Cam Newton could have handled himself better in the postgame interview after losing in Superbowl 50. But, listening to all the comments from fans and commentators the morning after, it strikes me that we have a LONG ways to go in understanding the ways race plays in our perceptions of how a public figure handles themselves.
White privilege and its role in institutional racism is a concept hotly debated, because it can be masked through any manner of other more societally acceptable lenses (manners, sportsmanship, etc.). I think how Cam Newton is being treated for his conduct after the Superbowl is a perfect “teaching moment” for this societal dynamic. Here’s what I mean…
Cam’s behavior is being interpreted as exemplary of a group rather than being viewed as an individual’s reaction to a stressful situation. He wears his hoodie with the hood up? Oh, clearly he is referencing Trayvon Martin. A white sports commentator calls his black commentator friend to ask if Cam Newton missed an opportunity to be an example for “black culture.” (1) Cam is compared to a petulant child, with undercurrents of white culture’s tendency to view a black man who doesn’t behave according to expectations as a “boy” as a way of diminishing their position and dignity.
A white athlete in the same position doesn’t have to answer as if he was an example for his entire race, while Cam Newton is expected to. And that, I believe, is a perfect example of white privilege. I have the advantage of simply answering for my own behavior without being stereotyped and prejudged.
It would be nice if Cam Newton could be given the freedom to simply be himself, for better or worse. I am afraid, though, that as a prominent black man in the public eye, he simply doesn’t have that luxury.
(1) Mike Salk asking “G Scott” on the “Brock and Salk Show, ESPN710 Seattle, hour 2, 2/8/2016. Listen especially to the 8 minute mark and following.