My seven year-old son is very tall for his age. He’s been in the ninetieth percentile for height his whole life. He’s also African-American. It seems like in our country, Black + Tall + Male = having to constantly hear, “You better put him in basketball! He could be the next Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan.”
Yes, if you’re a tall, African-American boy, you are destined to be a basketball player.
Never mind that he’d rather spend his time at a science center, and never mind that if you ask him what sport he really wants to play, he’ll tell you football because his grandpa works at Notre Dame.
Even though he could have begun playing in our local sports leagues when he was five, I was reluctant to register him because I didn’t want to feed into the stereotype that the only thing of value in an African-American boy is athletic ability. But, when he turned six he begged to play soccer. I felt a little like I was putting my own baggage about sports and black males onto him, so I signed him up.
No one assumed that he knew how to play at all, and the coaches emphasized that the goal was exposure to the sport. However, I noticed that the performance expectations seemed to be much higher for the Latino boys on his team than it was for him. One Latina mother explained to me that it was because soccer is so much more popular in Latin America. She claimed that Latino fathers give their children soccer balls before they can walk. Clearly, this seemed like questionable stereotyping to me, but I found the sentiment echoed quite frequently by other parents.
When the soccer season came to a close, it only seemed natural to move my son on to the next sport, basketball. He was assigned to a team and it quickly became clear that he was the tallest kid on it. He was also the only black child in the entire division. I can’t begin to tell you how excited his coach was. “Come on over here! You’re going to be our rock star.”
I was immediately irritated. I found myself sitting in the bleachers, watching the first practice and thinking, “That coach only said my son’s a rock star because he thinks that since my boy’s black, he knows how to play.” The truth of the matter was that up till then, my son had only played basketball a couple of times. My husband never played competitive sports so it doesn’t come natural to him to toss a basketball or football around every day. I was a cheerleader, not a basketball player, and quite frankly, his learning to read above grade level has been our top priority, not sports.
The very first game of the season, my son scored three baskets and led his team to victory. Afterwards, the coach gushed about my son, saying, “He’s really got some natural talent there.”
I wanted to ask, “What do you mean ‘natural talent’?” but before I knew it, the coach was talking to another parent.
Even though it feels like black folks are always treated like they’re naturals at sports, dancing, singing, joke-telling and hip-hop, I again asked myself if I was reading too much into such a comment. Was this coach just being complimentary or did he assume that blackness = basketball like everybody else?
As the weeks passed, it became clear that my son was not the best shooter on the team. Making three baskets in the first game was a bit of beginner’s luck. But, one of his Latino teammates managed to hit 80 percent of his baskets. Instead, because of his height, my son became the king of rebounds. Needless to say, they won every game and my son genuinely enjoyed playing on the team.
This year we were out of town and so we missed soccer registration, but back at the beginning of August, the guy working in the recreation center office made sure to mention that basketball registration would be happening in November.
Again, I found myself wondering, am I only being told this because the guy behind the desk figures a black kid will like basketball more, or does he genuinely not want my son to miss out?
It made me realize that this is one of the most insidious things about racism: It takes a psychological toll on you since you constantly have to turn this stuff over in your head. The vigilance it requires to be sure my son is not being treated in a prejudicial manner gets exhausting. I don’t like having to wonder whether something I’m told or the way my boy is treated is a symptom of either conscious or subconscious racism.
Come to think of it, one of the reasons I like my son’s pediatrician so much is that after checking my son’s vision, the doctor said to him that he has such perfect eyesight that he could be an airline pilot. The doctor never says, “Wow, you’re tall! You should be a ball player!” I wish no one else did either.