addressed both by those in positions of authority and by those of us who have a voice in schools.

The lessons for educators are clear. There are few, if any, institutions in America where racism isn’t a palpable undercurrent. If the predominantly white professionals in charge of schools aren’t encouraging and allowing the community to speak openly about how race shapes the culture, the undercurrent will survive intact.

“Racism can’t be regarded as Bigfoot, some imaginary menace that few have witnessed and that even fewer believe exists,” writes Gasper. This is the sort of mindset that allows us to act shocked when a public incident hits the press. This is also the mindset that allows us not to speak up when we witness an incident.  

Gasper concludes his piece by saying, “We need to dial down the denial and treat these reopened wounds as serious.”

All of us who are white and who profess a concern for social justice must engage on a more consistent and deeper level. For those of us in schools, these incidents remind us that having an “inclusion” statement needs to be more than a wish to attract diverse students to our schools. It needs to be the key that opens up conversation that acknowledges the truth and the pernicious effects of racism.

Enid Lee, an amazing teacher educator, says we should always “assume racism is operating until proven otherwise.” What might it mean to start from the premise that racial bias is operating? How would that change the way we approach situations?

How might your whiteness impact the way you interact with students? Are there any assumptions you make about particular students based on your own positionality?

Do you have a strategy for engaging colleagues or students if they raise a particular racial stereotype or bias? When you get uncomfortable, “how are you going to lean into that discomfort?” asks Randolph Carter, Director of East Ed. What’s your catch-phrase: “Wow, that makes me really uncomfortable” or, “Can we talk about what you just said later?” after you have the chance to breathe and collect your thoughts.

As a white teacher, can you point to moments in your curriculum when you specifically locate yourself as white and/or teach about whiteness? For example, students get to identify and represent themselves racially either in writing or in pictures. Or, white authors are noted for how they represent whiteness as frequently as authors of color write about race. And, when you teach about immigration, students learn that when the Irish first came to the US, they were not considered white. Be sure to name whiteness whenever possible.

Ultimately, can we recognize, and then quickly abandon, the little voice in our head that first tries to protect us from admitting racism is happening? The part of us that still hopes -- in the face of all evidence to the contrary -- that racism is “over”? Can we hear it, and then quickly remember that the little voice keeps racism firmly in place? And can we learn to trust ourselves enough to know we can admit racism and the floor will not drop out from under our feet? We must stop treating these incidents as “surprises.” If we know that racism is still operating, we can and must get there first.  Let’s be proactive and not wait for a crisis to address issues of race. 

We would like to hear from any readers on how “you lean into discomfort” in your school. What do you say? Do you have a go-to catch phrase to interrupt bias? Let us know!