Iowa Men's Basketball

Let's talk about the 'why' with Gary Dolphin

'Unconscious bias' is a form of racism, but as a transgression, it shouldn't mean exile

A fan dances while wearing a dolphin costume with lettering that says “Save The Dolph” to support Gary Dolphin during the first half of their NCAA basketball game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City on Friday, Feb. 22, 2019. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
A fan dances while wearing a dolphin costume with lettering that says “Save The Dolph” to support Gary Dolphin during the first half of their NCAA basketball game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City on Friday, Feb. 22, 2019. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — Iowa radio play-by-play voice Gary Dolphin, 67, has been the voice of Iowa football and men’s basketball since 1996. He’s on suspension for the second time this season, and, right now, no one knows if he’ll return to the booth.

At the end of last Tuesday’s game against Maryland, Dolphin described Terrapins center Bruno Fernando, who is black, as “King Kong.”

Last Friday, Dolphin was suspended for the remainder of the basketball season. The suspension was handed down by Hawkeye Sports Properties, which is run by Learfield Sports Properties. Iowa athletics director Gary Barta has not addressed the topic. No one from UI athletics has touched this.

You know about the suspension. Let’s focus on what Dolphin said.

In his statement following the suspension, Dolphin used the term “unconscious bias.” If your human resources department hasn’t introduced you to “unconscious bias,” it will.

Why was the “King Kong” term wrong? Why is it considered racist?

Dave Drustrup, 32, is studying counseling psychology at the UI. His Twitter account is “Black Lives Matter.” His emphasis is “whiteness” and racism. He is a white male from Des Moines.

“You look at the university. We have an African studies department, a Latino studies department and they ask how do we make sense of the racial experience for these people?” Drustrup said. “You never see a ‘whiteness’ studies department. We never ask ourselves the question, what does it mean to be white?

“It’s a dangerous area. We either subliminally learn that we don’t have a race or it’s not worth studying. ‘Whiteness’ study tries to get into that. We ask ourselves what it means to be white. What are the effects of this? How does it change our lives?”

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The original “King Kong” movie came out in 1933, just 18 years after “The Birth of a Nation,” an overtly racist movie that is considered Hollywood’s first full-length feature film, was the first movie shown in the White House and was the box office leader for nearly two decades in the U.S.

“The important part about ‘Birth of a Nation,’ one of the things depicted in black man as a menace was the sexual violence,” Drustrup said. “He’s capturing these pure, white women. And that’s a message that’s in ‘King Kong.’ The whole movie is he’s capturing a white woman. The reason ‘King Kong’ is problematic from that time is that it’s almost a shot-for-shot remake of ‘Birth of a Nation,’ except you replace the 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. 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.”

There has been a storm of reaction to Dolphin’s suspension. Let’s stay with the incident, that’s what got us here.

“It’s a problem when we’re not able to critique what Dolph said because we’re so upset about him getting suspended,” Drustrup said. “This is a racist incident, but it doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world. It means it was a harmful statement that he can learn and grow from, but it doesn’t make him a bad person.

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“Unconscious bias, we all have this growing up white people in Iowa. The difference between people is how we handle it and if we learn from it. Dolph used some beautiful language when he said he understood that’s his unconscious bias and that he was going to work on that. He apologized to the people he offended. That’s what an apology needs to look like.”

“Unconscious bias” is a product of environment, proximity and experience. Most importantly, it’s “unconscious.”

“We have this thing in American society that’s binary,” Drustrup said. “We believe a racist equals a bad person. If you’re not racist, you’re a good person.

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“So, we have people coming up to Dolph’s defense very tenderly, they’re sensitive to the idea that he did something racist, because they don’t want him to be a bad person. That’s not how it is. It doesn’t mean that. Doing something racist doesn’t make Dolph a bad person, it means he’s a normal white male in Iowa.

“We all have this. He’s choosing to handle it in a healthy way. He’ll learn and grow from it and things will be OK. Peoples’ reaction to it is fascinating from a social psychology perspective.”

Drustrup is referring to the reaction to “politically correct” culture. That’s been part of this story.

“Part of it is, what are we really saying when we say ‘PC culture?’ We’re saying we don’t want to have to worry about what we’re saying,” Drustrup said. “We don’t want to be held responsible for what we’re saying, but at a deeper level, we don’t want to be racist.

“If we call what Dolph did racist, we have to look at ourselves, because we’ve done things like that. I’ve said things like that. I’ve thought things like that. I do it to this day. You can’t help it. It’s automatic. It’s unconscious. If we call what Dolph did racist, we have to incriminate ourselves. We’re no longer absolved of this ugly word ‘racism.’

“So then, we need to go back and ask, does being racist make me a bad person? It doesn’t. It makes us a white male growing up in this country and in this state. We need to undo that binary to understand there’s all this middle ground, to understand that we need to face that. “If we can face the fact that all white people have moments of racism, and that doesn’t make us a bad person at our core, then we can be more introspective and sensitive to the harm that we can cause, which will lead us to learning from mistakes and doing better, being less racist in the future.”

So, what should happen here and who should decide it?

Drustrup left his opinion out on the suspension topic. He doesn’t believe that should be up to him. The first was two games in late November for disparaging comments he made about a Hawkeye player into a live microphone that went over air. That first suspension is a factor and could be why the UI hasn’t said anything.

Should this decision be left up to Barta, radio executives?

“When I want to know about sexism, I wouldn’t come and talk to you, I’d talk to your wife,” Drustrup said. “If I want to know about anti-Semitism, I don’t ask my parents, I talk with a Jewish person. If we want to know about racism, we don’t talk to white men about it. We bring in people of color. That’s what the university ought to do. They should sit down and talk with whomever they trust in this situation and ask, 'what was this? How bad was this? Why was it so bad?'

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“As white men growing up in Iowa, we simply can’t know this stuff,” Drustrup said. “We can’t know the impact of being compared to a gorilla and what’s that meant to me, my family, for my people, for my state. A lot of critical race theorists and historians would argue that that stereotype still affects the lives of black people today because of the systemic nature of that. You trust people with the lived experience and that they’ll know what do to with it.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.