Basketball Players, Wu-Tang, and a Letter to My Son

The evening of May 28, 2020, is one of those moments in my life that exists as a still shot in my mind. Like many white Americans, over the past weeks and months, I have found myself diving into books to try to explore myself, my identity, and my construct of race. Ibram X. Kendi, W.E.B. DuBois, James Baldwin, Robin D’Angelo, Beverly Tatum, Christopher Emdin, Claude Steele, Mychal Denzel Smith, Toni Morrison, Richard Rothstein, Mahzarin R. Banaji, Richard Wright…my wife has teased me about the stacks of books I am pulling off our shelves and the seemingly ceaseless flow of Amazon packages that have been pouring into our house. Like many good white folks out there, I’m trying, at least the best I know how I am trying to wrap my head around race in America. Today, as I read through the final pages of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me I was blindsided. In reading his letter to his son, my own son fractured the shell of enlightenment that I had slowly been building around myself and my household. I was admittedly slow to read Coates’ work. Particularly when it came to Between the World and Me. It wasn’t that I wasn’t curious, it wasn’t that I didn’t think I could learn from it. I was, and I knew I could. It’s complicated…

I grew up in a rural town, there was one Black student in my school when I was in 4th grade. His name was Alex, he wasn’t in my class, he only stayed for one year. We learned about Black culture though, we were liberal, we were the good White folks who didn’t see color because everyone was equal…we were taught that the color on one’s skin was irrelevant. At the time we thought that was how it should be, like I said, we were doing our best. High school was different, the school was more diverse and I had developed a colorblind mentality that let me get along with everyone, race never made me squeamish. But, as I said, it was complicated. I have one vivid memory from my senior year. I was driving with one of my teammates and as soon as he got in my car I switched my Dave Matthews CD for a new Wu-Tang Forever CD that I had recently purchased. My taste in music has always been eclectic so it was not unusual for me to have either CD in, or to switch one for the other. This was different though, as soon as I did it I knew it, and I was mortified to think that he knew it as well. That moment was the first recognition that I wasn’t colorblind. Switching that CD was an attempt to show my friend that I wasn’t a typical white boy. I was trying to signal that I was safe, that I loved the same things that he loved, I was trying to bridge a gap between us that had never existed until I pointed it out. Through the RZA, Method Man, and ODB, I was trying to signal my appreciation of Black culture, what I assumed to be his culture. Simultaneously I was assuming that he had assigned Dave Matthews to me, to my whiteness. I assumed that he would have no interest in listening to that kind of music, that I was the only one that could bridge that gap. We had been teammates for the past six years and race had never been a part of our friendship, at least not in my mind it wasn’t. He once told our coach that he didn’t want to run the ball unless he was doing so behind me. In my mind our bond transcended race, in that nostalgic, band of brothers, cheesy Hollywood cliche way, it felt like it was deeper than our skin. But in that moment, my implicit biases and clumsy recognition of his race negated all of that. As soon as I hit play I asked myself why I had done that. Why did I feel the need to connect to someone with whom I had already connected? Why did I do it in a manner that signaled to him that I saw him first and foremost as Black? Is that really how I saw him?

Long before I had the language to label it as a micro-aggression I had seen myself perpetrate one. Since that moment I have tried to be conscious of race in a different way. In some ways, it was my own racial awakening. I think of the stories that my Black friends tell me about the moment they realized they were Black although, despite some parallels, it’s the stark differences that are most compelling. When my Black friends talk about their first experience with racism, oftentimes what they describe is the recognition that they are living in a system built to oppress them. On my part, I was realizing that I was inherently aligned with the oppressors. More importantly, I had the privilege of waiting until I was 18 to start really grappling with concepts of race and privilege, many of my friends of color were forced to begin that work in grammar school while I was blissfully focused on my ABC’s. All of this led me to think about how, when, and why I engage with Black culture. I love to discuss race and privilege, Black authors line my bookshelves and when I need to relax the soundtrack is always the Fugees, The Roots, or Tribe. A crowning moment for me as a father was when my son told me he liked Nas because “he uses his words really well.” Through all of this, in the back of my mind, I am always thinking about appropriation. I love these things, I respect these things, I own none of them.

At some point, I drew an imaginary line and in my mind, on one side I was a respectful consumer of Black culture, on the other I was a trespasser. The fear of crossing that line is what prevented me from picking up Between the World and Me. I felt that a letter from a Black father to his son violated that boundary, there was no way to consume that without feeling like an interloper or a voyeur, it was far too intimate. So I listened to interviews and podcasts, I read articles by Coates, but I left his letter between him and his son. That is until I was finally prompted to pick it up by a syllabus. I was excited to read it, being an assigned reading gave me license to access it even though I was leery that it wasn’t meant for my eyes. Further, the space I had given it upon publication absolved me of the guilt that I felt crossing my own imaginary line. I started soaking it up, it put into words what I have seen, heard, and felt in so many people around me.

One-hundred and forty-eight pages into the book my son came up next to me, sat on the couch, and excitedly pulled the page down to see what I was reading. “Oh, basketball players!” he said. I was confused, but then I looked down at the book to see a picture of Coates and his teenage son. Coates is dressed in a button-down dress shirt with his arm around his son, who is wearing a button-down with “Howard” written across the chest. My heart stopped. He stopped, but he wasn’t quite sure why. His face bore the look he gets when he thinks that I’m about to get upset with him. He knew he made a mistake but he wasn’t sure what it was. When I asked him what prompted him to say that he said he was unsure. Then he pointed to the Howard shirt and said it looked like a jersey. Mind you, he had said players, plural, and only Coates’ son wore a shirt that looked like a jersey. It did kind of look like a jersey but at best a baseball jersey, something else inside him had drawn a straight line to basketball. Luckily I was able to tell him who Ta-Nehisi Coates is, that he wrote the book that I’m reading, that he is incredibly smart, that I’m hoping to learn from him, that Howard is one of the best universities in the nation, that I didn’t know if either he or his son played any sports at all. I asked him if there was anything else about the picture that made him say that. We talked about the fact that both men were Black and whether that had led him to think they were athletes. My son was interested, he listened, he left knowing that the Black man in the picture was someone to look up to and that it had nothing to do with basketball. He left the conversation knowing that the other person in the picture was just a teenager who had his whole life to define himself.

I was dumbfounded, but when I think about it I know that I shouldn’t have been. The ink was barely dry on the last paper I wrote, in which I explored how implicit bias and stereotype threat manifest in kids as young as four years old. But my kid? He has examples of Black excellence and Black culture all around him, doesn’t he? He knows what the Black Lives Matter sign in our window means. We talk to him about race. I find myself wondering if he knows who wrote those books on the bookshelf. He knows that Nas is good with his words but I haven’t told him what Nas is talking about, or who he is talking to. He doesn’t understand the importance of Nas saying “b-boys and girls listen up. You can be anything in the world,” because, as a young White male, the world was designed for my son, he has always been told he can be anything. Just like somewhere, somehow, he was told that two Black men in a picture together must be basketball players.

I find myself wondering about that line I drew. I find myself wondering about how I can go about sharing the things that I love with my son without appropriating them? How do I teach him to appreciate and respect the great scholars, poets, leaders, and musicians of the Black community without crossing the line and becoming an interloper? I also wonder about the lines that other white parents might draw. At what point do white parents choose to bring conversations about race to their children? Where is the line at which other white folks feel themselves become squeamish about race and what do they do when they find themselves standing on that line? The stakes are too high for that line not to be an intentional one. Too far in one direction and white children could grow up seeing only basketball players, too far the other way and they might grow up feeling ownership of something that wasn’t meant to be theirs. What I do know is that my work is clearly cut out for me, as it is for the rest of the White community.

I wonder if the date at the start of this struck you, the one that I said still exists as a still shot in my mind. It’s safe to assume that many who think hard about the spring and summer of 2020 probably connected it with George Floyd, maybe attributed it to the date of his murder. In fact, George Floyd was murdered on May, 25th. So what then is the significance of May 28th? That is the day that I learned of George Floyd’s murder. The day that I had to contend with the fact that our nation could be engulfed in righteous uprisings for three days before it finally permeated my bubble. Three days between the world and me. Those three days define my work. As the father of three White boys, I can’t let them grow up to live with a three-day buffer between the world and them. It’s time that the White community take a page from Ta-Nehihi Coates, and sit down to write a letter to your sons.

Ta-Nehisi Coates and his son as pictured in his book “Between the World and Me.” -photo credit The Guardian
Me and my son taken about two years before he and I had our conversation about Coates and his son.

I am a father, husband, educator, and life long learner trying to make the world around me a better place.

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