Not Just a Ball Player

{For all my followers that got the first part of this in an email last night, my apologies! While attempting to execute a ctrl-i on my laptop to turn off the italics, my finger slipped and WordPress interpreted whatever I did as a desire to publish immediately. Oops.}

I had a favorite professor in college. I loved the way he taught, the way he managed his classroom. I loved his sense of humor, his outlook. I loved how I never felt odd or unwanted or unequal or lacking as a woman in a heavily male-dominated field of study.

He was special to me. I worked as his teaching assistant for the basic class that all engineering majors had to take. I sat in his office and talked about my future, about the world, about his past. His was the office I ran to, closing the door and bursting into tears, when an insensitive professor made a harsh comment about a personal decision I had to make as I neared graduation. He was important enough that I stayed in contact for several years after I graduated.

I don’t know for sure but I’m fairly certain he has since passed away. I lost contact at some point and don’t think about him much anymore. He’s mostly relegated to those moments in time when folks tell funny college stories to each other – he provided plenty of great fodder for such interaction.

But I’ve been thinking of him a lot today. And not really in a good way, which is something I’ve been wrestling with and is why I’m writing for the first time in weeks. Months? Too long.

Earlier this week, I was scrolling through Facebook’s friend suggestions. I don’t add new friends often. This scrolling is something I do when I’m bored and rarely results in me clicking “add.” There were few people I recognized, mostly because I had recently added 4 people who all attend the same large church. Facebook was now convinced that I might know everyone at said church. So this scrolling activity was a guessing game as to which of the new candidate friends likely went to that church.

Then I came across a guy I graduated from High School with. That’s rare too. Despite it being a very large class, I’m either already friends with people, already rejected them for whatever reason, or they aren’t on Facebook. But this guy hadn’t been suggested before – that I recall. I barely knew him; I’d say really that I just knew of him. But I remembered him being a fun guy and, especially in today’s climate, I was interested in adding a fun person to my feed. He accepted the request and the next day, I saw this:

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And that’s what got me thinking back to my old professor. You see, I know a few tall people who never had an interest in playing basketball. They are annoyed by people either assuming they do or asking if they do and expressing regret when they answer no. As white folk, though, it never appears as though the asker expects basketball to be their entire identity – just something that surely they did while working through their education.

What’s this got to do with my professor? It’s a hazy memory. It’s actually taken me a little while to decide whether I was present for the interaction or he just related it to me (I’ve settled on the latter). You see, there was a young black man in the class I was working with. He came to my study sessions and it became very evident to me that his math skills were not up to snuff for the class or, indeed, most of the engineering program.

I went to talk to the professor about it. It seemed to me that he needed some remedial math before trying to press through the program. My professor seemed to have a different perspective – one that made me uncomfortable, although I didn’t have the words or awareness to call it what it was.

He had had a conversation with the student. He had taken the man’s large hands in his and turned them over and said, “You see these hands? These are large hands. They are made for holding a basketball.” That’s the only part I remember verbatim. The rest is just an impression – he gave a comparison of the professor’s strengths (intellect that made him good at engineering) vs. the student’s (physical strengths that made him good at “ball” as the meme above put it).

While I was uncomfortable at the time and felt he shouldn’t have shared those thoughts with the guy, I hadn’t really let it reflect poorly on my image of the professor. He was just misguided and maybe had a blind spot. Now I see it for what it was. Racist.

You can quibble and say that he might have said the same thing to a tall white man who wasn’t good at math, but I have my doubts. Strong doubts. See my comments about my tall white friends above. Instead of considering that the student might have come from a school district that had not adequately prepared him, he deemed him “not smart enough.” His size and – I firmly believe – skin color painted him an athlete. Period. At no point did the professor show any interest in learning about his hopes and dreams. Why was he in the engineering program? What did he want out of life? What did he need to get there?

So now I wonder – what happened to that guy? Without some help, he wasn’t going to get through the engineering program. Not when he didn’t know how to solve two basic equations with two unknowns. I’m convinced that anyone can learn math though. What many can’t overcome is discouragement. Was he the kind of person that would take comments like that and feed it into his determination? Or was he the kind that would feel crushed and defeated and think, “Who am I to think I could become anything more than I am right now?”

White people seem to have a hard time reconciling racism in people we love and respect. We tend to only label it when it’s big and obvious: angry white men yelling “Jews will not replace us” through the glow of their tiki torches. And shockingly, not even then sometimes.

We want to explain away the day-to-day examples. We want to believe it doesn’t exist – that we are “post racial” in this country. (Anyone who still believes that now is seriously sticking their head in the sand.) I’d like to think that if you could grade a white person on their attitudes about race, I’d be above average, but what does that matter? Why should that be “good enough”? How can I even measure that?

With regard to my professor, I sometimes think, “Well, he was a really old guy. He came from a different time.” And while that might explain it, it should not excuse it. But I also don’t think one flaw in a person should spoil the whole. As a country, we are trying to come to terms with the fact that so many of our “great” Founding Fathers owned slaves.  We somehow have to hold in balance that their ideas and dedication formed this country and they deserve to be revered for that while at the same time they “owned” other human beings and they shouldn’t get a pass on that failing. (Yes, they were a product of their time but other people in that time fought to end slavery, so even then, many people knew it was wrong.) Some of us want to cling to the greatness while ignoring the slavery while others want to dismiss the greatness because of it. Is there room to do both?

We can change. Both our country and the individuals in it. I remember back in 1999. My great-grandmother was 99 years old and living in a nursing home. My mom (or one of my aunts?) was visiting her when one of the nursing assistants came in. As she left, my great-grandmother said, “That {N word} nurse is pretty good.” There was a brief pause. “They don’t like to be called that anymore, do they?” My mom responded, “They never liked being called that, grandma.” Great-grandma nodded thoughtfully. Even at that age, beset with dementia, wondering why God hadn’t called her home yet, she was learning and changing. Surely we all can too?

My thoughts on this topic are all muddled and in some cases contradictory. I know we have to do better and that includes me. There aren’t any easy answers, but the first pivotal step for white folks is to quit thinking we know it all. We don’t know the black (or brown) experience in this country. We are arrogant fools to tell them they are wrong about what they observe with their own eyes, what they experience in their own skin. We need to listen and watch and learn and grow and THINK. It’s not just the tiki-torch wielding bigots. It’s even more so all the little assumptions and slights made by each and every one of us every day.

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