Psychoanalysing Don Cherry’s divisive language

Examining the subtleties of our own bias can break down racism

Cherry's remarks exemplify embedded prejudice.

Amidst the recent news that long-time Canadian sports broadcasting personality Don Cherry has been fired over his controversial rant on live TV, fans and critics alike have interpreted the meaning of his remarks in a number of ways.

During his Coach’s Corner segment on Hockey Night in Canada, Cherry used the phrase “you people” to describe immigrants to Canada, berating them for apparently not wearing Remembrance Day poppies to support the fallen troops of the Canadian military. “You people […] 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.

Although his ambiguous language may make it seem as if what he said is not prejudiced, it’s actually the ambiguity of his statement that makes it so prejudiced.

By labelling immigrants (those he believes use Canada’s “milk and honey”) as “you people,” Cherry Othered a large portion of our population. He verbally separated certain Canadians from those, like him, who identify as white, male, and privileged.

The tendency to other a group, Cherry—or anybody for that matter—decides has different values than their own, like new immigrants, is a psychological phenomenon founded in realistic conflict theory.

The experiment that sparked this theory set out to observe the behaviour of young males in competition with one another.

The experimenters began by separating a group of 12-year-old, white, middle-class males into two teams, then conducted outdoor bonding activities within each group to build collective norms. Once this was completed, they introduced the two teams to each other, explaining that they would compete against one another for limited resources.

Without hesitation, each team began accusing their opponents of cheating—using slurs against them and acting aggressively.

This negative behavioural reaction spurred by a competition for resources proves the animosity, prejudice, and negative stereotypes that comes from separating people into groups that oppose one another. And, in this case, this was nothing more than a pretend game. 

This experiment is the perfect model for Cherry’s attitude towards immigration in Canada— along with an unfortunate amount of other people’s attitudes.

During his segment, Cherry named and blamed a group that he considers separate from himself. He accused this group of taking Canadian resources  (“milk and honey,” or good living conditions) without paying proper dues to Canadian history, over which he feels he has unquestioned ownership.

By the same token, Cherry—someone who should be held to a high standard as a Canadian icon—thinks as little about the complexities of Canadian identity as 12-year-old boys do when they’re in competition for the same food as someone else.

Ironically, Cherry did a disservice to the Canadian troops by conducting his racialized rant: exploiting the importance of wearing a poppy to give a voice to his personal political beliefs.

If this level of embedded prejudice can be inferred from two simple words, we must all continue to examine the inequities of our language and the inaccurate bias that founded them in the first place.

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