The music swelled over 44 seconds of Instagram comments praising Dallas Stars forward Tyler Seguin, across images of Seguin at a Black Lives Matter Protest in a now deleted NHL.com video. The accompanying Tweet read “Listen. Learn. Use your platform to encourage others to do the same” (none of which this video was doing). The NHL quietly removed the video after people pointed out how offensive it was to highlight a white player for protesting after ignoring Black players who have tried to do the same. USA Today’s Hemal Jhaveri outlines “this is what structural and institutional racism looks like, summed up in one tweet”
White celebrities lending their support to Black Lives Matter is necessary, and in recent weeks seeing NHL players acknowledge racism has been encouraging in a league that has tacitly denied it for so long. Such support had the potential to go two ways – the first is to action. The second is an inertia where it is something white people do to feel good about themselves.
The important words from this video are faded out, where the commenter writes Seguin “didn’t just put out a statement to make himself look good or bc it’s what everyone else is doing”. While it seems hypocritical for a video doing this very thing to feature such critique, it suggests that for many white people, the difference between confirming goodness and making change is beyond their comprehension. I’ve written before about how the NHL does this with its mental health initiatives, where players tweet in support of charity, but do not examine how their own structure can contribute to mental illness.
White people like to affirm their goodness, particularly through symbolic initiatives that are added on top of, rather than in place of, existing power structures. This is comfortable because it does not involve anyone questioning their own role in a racist culture. Change is then about doing “more” rather than doing things differently.
The comfortable feeling is why The Help, one of a very, very long line of Hollywood films about white people “saving” Black people from racism, has been one of the most popular films on Netflix this last week. Writing about a similar movie, Crash, education scholar Arlo Kempf recalls a conversation he had with a viewer who told him it “moved her” (p. 101). Inquiring where it moved her to, she responded “perhaps she was no different for having seen it, but that the movie had saddened her heart” (p. 101). The film was a comfortable commodity, selling the feeling of “being good”.
The NHL is also in the business of selling (white) goodness. In the Seguin video, he’s described as “the definition of character” and “look at him. That is a man”. The praise feeds into the NHL culture’s obsession with “role models”, “character”, and “leadership”. The only Black voices the NHL amplified were two comments “as an African American I love watching you play but now I love you even more” and “as someone who is black and loves hockey, this means more to me than you will ever know”, the Instagram comment equivalent of “some of my best friends are Black”, where Black voices are valued only as proof of white goodness.
Supporting a protest is now framed as part of having good character, which is a welcome change from a league that has often viewed social justice as a distraction from the game. But perhaps the goal posts are just moving, with supporting the hashtag in general and charitable initiatives marked as “good”. Is this is the endpoint of activism or the beginning? Without further action, these statements are what Holiday Phillips describes as “perfomative allyship”. This is:
when someone from that same nonmarginalized group professes support and solidarity with a marginalized group in a way that either isn’t helpful or that actively harms that group. Performative allyship usually involves the “ally” receiving some kind of reward — on social media, it’s that virtual pat on the back for being a “good person” or “on the right side.”
This video is the NHL’s second failure in as many days. ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski asked, NHL Executive Vice President of Social Impact, Kim Davis if the NHL will continue to have Law Enforcement Appreciation nights. She answered with the tortured PR language of:
we will all have to interrogate and investigate how we ensure that those relationships can continue to be perceived as positive, and how we illuminate them is perceived as positive, relative to these fans who are feeling compromised by police brutality.
This is a clear example of the symbolic initiatives that are added onto, rather than in place of, existing power structures. The NHL wants to affirm that Black Lives Matter, but is unwilling to change their existing support for the system that devalues Black Lives in the first place.
White people, let’s not buy the NHL selling “goodness”! Instead, here are things we should do:
- Listen to Black people’s experiences. Do not pull a John Tavares, but seek out the numerous articles, books, movies, etc. already out there. And do not promote your own goodness for doing so.
- Be specific – Black Lives Matter, so it’s time to confront the organizations that systematically devalue Black Lives, like the police.
- Think about who you demand evidence from with regards to racism: Is it from Black people? Or from white people that their actions were not racist?
- Implement anti-racism practices in hockey (e.g., Courtney Szto, Sam McKegney, Bob Dawson, and Michael Auksi’s Policy Paper for Anti-Racism in Hockey).
Kempf, A. (2008). On the souls of white folks: Notes on the white Crash conversation. In P. S. S. Howard & G. J. Sefa Dei (Eds.), Crash, Politics, and Antiracism: Interrogations of Liberal Race Discourse (pp. 91-110). New York, NY: Peter Lang.