Let’s Stop Dragging Jessica Allen Down with Don Cherry, OK?


(Photos: Getty Images and Bell Media)

While hockey fans are used to seeing a fight or two on the ice, the biggest brawl of late has taken place off ice—in the court of public opinion (and Twitter, of course). Last week, longtime hockey commentator Don Cherry was fired from his position on Sportsnet’s Coach’s Corner after making some seriously problematic comments in a November 10 segment. In a completely unprompted rant, Cherry launched into a tirade against what he says are fewer people wearing poppies in honour of Remembrance Day. Specifically, Cherry singled out those he believes are immigrants in Toronto.

“You people, you come here…you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey, at least you can pay a couple bucks for a poppy or something like that,” Cherry said in the broadcast. “These guys paid for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada, these guys paid the biggest price.”

In response to his comments, the internet went wild, with Canadians across the country sharing photos and memories of their immigrant family members who served Canada. After his firing, fans of Cherry protested online and IRL, with a petition calling for his reinstatement amassing over 200,000 signatures and the hashtag #boycottsportsnet trending. Cherry, for his part, doubled down on his comments. A day later, The Social‘s Jessica Allen commented on Cherry’s firing and the backlash from hockey fans around his departure, saying: “I don’t worship at the altar of hockey…there’s a certain kind of person, in my mind, in my experience, who does,” Allen said in the segment. “And they all tended to be white boys who weren’t, let’s say very nice, they were not generally thoughtful, they were often bullies, their parents were able to afford to spend $5,000 a year on minor hockey…and for me Don Cherry is the walking and talking representative of that type.”

And, for some reason, *this* is the comment that took off as out-of-bounds. Soon after her comments, #FireJessAllen started trending on Twitter and as of November 14, #BoycottCTV (the network that owns The Social) was also trending. Several parents of players involved in the Humboldt bus crash also spoke out against Allen, concerned that she was spreading prejudice and assumptions about their sons. While both Allen and CTV have since issued apologies, many people are still accusing Allen of negatively stereotyping a group, calling her comments offensive and putting them on par with Cherry’s.

And honestly? That needs to stop; comparing the two comments is a non-starter:

Listen, Cherry probably isn’t racist

I’d like to give the popular hockey commentator *some* benefit of the doubt. I don’t know that Cherry is a racist person, or at least he probably doesn’t think he’s racist—but that doesn’t mean that he’s not subconsciously subscribing to and perpetuating harmful racist language and stereotypes.

Anyone who’s a visible minority knows the implications behind “you people.” While arguments have since arisen that the ambiguity around this phrase means Cherry could have been addressing *anyone,* a.k.a he could have also been addressing non-immigrants and non-racialized people, I’m calling BS. “You people” is a perfect example of “dog whistle” language, words that—from the exterior—appear innocent and like they mean one thing (for example, you the people who don’t wear poppies), but actually signal something coded and more insidious. In the case of Cherry’s comments, “you people” clearly sets an “us” versus “them” dichotomy between “real” Canadians (ie: white Canadians) and the “other” (immigrants of colour). As Toronto Star columnist Royson James wrote in a November 15 column: “‘You people’ is the refuge of the xenophobe — it’s a narrow, small-minded, racist identifier that hurts, perhaps surprisingly, each time.”

But it whittles down to who has power

And it’s this racial dynamic that makes Cherry’s comments so much more harmful, because they’re steeped in and directed at a community that has a history of being marginalized and oppressed. The big difference between Allen’s and Cherry’s comments is who they are aimed at—and the history of power within those groups. It’s the difference between punching up and punching down.

Typically used in relation to comedy, the notion of punching up versus punching down applies to going after a person or group who is above you—such as in power, societal status or privilege—or someone below you, respectively. The rule stands that it’s always more worthwhile to target those a notch above you, usually those with tangible power who are abusing it (*ahem* Trump *ahem*).

As BuzzFeed writer Scaachi Koul pointed out in an October 2016 article about conservative talking heads poking fun at minority groups:”There’s a reason why jesters made fun of kings,” she writes. “There’s nothing funny to be wrung from punching below your weight.”

And the same can be said outside of comedy, too. In this scenario, Cherry is the one with immense privilege, in every sense of the word. He’s a wealthy white man with an enormous platform and a fan base that obviously listens to and values what he says (at least if the backlash to his firing is any indication). He’s taking aim at a visibly marginalized group, with no platform and already tenuous standing as immigrants; a group at a disadvantage to defending themselves publicly against his generalization. It’s more like the King taking aim at the jester. And really, how fair is that?

On the other hand, in the context of Allen’s comments, hockey culture—as a predominantly white and inherent part of stereotypical Canadian identity—is firmly rooted in a place of power that is whiteness and maleness. While it’s important to note that the demographics within hockey are (thankfully) changing, the fact remains that it *is* an inherently white sport. A 2016 study done by The Hamilton Spectator found that in Ontario, an elite AAA player’s family can spend up to $15,000 annually. As The Guardian writer Sameer Rao points out in a March article, these costs “inevitably prevent many Indigenous, Black, Latinx and immigrant groups, who experience disproportionate poverty, from enrolling their children.” In addition to cost, the Spectator found that several factors, including geography, public policy and the funding mechanisms of non-profits, make it increasingly difficult for low- and middle-income families to access the sport, particularly at competitive levels.  

While data based on race in hockey is limited, the sport has historically been white and still has issues with racism on the ice, so it’s not a stretch to say that a large percentage of those within the community *do* come from a systemic position of power; a position rooted in colonialism and Eurocentric thinking and one that continues to privilege whiteness. Which makes any claims of “reverse racism” or equivalency between Allen and Cherry’s comments, false.  The two groups targeted—racialized immigrants and white hockey players—are not starting on a level playing field. Allen is punching up.

The stakes are much higher for those Cherry is talking about

And it’s because of this discrepancy in societal standing that the stakes for immigrants is much higher; the implications between Allen and Cherry’s statements are much different. Cool, so everyone thinks that hockey players are white, middle-class jerks. Does that stereotype suck? Sure. Does it have any real, tangible implications on how people from within that community are treated or their safety? History would show us that no, probably not. That’s because that community has historically been the one in power. On the other hand, singling out a minority demographic as ‘other’ or in the wrong can have serious repercussions, especially when said demo is racialized.

In Canada, racism is getting worse—or at least more vocal. Police-reported hate crimes have steadily risen over the past few years, with hate-motivated crimes peaking in 2017, according to Statistics Canada. While 2018 did see a slight dip in numbers, Stats Canada noted that it was still higher than 2016.

And, as we’ve seen with our neighbours to the south, when someone in a position of power targets or calls out a minority or racialized group, it can incite others to enact violence against them. Since Donald Trump’s election, and his very public condemnation of immigrants and minority communities (remember that whole calling Mexican people “rapists” thing?) minority communities have reported being physically assaulted, called racial slurs and being subjected to racist and anti-semitic graffiti on their homes and places of worship.

I highly doubt any hockey players are going to face violence or racism as a direct result of Allen’s comments.

And bringing in Humboldt is unfair—to the players and other communities

Which makes the inclusion of the Humboldt Broncos in this entire narrative kind of unfair, to both the team, their families and community, and the racialized community. The Humboldt bush crash was absolutely a tragedy; but conflating their tragedy with Allen’s comments is unjust and doesn’t really make sense, because they have nothing to do with one another. The bus accident in which 16 people died and 13 were injured was in no way related to Allen’s statements or opinions on the white maleness of the sport.

And considering the fact that Cherry’s comments could pose a real threat to immigrants and minority people of colour,  and that people from this community are targeted and killed at a disproportionate rate, it’s a harmful comparison.

When reached for comment, a media representative for Bell Media said Allen is not responding beyond her personal statement. Sportsnet was unable to comment.

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