The other night, my boyfriend and I were cuddling on the couch watching the Lakers/Heat game, when he noticed that the Lakers were wearing their yellow uniforms and the Heat were wearing their midnight blue uniforms.
“That’s odd,” he said.
“Why?” I asked
“Because the Heat are at home,” he explained. “Usually the traveling team would wear the darker colors—in this case dark Laker purple instead of gold—because darker colors are thought to be more aggressive on the field. And in the NBA, the more aggressive, fearful team will win.”
“But this isn’t the NBA, I said in a small voice,” this is my life.”
And there, something that has been growing since we have begun dating. My boyfriend is Vietnamese and Chinese; my family is primarily African. My skin is much darker than he is. And when we go out, I have begun to notice people watching us. Wondering.
Basically, ranging from random passerby simply staring or actually feeling the need to tell us “Oh isn’t that nice, to see that”…to Black men, very offended and offending, calling me a names, calling him names, other Asian men, impressed by him being with me; white men, the way they feel they can comment and touch me without my permission, how, to being introduced as “his boyfriend” whether through purpose or unconscious Freudian slip, they all wonder why we–a Black woman and an Asian man–are together.
I wonder if any of them wonder how it makes us feel?
I wonder, what is it about blackness that makes people want to read it as masculine? As aggressive? As dark, angry, and violent?
I wonder what Jeremy’s Lin’s success will mean in shattering these stereotypes—and I am embarrassed for my country that in 2012, with a Black man of African descent as President and a white woman as Secretary of State, we still think it’s okay to judge someone based upon how they look here in the good old US or A—and discriminate against them accordingly.
Jeremy Lin is an unbelievable athlete, plain and simple. Not to detract from his accomplishments, but any athlete with his level of skill and discipline should make it, will make it. That’s what pro sports is about.
The question isn’t of his ability. It’s that the NBA—and society—hasn’t wanted to see his ability because it would prefer to keep Asian men—and all of us who don’t fit into the mainstream power-holders-that-be’s conception of ‘normal’—into separate little boxes. “Those of us who are not white are all brown,” my boyfriend says. “If we really thought about it and found consensus as a community of people of color, we could change the world.”
We did once. We elected a brown-skinned man named Obama.
Imagine if we keep working together and doing things like this?
Personally, I find it hard that anyone would doubt the athletic masculinity of other brown skinned men, just because, as my boyfriend says, his skin is closer to butterscotch than soy sauce, like mine is.
Maybe it’s because I am in love with my boyfriend. Maybe it’s because I understand Asian culture invented martial arts, not RZA or Tarentino…and I’d ask Jet Li to defend my life over Willis, Van Damme, or any other muscle-bound Western action hero.
Maybe it’s because the kind of person I am, the kind who only sees people, not color—and does not judge people accordingly.
Yes, there is an accomplishment in being the first of your kind. But the treatment of Jeremy Lin by the NBA and the reaction of the media to his “surprising” abilities speaks volumes to a larger, darker issue concerning the pervasion of sterotypes and racism throughout every aspect of our society: Why does the fact that Jeremy Lin is Asian American matter to his job performance?
What about being Asian means you can’t play sports?
What about being Black means that you can?
Masculinity—or “the inherent butchness of blackness” as I like to call it, is a very loaded issue in the politics or race and culture. Ask any dark-skinned women and they won’t bat an eye at this no-brainer we have been confronted with the day we are born—usually the first day we seen by someone not of our race who tells us we are different. While you may laugh at the nurse commenting on a brand new baby’s “perfect brown skin” and “soft curly black hair” it sets an attitude that one way of looking, that one person is normal and another person is different—and it is a very slippery slope from that to treating people who look differently very, very differently as well.
Ever since I coined that phrase “the inherent butchness of blackness,” nearly 10 years ago, every dark-skinned woman who has heard me use this term has agreed wholeheartedly, completely, thankfully. They tell me I am articulating a pressure they have felt from the world their whole lives.
They tell me about the anger they felt when white America pushed this “inherent butchness of blackness,” on Michelle Obama. The innuendo and comments that because she was strong, because she was darker, that she must be more man than woman—not beautiful, not feminine—without a need to be valued and taken care of.
They tell me about the psychological effects of having to prove you are a woman, fight to be treated as a woman, everyday.
I remember how, when I was very young and did not know better, I listened when the white man who had won the same fellowship I had won to study at NYU set me up with a white friend of his to go out on a date. How, I found out after we broke up, that this “friend” had only asked me out because my male counterpart had told him that my blackness meant I “was not the marrying kind.”
And with the exception of my boyfriend, I have found this attitude in nearly most men—even African American men who do a lovely job of adopting mainstream cultural stereotypes—y’all know the paper bag rule never left town, right…the process of lightening a sister’s skin for print, TV and film has just made it more versatile?
Not to mention all the straight sexually curious girls, who think that just because I am dark-skinned I can be their boyfriend? When I wear heels, stockings, dresses, makeup, and am probably one of the girliest girlie girls you will ever meet?
Sometimes it still makes me feel like screaming like Sourjouner Truth, Ain’t I a woman?
This is the only reason Black women spend so much on beauty products: to be seen as feminine, and thus accorded the same right and treatment afforded to other women. Men may not understand this, but the most important thing to a woman is to be seen as sexually desirable to the opposite sex, because this means one will find love and a create a relationship and a family, the central function of being female. And the less you are seen as a woman, the less you are wanted. The less the chance that this will happen in your life.
She’s not the marrying kind.
Sometimes I think society perpetuates the myth of black female masculinity because it feeds the economic machine—economic slavery—just another way that the United States economic structure is still highly dependent upon the profit it makes from the buying and selling surrounding the black body. And if you think about how much money the beauty and the professional sports industries generate—all this money still made off of the buying and selling surrounding the black body—you can clearly see that slavery still exists in this country—anyone remember a little war that ended in 1865 with an Emancipation that was supposed to end this for good—just under a different name, and in a different realm?
Which brings up back to the NBA, perhaps the clearest example of the profit able to be made off the buying and selling of the male body.
And back to my boyfriend, and his appreciation of the positive aspects of Blackness.
“But some people say Black people are better at basketball because they are taller and more athletic,” he is continuing on, trying to cheer me up. “Isn’t that a good thing, to be tall and more athletic?”
Because of history. Because those words live close to Darwin’s ideas of biological determinism, the justification for the enslavement of darker skinned people for over a century. Through “proving” that people of African descent were physically stronger and less mentally evolved, Darwin claimed that whites were “mentally superior” and, because of it, justified in enslaving their fellow humans…childlike and in need of good Christian moral guidance begotten with sun-up to sun-down back-breaking labor, violence, rape, and abuse.
“But I’m not talking about that at all,” my boyfriend says. “I’m talking about how each color has its own bandwith and spectrum of attributes. No color is just one thing. There is strength in blackness. There is beauty in blackness. Just as there is strength and beauty in lightness. As in everything, a balance. It shouldn’t be affected by the fact that American culture is very one-sided.”
“Oh wow,” I understand, impressed.
I think back to how, before I could even walk, it seems, I had my nose in a book and a pen in my hand—my mind very much somewhere else. I wrote my first novel at age 7, completed junior high in one year when I scored high enough on the SAT to be admitted to college at 13 but decided, after spending the summer studying marine biology at UC Irvine, to stay in Arcadia and fill high school with a slew of AP’s so I could play in orchestra, compete on the Constitution Team and run track with my best friend—where we still, to this day, hold 3 of the top 10 records in track & field.
My high school best friend deserves her records—she was an incredible athlete; I was not—there just weren’t enough people doing my sport. I was such a terrible athlete I fell of the stage during an orchestra concert while sitting down playing my violin! Yet all the encouragement I got from any school or authority figure—not to mention peer groups—was that I should play basketball, run track—any other sport in entire. Not until earning 5′s on every AP English Lit, Language, Theory, Humanities, and History exam as well as its straight A equivalent was it noticed that just because my skin was brown I had a brain and I was rewarded with a National Merit Scholarship and Outstanding English Department Scholarship to study film at Northwestern, the New York Times Foundation Fellowship to earn my M.F.A. at NYU, where I taught writing from the time I was 22 until a couple of months ago, when I lost my professorship after being hospitalized due to being hit and dragged by a taxi driver in New York City who did not want to carry a “Black” in his car.
But up until this day people still say to my face—just like that first classmate in Honors English freshman year—“You’re black, how can you be smart enough to be in this class. Did they make a mistake because your name sounds Japanese?
Jeremy Lin had the opposite experience. He remembers being told to leave the court and go practice his violin in orchestra, being pressured to study, be practical about his career choices. He didn’t listen because he “loved basketball” and was “competitive.” He “wanted to win” so much so that he slugged it out unsigned through training camp, low draft picks, and humiliating trades–all because teams refused to see past his race to his potential until he wound up, on “minimum wage NBA salary” sleeping on his brother’s couch in the Village, that brother himself ironically an NYU med student and socially accepted because of falling in line with society’s stereotype of Asian-American achievement.
But it isn’t about the fact that I should have been Asian-American or that Jeremy Lin should have been African-American.
Like my boyfriend says, it is about balance…about the fact that—regardless of race—people should have the freedom to be who they are and pursue their interests and abilities with support and social validation no matter identity, not shunted into different careers because “people like them” haven’t been seen to “do things like that”….because social expectations, acceptance, validation, pressure and role models make all the difference.
I had to fight so hard to define myself…to not let myself believe I was only worth how other people saw, me, that I was not the stereotype they had created in their heads about “those Black people,” that it’s a wonder I survived.
This is what scares me. Not for myself—but for my younger brother and sister, for my future kids.
I know what it is like to have to defend yourself against forces in the world when you are still a kid, too young to discern, understand, or know who you are. Women experience this as they journey from girls into women, and first have to deal with the sexually predatory energy of much older men. At 12 or 13 no girl—even though she may have the body of a 20something, understands men and how to navigate the pressure of their watching and advances.
The same is true for a child of 4, experiencing racism for the first time—whether it be something like not being considered for the smart classes or some other life marker that will affect outwards for years to come…or simply something much less painful like being called a nigger and pushed off the monkey bars by the blonde girl who had just joined my kindergarten class in St. Paul, Minnesota.
This is what every single Black man in the NBA remembers: the difference in the way the world treated him when he hadn’t yet won the uniform versus the way it treats him now that the cloth has been given to him.
This is why, as a man, the members of the Lakers filed after Derek Fisher to shake Lin’s hand.
They understand, more than anyone else, what it is like to have the color of your skin define how you are percieved, how you are treated–who you are able to become.
This is the understanding and respect–the grace and sportsmanship that for me, will always define the Kobe Bryant-Derek Fisher Lakers era. This, to me, is why Derek Fisher will always be the heart and soul of this Lakers lineup.
This, to me, is why I watch these phenomenal artists play this game.
So this is what I am thinking:
Imagine if every black kid who was smart was taught to look to books—this message reinforced by family, society, and media…Imagine ads by Kobe Bryant, professional doctor, writer, president, etc…encouraging reading, encouraging thinking. Imagine leagues of Black professionals working. Imagine young black kids putting their images on posters. Imagine them going to the library every day to study instead of the playground to play ball.
But people always frown, unconvinced. So I try again.
“All doctors are smart, right?” I ask
“Yes,” the person I am talking to invariably agrees.
“Okay. Imagine if I go into a hospital,” I tell that person, “and 95 percent of the doctors are Asian. Will I then think all Asians are smart?”
“No,” that person will say. “Because there is the expectation they are living up to. From society. And from their parents, who make them study/work ten hours a day.”
“Exactly. And if those kids were being told to value basketball instead, being told to/and practicing basketball ten hours a day as the only means to improve their lives, would you not see them excel in basketball?”
“But Asian kids aren’t all tall—“
“Neither are the black kids. Its’ only that with social and cultural messages, every black kid who is tall is taught to look to basketball. Every Asian kid who is smart is taught to look to books.”
But that person will always still look unconvinced, and I won’t know what else to say.
Time passes. A few games go by. My young man works out, plays with his dog, runs his business. I think and write and do yoga. We laugh and dance in morning before leaving. We laugh and sing when we cook dinner together at night.
We live. We are happy.
It is Friday night. We are watching Jeremy Lin score 38 points against King Kobe and his Lakers.
“I’ve been thinking about what you were saying the other week,” my boyfriend says suddenly. “About the American social perception of color, how we don’t live in a vacuum. How it doesn’t matter whether I–or anyone else who loves basketball thinks that black being thought of as aggressive is a good thing. If you’re a man you may like that, but not if you’re a woman.”
“!!!” I think.
“I understand what you were saying too, I say, about being proud of your accomplishments and strengths, despite what other people may say about them. And about the fact that each color contains a whole spectrum–whether or not the world chooses to see that. About balance.”
“!!!” he thinks.
But even as we cuddle closer, and I am thinking that this—this openness and honesty, willingness and connection to learn and be open to the other’s experience and perspectives… this is why I love him—I am wondering just, why, exactly, that the intellectual aspect of basketball has never been stressed as much as it has with the arrival of the “Asian point-guard from Harvard.”
The game hasn’t changed. It’s always been about a brilliance of analysis, strategy, and mathematics and physics…a union of discipline, spirit, and athletic ability. The only thing that is changing is the players…and now the value placed on the game, on certain aspects of the game.
And so I just have to say it: Why is basketball, like so many other achievements generated by African Americans,* valued only when adopted and represented by another country, by another race?
What is up with that?
*Anybody remember Elvis and a little thing called rock music? But who really wrote all those songs and did those dances before him…not just in Africa but on this continent? And who invented rhythm and blues and the other musical traditions it sprang from…again not just in Africa, but on this continent? Not to mention countless other unknown achievements and inventions? He who writes history controls our memories, our myths and perspectives…