How Basketball Helped Me Realize I’m Not White

“There needs to be discussion among people who think of themselves as white. They need to unpack that language, that history, that social position and see what it really offers them, and what it takes away from them. As James Baldwin said, ‘As long as you think that you are white, there is no hope for you.’” – Steve Locke, “Why I Don’t Want to Talk About Race”

A little over a year ago, I rediscovered my basketball joy on the outdoor courts at Heman Park in University City, Missouri (a suburb adjacent to the city of St. Louis). Over the course of the past year, I played pick-up at Heman as often as my hectic work commute, injuries to my ankle and hand, and weather would permit. When only weather stood in the way, I played ball on the courts in the park’s indoor gymnasium. Even when I couldn’t play at all because of injury, I’d go just to be around the game, and the guys who were playing it.

We recently moved from St. Louis to Oberlin, Ohio. The move was a no-brainer for us. In fact, apart from two families that we’d grown close to, the only thing I found myself worried about missing was ball at Heman Park. Even after I discovered that just a block from where we were going to be living in Oberlin there was a beautiful outdoor court with padded basket supports, breakaway rims, and glass backboards—a vast facilities upgrade from the cracked asphalt, rusty rims and boards, and torn twine of Heman Park—I still worried about missing ball at Heman Park.

I’ve been a part of many regular pickup games over the past 30 odd years, and I’m sure I’ll find a group here in Oberlin, but I’ve never felt so strong and empowering a sense of community as I did on the courts at Heman Park.

I’ve also never been so conscious of myself as white.

And that’s where Steve Locke’s e-mail to Tom Matlack, and specifically his call for discussion, comes in. While my experience was rich and subtle and nuanced most of the time, my “analysis” often reduced that complexity, especially initially, but even sometimes in retrospect. I guess I’d thought that the Heman Park hoops community had been rewarding to me simply because I was usually the only white guy there, and I’d been accepted into a community of black men.

Now I think it’s more complicated than that. I’m unsettled by how quickly and naturally I reduced the complexity of the situation—and maybe even to some degree the humanity of the participants, including myself—to just two simple (and fictional) categories: black and white. I’m curious about how and why I did that. I’m curious, to use Steve’s words, about what thinking of myself as white got me in that situation, what it took from me, and most of all, what I gained when the thought fell away.

♦◊♦

The first time I went down to Heman, with my ball and new kicks, and gingerly stepped onto the asphalt beneath that empty hoop, I felt nervous. Players of different ages were casually shooting baskets. There were a couple of intense games of four-on-four going on. Under the shade of courtside trees, on picnic tables and bleachers, boys and men sat back, joking with another or calling out challenges or instructions to the players on the court. Everyone here seemed to know one another and to be at ease.

I didn’t know anyone. I felt like the new kid, and all the childish insecurities welled up inside me: Would they even let me join their game? What if they didn’t like me? What if they made fun of me? What will I say if they ask me my name? I don’t want to say it because they will laugh. On top of this, I hadn’t played in some time and certainly wasn’t in the best shape of my life. I felt old, heavy, and slow. What if I make a fool of myself? What if I am weak? And so, to the insecurities of the new kid, an additional wave of athletic-performance anxiety arose.

And there and then came the thought of myself as white. There and then, in those moments when a complex jumble of childhood fears—fears that in fact had nothing to do with skin tone—rose up and took hold of my body and heart. There and then, in those moments, my mind defended my ego against the anxiety, and against the acknowledgement that even as a 45-year-old man I was subject to childish fears and insecurities, by filtering out all the complex nuances and variables of the situation. My mind concluded, swiftly and without my conscious consent, that: 1) I was white. 2) Everyone else on the playground was black. And 3) This racial difference was the cause of my nervousness.

Looking back on the process now, I realize that I unconsciously chose the culturally familiar position of being the only white man on a basketball court with black men, instead of a more emotionally unsettling combination of positions: being a stranger among a group of acquaintances and friends, a newcomer to a neighborhood, a middle-aged and relatively unfit former athlete among mostly fit younger men, the son of Spanish immigrants in a crowd of Americans.

But I realize, as I read that back, that even now my mind continues to churn out a series of homogenizing and reductive assumptions about the other players, rationalizing my feelings of insecurity. I was assuming that they knew each other, were all Americans, were all more fit and better ball players than I was. In fact, I knew next to nothing about the individuals in that group.

Indeed, I think that the rock-bottom truth of me stepping onto that playground was that I cared a great deal about what happened and had no idea what would. That combination of investment and uncertainty was too potent, the vulnerability too great for me to simply experience it and tolerate it as such. I didn’t know how to act or what to do, and that was intolerable to me. Ultimately, I very badly wanted to be playing basketball. I needed a passage through my shyness and my worries about age and fitness, something like a doorway into a game.

At this point, I only had one real option if I wanted to play. I could sublimate my racial anxieties into virtuous basketball etiquette—keep quiet, play hard defense and unselfish offense—and hope to fit in. That was my narrow passageway into a game: I hustled and open-jumpered my way through a short game of “Buckets” (the St. Louis version of “21”) that resulted in my getting picked up for the ensuing game of four-on-four.

♦◊♦

But once the real games started I stopped thinking of myself as white, and I don’t remember ever thinking of myself as white during any pickup game at Heman Park over the course of the next year. I thought of myself, and others, as lots of things: good shooters, weak defenders, ball hogs, assholes, hard workers, tough rebounders, quick, slow, friendly, funny, intimidating, clever passers. So you see it’s not that I didn’t think at all about others or myself. One of my drawbacks as a player is the near constant stream of assessment running through my mind. But the imperatives of forming teams, competing, cooperating, and, above all, winning seemed to demand that I adopt different lenses, lenses that simply overwhelmed the fictive and useless lenses of black and white.

Clearly, the thought of myself as white took away far more than it gave me. But it’s not as though I never thought of myself as white again. To some degree, the pride and joy I took in being part of that community seemed to entail thinking of myself as white and so, maybe, as Baldwin says in the passage Steve quoted, “there is no hope for me.”

And it was when those lenses came off, in the course of those games, or of sitting on the sidelines with former or future teammates waiting for a game, that the rewarding sense of participating in a community took root and grew. That’s when the other middle-aged guys and I would shake our heads dismissively at what the younger fellows didn’t understand about the game (or in amazement at their physical ability). That’s when the other guards and I would conspire silently to keep the floor spaced and the ball moving. That’s when, down 8-3 in a game to 12, my teammates and I spontaneously gathered together, arms around one another’s shoulders, and decided not to give up, locked down our defense, took smart shots on offense, and rallied to win 12-10. In short, replacing the polarizing racial lenses with basketball lenses—more nuanced and more practical—allowed me to connect to myself and to the others there more fully. That’s when we began to form friendships, to care about the individuals there, and to feel cared about in turn.

Not long after I started playing at Heman Park, I got in a game in which one of the park’s old timers was on my team. We got on a tear, winning five or six games in a row. I couldn’t miss from the perimeter and Vic, the old-timer, got whatever he wanted inside, especially once the defense began to overplay me. We had a ball, schooling wave after wave of teenagers and 20-something’s. By the time the sun began to set, bringing an end to our dynasty, Vic had given me a nickname: Light Skin. I understood the nickname as descriptive: my skin was lighter in tone than just about everyone else at the park, but not as light as a couple of others. Mostly, I took pride in just having a nickname. Not everyone at the park had a nickname. I felt the exhilaration of inclusion. I did not think of myself as white.

Another time, after an autumn afternoon at the playground, as the sun began to set, I was waiting for a ride, and most of the guys that I knew well had left. A couple of the fellows who were there began to roll a joint and another one asked me if I wanted to smoke with them. “No thanks,” I replied with a smile. He persisted, “You don’t smoke?” “No.” I answered, “No I don’t.” He stopped his friends, gestured toward me and asked, “You a cop?” “No,” I said, shaking my head. He followed up: “You sure you not a cop? Only people who don’t smoke around here are cops?” I thought of the U City cop cars I’d seen slowly cruising the parking lot by the courts, always driven by white men and women. I began to think of myself as white. He chastised his friends for rolling in front of a possible, even likely, cop. Just then, one of the other guys there, Boulevard, approached and said, “Nah Reggie, that’s no cop. That’s Light Skin.” The white feeling faded.

♦◊♦

I don’t mean this as a redemptive narrative. I don’t mean to pretend that racism doesn’t exist in America, in St. Louis, or in me. And I don’t mean it as a story about virtue. I just mean to be part of a discussion among people who think of themselves as white and, particularly, to try to shed light on what I at least gained from thinking of myself as white and what I gained when that thought slipped away.

Clearly, the thought of myself as white took away far more than it gave me. But it’s not as though I never thought of myself as white again. To some degree, the pride and joy I took in being part of that community seemed to entail thinking of myself as white and so, maybe, as Baldwin says in the passage Steve quoted, “there is no hope for me.”

But I don’t really think so. I think the exhilaration of that experience actually derived from (in addition to the joy of hooping again after so long away), a liberation, however temporary, from, as Steve put it in his letter to Tom, the “prison that is whiteness in America.” If so, I believe it occurred spontaneously through the strength of the collective that formed around those games at Heman. The collective formed because of basketball and pretty much only ever spoke about basketball.

I know that I haven’t overcome my race. I know that there will be other occasions when anxiety in the face of the unfamiliar will trigger the reflex to think of myself as white. And maybe then, I’ll get to enjoy again the experience of sloughing off that thought as the confining, isolating, artificial skin that it is. At least, I believe I will if I’m able to just let the anxiety wash over me and really experience the richness of whatever new situation in which I find myself.

In any event, now, when I really think about my year at Heman Park, think about it vividly enough so that I start to feel a lump in my chest, and I really start to miss it, I know what, or rather who, I am missing.

I miss Vic, my old-timer friend who seemed to drink too much but could still always somehow ball and make everyone laugh, even as he took them apart.

I miss Mike, a ferocious, 50-something offensive rebounder, and Nub, a quick, competitive, 18-year-old slasher with no jumper.

I miss Sam, graceful, smooth 17 year-old Sam, who always greeted me with a warm hug and a shout until, as I found out one day when I ran into him on the street, he stopped coming and had been hospitalized because of stress.

I miss Jamal and Mook, friends and rivals, both eighth-graders who talked much better games than they played, but who played much better games than I ever did in eighth grade.

I miss Bob, the gruff, 64-year-old “mayor” of the playground, who always played with wraparound sunglasses and a backwards baseball cap and whose wife made a “magic” lineament that Bob, Mike, I, and the other old guys would share between games, laughing as we rubbed into our aching knees.

I miss being Light Skin, a balding, middle-aged jump-shooter with no hops but lots of heart.

 

3 comments

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s