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Larry Peterson - Straight Shots

Realizing why ‘King Kong’ line wasn’t an innocent analogy

Gary Dolphin
Gary Dolphin

I’m grateful that my column wasn’t scheduled last week.

My knee-jerk reaction to the suspension of University of Iowa basketball announcer Gary Dolphin being suspended for referring to Rutgers player Bruno Fernando as “King Kong” after the game — for his dominant physical play around the basket — was different than it is today.

There has been enough time now for some valuable input from a cross section of people. Those of us who live in 91 percent white Iowa — probably higher here in rural southwest Iowa — really don’t know as much as we sometimes think we know about where the “offensive” line really is. How could we?

Originally, realizing that Dolphin was simply making an analogy to an imposing fictional character, I thought actions by the university in conjunction with Hawkeye Sports Properties (which is run by Learfield Sports Properties) to suspend Dolphin was a silly overreaction.

The prevailing opinion in the immediate aftermath was that this was just another example of “PC culture” run amok. It seemed clear that Dolphin did not have any racially-motivated intent in his remarks.

I quietly stood behind “Dolph” in this case and scorned the action announced by Athletic Director Gary Barta.

Fortunately, I spent a few days listening to some people I respect. There is much to be learned about “unconscious bias,” which was a term used in the press conference last Wednesday explaining the sanctions.

There are a lot of reasons that Dolphin is wise to reflect on his choice of words and improve as a respectful person going forward. One of them is the simple fact that we (Scandinavian descendents surrounded by mostly people who look like us) really have no idea what it’s like to walk in other’s shoes.

So, let’s start with that premise. “We” don’t really know what we don’t know.

I grew up in racially mixed Fort Dodge, but let’s face it, the only time I felt like I was in the minority was when my delivery job took me down to the Des Moines River basin south of South Junior High. I was pretty isolated from diversity in the lily-white northeast part of Fort Dodge, just as I have been living for decades in southwest Iowa.

In judging whether a remark is offensive or not, it’s not enough to discuss it with another white person from southwest Iowa. You take it to those who live with it every day.

Today, Winterset played Oskaloosa at the Boys State Basketball Tournament. I attended the tournament on Tuesday and saw Oskaloosa play. In the aftermath of the discussion of Dolphin’s suspension, DaJuan Foster, father of Oskaloosa star Xavier Foster — a 7-foot tall black kid in a mostly white town much like Creston — tried to explain on social media why Dolphin’s comment was an inappropriate remark. We need to listen to those reactions in order to grow as human beings.

“The bigger point is the experience and the pain associated with the reference,” Foster tweeted. “But some people don’t want to understand.”

Marc Morehouse of the Cedar Rapids Gazette talked to Dave Drustrup, a white male from Des Moines who is studying counseling psychology at the University of Iowa. Drustrup had some interesting comments about the Dolphin situation.

The original King Kong movie came out in 1933, 18 years after “The Birth of a Nation,” an overtly racist movie depicting a black man as a menace, capturing innocent white women. Then, King Kong is shown capturing white women in that movie, so it’s almost a shot-for-shot remake of “Birth of a Nation,” except it replaced a black man with a gorilla.

“The reason the gorilla comparison is so harmful is because that comparison was used for centuries to dehumanize black people,” Drustup told Morehouse. “You go back to slavery times, that comparison justified the systemic enslavement and systemic murder of black people for centuries, even through the 20th century. Today, it’s still a harmful trope.”

Jon Miller of the Hawkeye Nation website recalled growing up in West Branch. He was 10 years old when an African American friend was teased by an older boy for using “gorilla shampoo” on his hair. Understandably, the young boy ran home crying in shame.

“I’m embarrassed to this day that I stood there and did nothing after that hurtful remark,” Miller wrote.

Dolphin was contrite and reflective in the news conference about his suspension. Much more so than coach Fran McCaffery, who only seemed to be sorry that his “private conversation” calling an official an (expletive) cheater and a disgrace was overheard by others.

Several of Dolphin’s African-American friends from over the years contacted him, saying they knew his intentions were innocent, but that they were disappointed in the word choice. These people were not overtly “politically correct” or “snowflakes.” They live it.

People like me and Dolphin, who grew up in Cascade, don’t have family history of people being called gorillas or hearing jokes about using gorilla shampoo or whatever else kids use as derisive remarks.

Dolphin was sorry and vowed to learn and grow. He shouldn’t have used the term, simply because it indeed is hurtful to some. Fernando, by the way, is from Angola and the comparison to a giant gorilla could easily be construed as racist.

Certainly more so than I originally believed. A fictional character who was referred to because of his strength and power as a dominant force may seem innocent enough. But those of us who haven’t felt the isolation and outright hatred have no right to tell anyone that it’s OK.

If it makes somebody uncomfortable, it’s not OK.

As we learned in Creston more than a year ago after some kids depicted a Ku Klux Klan scene as a joke not meant to target anyone in a harmful way, sometimes these situations can have a positive outcome after the initial pain.

We became a better community after that discussion. More of us realized what hurts others, regardless of our intent.

Gary Dolphin has clearly become a better person on the other side of this situation.

Maybe we all can.


Contact the writer:

Twitter: @larrypeterson


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