Jackie Robinson, Empathy and Shattering Stereotypes

42-HankAaronMissy and I watched the movie 42 last week. As you probably already know, Jackie Robinson was the first Black player in Major League Baseball. As you might guess, it wasn’t a smooth transition and Robinson endured a lot of hate and persecution along the way.

This movie could be a case study in how to shatter stereotypes. When a stereotype is first challenged, people typically cling to it more tightly than before and defend it even more vigorously. You see this in the movie as the insults start to fly, the boo’s of the crowd and very public curses and excoriation from opposing managers. The question at that point is whether the stereotype will hold true or be proven false. In other words, if Jackie Robinson reacts harshly (even if justified) it feeds the stereotype and the stereotype continues.

There was a defining scene in the movie when the opposing team’s manager is yelling crude remarks at Robinson while he is at bat. Robinson gets so mad that he walks off the field, away from the public eye, into the tunnel and repeatedly hits his bat against the wall. As he slumps to the floor of the tunnel, the tears and sobs begin. It was the moment everything changed. Aaron had made a choice and he was reaping the terrible but temporary consequences of his wise and humbling decision. Instead of retaliating with what would have been justifiable anger, he swallowed his pride and his anger for a bigger purpose.

Here is why that is important. If just once Robinson shouts back…just one violent reaction and the whole thing is blown. Once he acts violently, even justifiably, he fits the stereotype. When that happens, the stereotype is allowed to continue…even increase. But, if Robinson is respectful. If he is kind. If he ignores it and plays the game the best he can, like the bat he beat against the wall, the power of the stereotype is shattered.

Once he endures and doesn’t retaliate, Robinson becomes the victim which then allows the crowd to see him as something deeper than a victim…they start to see him as human. The insults no longer make sense. The booing just doesn’t seem to fit, much less feel right. People start seeing the injustice for what it really is and they became empathetic. Empathy has a way of shattering stereotypes because it is hard to hold empathy and a competing stereotype in your head and in your heart at the same time. One has to go. Thanks to Jackie Robinson for keeping his integrity, doing the tough thing, and helping to change a nation.

If you haven’t seen the movie, you should watch it. I also want to point you to two posts that you should read that are related to this. The first is by Jonathan Storment: Good and Evil: Let the Blames Begin. The second is by Richard Beck: Theology and Peace: Why Scapegoating is Like Axe Body Spray.