Friday, March 30, 2012

Black Gloves & Hoodies: Symbolic Activism among Black Male Athletes

Ever since Michael Jordan famously declared that "Republicans buy shoes too" athletes have been given a pass on engaging social justice issues. In college they are taught to spend their intellectual energy on "personal branding" and to actively avoid "controversial" activism. Given this context, the moment the Miami Heat players used social media to speak as a team was quite powerful. In response to the tragic killing of Trayvon Martin they did what hundreds of thousands of others did. They solemnly donned hoodies in a show of solidarity. They used the tools of their trade, their bodies, to say that they were no different from the young man who had been gunned down.

For millions of us, the killing hit close to home. It reminded some of us of our own close calls. For others of us, it brought into focus our greatest fears for our own boys. For some, it did both and more. Amidst this backdrop, we yearned for a cathartic release of our complex mix of emotions. The Miami Heat delivered. They delivered in a way that made positive use of their celebrity. They delivered in a way that earns them an honored place in American social history.

The Greatest.
Athletes, because they are the embodied representation of intense passion and effort, have a unique opportunity to create compelling images. Complex images of athletes not being athletes, but yet being so fully human in others ways, are inherently powerful. They contradict one dimensional representations that are overwhelmingly the norm. In this way, their images of spontaneous and autonomous expression also fill many of us with quiet, affirming pride. Their expressions remind us that we too can be "both/and." We are athletes and intellectuals, intellectuals and parents, scholars and activists. Perhaps most important in this instance, their display proclaims that we can black and upstanding citizens. Whatever the dualities that define and limit us, our complexity is affirmed in instances where simplistic or stereotypic representations are undermined. At the very least, basketball fans who consume these men as entertainment now have a bit more insight into the human side of these professional entertainers.
In 1967, black male athletes stood up to support Muhammed Ali's
brave and career threatening stand against the Vietnam War.
How many can you name?
As an educational researcher, teacher and mentor who has paid attention to the norms, values and racial socialization of black athletes, I was encouraged to see the Miami Heat hoodie tweet. They offered an image that hearkened back to earlier examples of symbolic activism among black athletes.  My favorite is that of Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jabar, Bill Russell  and several other black male professional athletes who vocally supported Muhammad Ali's principled stand against the Vietnam War. Upon refusing the draft he famously stated, "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong... they never called me nigger." And in another moment, "No, I am not going 10,000 miles to help murder, kill, and burn other people to simply help continue the domination of white slavemasters over dark people the world over. This is the day and age when such evil injustice must come to an end." Powerful words from a man who lives free. It is hard to live up to the example of The Greatest, but no matter. In this moment, in this day, in this society, Lebron James, Dewyane Wade and the other members of the Miami Heat did their part. To them I simply say thank you, whatever came before and whatever happens next, for your spontaneous moment of symbolic action you have earned an honored place in social history. My hope now is that they, and we, build upon it.

Peter Norman, Juan Carlos and Tommie Smith on the victory stand in Mexico City, 1968.
The unzipped jacket represented solidarity with the working class. Their shoeless feet represented poverty in America. Smith's scarf represented black pride. The gloved salute was for black power. The Australian Peter Norman expressed solidarity with Carlos and Smith, and also explicitly opposed his country's "White Australia Policy." The badge above the national emblem on his jacket was for the Olympic Project for Human Rights.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Honorable Deployment of White Privilege

Odd reality: on racial matters, I don't require allegiance from friends or family. My relations - both kith and kin - span the racial and political gamut, so if I expect to stay in relation, there are several from whom I simply don't hope for much. That having been said, while there are some for whom tough racial conversations are too much, there are others with whom I am impressed and to whom I am grateful. I speak especially of white allies - folks who have every invitation to blissful, ignorant privilege, but who insist on moving through their privilege and into solidarity, understanding, voice and action. 

Over the last months I have been commenting on the neighborhood treatment of black male youth. My commentaries were inspired by incidents with my own son - incidents that were infinitely less horrific than the current tragic circumstance surrounding the murder of Trayvon Martin. All the time that I have spoken up and spoken out, I have been encouraged by an overwhelming majority of my neighbors of various backgrounds. White neighbors who step into difficult conversations and are open to the possibility that racial biases are still present, powerful and dangerous are especially important. The reality is that they enjoy more space to call it like it is and yet be heard without suspicion or resentment.

The greatest U.S. example of this is, of course, that of Harriet Beecher Stowe and her classic Uncle Tom's Cabin. The serial story turned novel wasn't perfect, but it was critically important. Near immediately translated into dozens of languages, and second only to The Bible in sales, this book turned northern public sentiment against slavery. The engaging book drew northern Christian readers off the fence and invited them into to the fold of those actively and vocally opposing the enslavement of African descended people. Of course it could go without saying that Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglas and other Blacks risked more and took bolder stands. But their white allies were critical as well. Even when putting less at risk, they likely had broader impact. It may seem perverse, but it is simply another odd aspect of our racial order.

Given all this, we can ask two questions of ourselves. The first is this:  "What privileges - even if often unacknowledged - do you benefit from?" In my case, I am a light skinned, educated, heterosexual, African American male who was born a citizen of the United States. This embodiment and identity carries great privilege as well as leaves me open to some expressions of intended or unintended prejudice. The second question is: "what do you do with your privilege?" In the last months, many of my neighbors having taken the opportunity to stand for nurturing neighborhoods instead of creepy surveillance neighborhoods - and to stand for kids generally. Many of them, white and richly privileged, have acknowledged that race and racial biases likely account for many of the surveillance patterns and assumptions that characterize our neighborhood message boards and Facebook pages. Importantly, when these white folk call out problems, they often have more credibility than me. They are assumed to be unbiased observers, unlike myself. Their whiteness has them viewed as neutral and unbiased; while my blackness has me read as biased. In short, their alliance is critical. Things that take me months to move forward, they can move forward with a single well placed utterance. So to my white allies, thank you. We'll call your work the honorable deployment of white privilege. Now please don't rest on these laurels. I now ask: "what more can you do?" Or better yet given your privilege, how about this: "what more should you do?"

This post is dedicated to the memory of Trayvon Benjamin Martin, to the hope for justice, and to the hope for whatever measure of solace is humanly possible for his mom and dad.