Your Degrees Will Not Protect You: A Lesson from Richard Sherman

by Kimberly Foster

Seattle Seahawks' Cornerback Richard Sherman is elite by many standards. The All-Pro NFL star will soon reach a milestone in his profession that only a small fraction of  his peers will see, he's rich, and he's a Stanford graduate. None of these accomplishments; however, could insulate Sherman from the onslaught of racist abuse hurled at him after he gave an impassioned soliloquy post Sunday night's big win against the San Francisco 49ers.

After Sherman vehemently declared, "I'm the best corner in the game! When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that's the result you gonna get." The backlash came swiftly. Detractors characterized him as a "violent," "classless"  "thug." But in reality, we merely witnessed Richard Sherman have a human moment on live TV. While overcome with emotion, he had an energetic outburst that should be less than appalling following a game in which huge, grown men slam their bodies into each other and the ground for millions of dollars.

Public reaction to Richard Sherman's unfiltered excitement reminds those of us who inhabit non-white bodies that white supremacy does not afford Black people the space to express our humanity. Instead we must always stay calm and remain "classy" lest we embarrass ourselves or the race.

The familiarity of the racially-charged overreactions  prompted immediate push back from those who understand the implications of coded-language and overt epithets.

But one of the more popular defenses of Richard Sherman was nearly as problematic as the racism he evoked.

Sherman has two degrees from Stanford University, and many of his supporters were quick to point to them in their efforts to paint Sherman as an exhuberant but wholly non-threatening Black man. By this logic, the bigots and flamethrowers are wrong because Sherman's educational pedigree makes him inherently deserving of respect.

This defense, however further marginalizes those without access and opportunity. It is implied that "good" black people are allowed to toe the line of socially acceptable behavior; whereas, "ghetto/poor/uneducated" Blacks deserve the universal scorn they receive.

As a Black woman with class and educational privilege, I have witnessed those who consider themselves "elite" wrap themselves in their achievements and lull themselves into a belief that an undeniable resume will be a shield in a world that despises their existence.

In some ways privilege may cushion the blow of bigotry, but the sad fact is that no matter what an accomplished Black woman or man achieves, someone will always find an excuse to view them through a prism of worn stereotypes. Our decisions are scrutinized and our missteps amplified, and from the time we are small children we learn to adjust ourselves to societal expectations of our inferiority.

While the chasm between the haves and have nots in Black America seems to be widening, we are all still connected by virtue of the white supremacist conditioning to which we're all subject.

The extent to which you can conform to dominant culture and assimilate within it depends heavily on your social positioning, and far too many of us view our success by our proximity to whiteness.

Those who find Richard Sherman shouting on TV disturbing do so not simply because of his behavior. His degrees could not protect him and neither will yours.


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Roy Hibbert, "No Homo," And the Myth of Harmless Hate

Kimberly Foster is the founder and editor of For Harriet. Email or

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