What We Can Learn from Stephen A. Smith
This post comes to us via a generous contribution from @SeeSenyour, a good friend of mine and a knowledgeable voice about basketball and sports commentary.
On July 25th 2014, ESPN Anchor Stephen A. Smith went on national television and said this about domestic violence:
“We know they’re wrong. We know they’re criminal. We know they probably deserve to be in jail…but at the same time, we also have to make sure that we learn as much as we can about elements of provocation…what we’ve gotta do is do what we can to try to prevent the situation from happening anyway, and I don’t think that’s broached enough…”
Smith’s comments came on the heels of the NFL announcing a 2 game suspension for Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for violation of the NFL’s personal conduct policy after an altercation with his then fianceé (now wife). It was clear that Smith had the best intentions, as he prefaced his statements multiple times by condemning violence against women. Nonetheless, that didn’t stop Smith from spewing a LOT of ignorance that can be best described as victim blaming. I couldn’t help but facepalm as Smith suggested that women could do themselves a favor by being aware of how they can provoke abuse from their male counterparts. Smith’s ESPN colleague, Michelle Beadle, was appalled by his stance:
Smith took to Twitter to clarify his remarks, but ultimately deleted his responses and tried to summarize his thoughts in one longer tweet. At that point, Twitter was already ablaze with incendiary responses aimed at Smith. I pitied him. Logically, I understood how Smith could feel the need to “educate” the female members of his family on safeguarding themselves by not provoking “wrong action” as he said. In his mind, he sees some level of “wrong action” as inevitable; as such, he wants to mitigate the risk of his loved ones being hurt. I’ve been there. He is attempting to be practical and helpful, but he is woefully misguided. Stopping abuse starts and ends with the abuser, not the abused. It is helpful to make people aware of the warning signs of abusive behavior, but it is plainly wrong to suggest that the abused should be wary of provoking abuse. The former is educating, the latter is victim blaming.
This isn’t the first time Stephen A. Smith has expressed naive views on social injustices. Just a few months ago, Smith was doing his best Don Lemon impression by detailing how a degree, a suit, and proper diction could shield young blacks from the ill effects of institutionalized racism that still exists as a vestige of slavery. However, in one of the greatest moments of enlightenment in the history of ESPN, Michael Eric Dyson made an appearance on Smith’s show “First Take” to discuss the matter. What ensued was a methodical breakdown of the faulty premises of Stephen A. Smith’s arguments, as well as the racial subtext of Mark Cuban’s remarks that sparked the discussion in the first place. Dyson schooled Smith on the social constructs that create unsubstantiated fears of black men, thereby laying the groundwork for an array of social injustices (e.g. Trayvon Martin). Smith either didn’t fully understand, or simply refused to see the greater truth in what Dyson had to say. Nonetheless, I’m hesitant to dismiss Smith altogether. I see his ignorance, and I relate to it.
For years I have been trying to educate myself on social constructs like victim blaming, male privilege, and respectability politics; mostly by leveraging the expertise of friends who are well versed on these issues. I found many of those conversations to be more difficult than I anticipated. Largely because I was ignorant. Sure I was raised to treat women with respect, but not to think critically about the constructs and behaviors that perpetuate misogyny and sexism. It took me at least 22 years to start thinking critically about these issues. My family didn’t challenge me to do so, nor did my community, nor did K-12, nor did my college coursework. It wasn’t until I was challenged by my friends that I began to see the error of my ways. It was their patience, and willingness to teach, educate, and inform that elevated my consciousness. And, for them, I am grateful.
I was discouraged by the ridicule and vitriol I saw in response to Smith’s ignorant remarks. He may be naive, and he may perpetuate sexist and misogynistic views, but he does not avoid speaking about them. Smith has been courageous enough to leverage his platform on the Entertainment and Sports Network (ESPN) to discuss significant social issues with an appropriate level of gravitas. Someone who is willing to discuss these matters at length might be willing to be molded. Unfortunately some people choose to be combative rather than helpful, and squander an opportunity to educate and elevate consciousness. I know what it feels like to go toe-to-toe intellectually on these issues with someone who is clearly better informed, by experience, education or both–albeit not on national television. Nonetheless each time, I felt myself inching closer and closer to a state of enlightenment. Those conversations prepared me to receive the message of Michael Eric Dyson when he appeared on ESPN’s “First Take” to debate Smith, and ultimately laid the foundation for me to finally understand the fallacy of respectability politics.
So in defense of Stephen A. Smith, consider what can be gained by attempting to educate and inform, rather than mock and ridicule someone who is ignorant. Smith has continually utilized his platform at ESPN to discuss social issues that reach much further than sports. He has invited open dialogue, and allowed meaningful discussions to take place on a network that is not known for facilitating such discussions. While he may have fumbled a time or two, Stephen A. smith is still worthy of being commended for his courage to discuss such issues in a public arena.