Piece 37: Shut Up & Dribble

Peace by Piece

This post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to support this crucial work of unlearning racial bias.

When I was a first year teacher, I severely underestimated the gravity of allowing a football player to fail my class. This led to some close scrutiny of my (admittedly) sparse attempts to contact parents, followed by a visit from the coach, followed by a tense, awkward visit from the principal. At the time, I took much of the way the situation unfolded personally. And what I didn’t think was personal, I assumed was about football culture and sports being seen more important than academics. 

Photo by Harrison Haines from Pexels

Now, as I look back on that experience and hold it up next to more recent observations of sports culture, during a pandemic, and as a distant outsider rather than a fan in the stands, I can’t help wondering if there was a deeper, self-serving creature at play in athletics at large. Namely, does sports culture care at all about black athletes once they are no longer deemed useful to the multibillion dollar industry that is professional sports?

On its face, this question may seem cynical or like an overgeneralization, but let’s zoom in to see some historical and contemporary examples of this idea in action. Time and again, we’ve borne witness to black athletes asserting their desire to be seen and known as three-dimensional individuals with their own thoughts and feelings regarding tragedy that befalls people who share their ethnicity, only to be fired, publicly criticized, mocked, or abandoned.

I remember learning about Wilma Rudolph in elementary school: how she was physically disabled for part of her childhood, and the success she would go on to have as an Olympic runner. What I did not learn then, though, was that it was only due to her adamant insistence that the hometown celebration that followed her success in the 1960 Rome Olympics was Clarksville, Tennessee’s first fully integrated municipal celebration. 

Photo by football wife from Pexels

Until recently, I thought Paul Robeson was a singer and actor; I had no idea he was an athlete as well. As the only black player on Rutgers’ football team in the early 20th century, Robeson withstood physical blows from his own would-be teammates before he could even try out for the team, and would later find himself benched in order to avoid “controversy” on the school’s 150th anniversary. Robeson wrote a critical letter to the university following this instance of his being benched, and even though at least one future team would threaten not to play Rutgers if Robeson took the field, his coach never backed down again.

The iconic photo of John Carlos and Tommie Smith raising their fists on the Olympic medal podium; the fact of Jesse Owens and his fellow black Olympians not being congratulated by FDR or invited to the White House in 1936 along with white Olympians; an announcer employed to call a high school girls’ basketball game employing a racial slur repeatedly and wishing the team failure because they had the temerity to kneel during the anthem – all of these amount to a deafening, collective cry from black American athletes’ own home and country to shut up and dribble, a collective f-ck your breath.

When I look into young athletes’ faces now, I see what I didn’t see as clearly as a first year teacher: hope, joy, enthusiasm at getting the opportunity to be part of thriving athletic programs. And then I pause and wonder: will this program build them up, affirm them, and carry them to successful, long, and healthy lives and careers? Will it push their bodies to their limits, proving to them that their bodies can withstand more pain and growth than they ever imagined before? Will they incur life-altering or life-ending injury? If they desire to express their own personal views regarding political and humanitarian issues, will the sport that nurtures them now still provide a culture of inclusion and support for them then?

Will the industry that profits from their hard work and dedication require them to stifle their humanity for its own comfort and financial bottom line?

I hope you will spend some time this week reading up on black athletes and activism, examining yourself for traces of bias, and listening to A Thousand Ways To Kneel And Kiss The Ground : Code Switch

Once you’ve spent some time reading, reflecting, and listening, I hope you will consider these questions: 

Photo by Marcelo Chagas from Pexels
  • When you have attended high school sporting events, have you felt a surge of joy at seeing young black students participating because you’ve assumed that excelling at sports is the only way they will be able to go to college and make a better life for themselves? 
  • Have you made this assumption without actually knowing anything about these individual students’ lives, families, or backgrounds?
  • When black athletes that you admire have become involved in political activism, have you found yourself dismissing their political stances because they interfere with your ability to enjoy watching them display their athletic prowess? 

Meet me back here next week, and we’ll continue constructing peace in our own hearts, one piece at a time.

Piece 36: Know My Name

Peace by Piece

This post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to support this crucial work of unlearning racial bias.

This week’s piece will diverge from my normal focus on antiblack bias and racism to focus instead on the recent hate crime perpetrated against the Asian American & Pacific Islander community.

I won’t name the murderer, a young white man connected with the Southern Baptist Church, who claimed the reason for his terroristic rampage across several counties in Georgia, was a sex addiction that necessitated eliminating “temptation.”

Eight candles: one for each person who was killed Tuesday
Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

Instead, I want to focus on the tragedy this killer wrought upon the families of Soon Chung (Julie) Park – age 74, Suncha Kim – age 69, Yong Ae Yue – age 63, Paul Andre Michels – age 54, Hyun Jung Park Grant – age 51, Xiaojie (Emily) Tan – age 49, Daoyou Feng – age 44, Delaina Ashley Yaun – age 33 – innocent people who bore God’s likeness in their living human bodies. [Originally, I did not list every name here, because there were reportedly some families who did not want their slain loved ones’ names publicized. Now that all of the victims’ names are public, I have updated the post to include each name.]

Last month, I ticked several books off my to-read list, among them Chanel Miller’s Know My Name. Within the pages of Miller’s account of her sexual assault by Brock Turner, she unfolds to us the details of her harrowing experience, the subsequent trial and sentencing, and their aftermath.

Because she is a firstborn child with a June birthday, Miller’s Chinese name is Zhang Xiao Xia, which means “little summer.” Xia is also China’s first dynasty – Miller is the firstborn. Her American name, Chanel, is a play on the sound of Xia (sha). In Miller’s words, she begins this story with no name. When she was found half-naked behind a dumpster, she lacked identification and it was unclear to authorities whom she belonged to. For months after she was assaulted, Miller kept secret the attack she suffered. Only a handful of people knew her identity, even as news reports and updates danced across her family’s TV screen. Miller was Emily Doe until she was ready to reveal her true identity. 

If you’ve never read her victim impact statement, I recommend, as Miller’s then-therapist recommended to her before knowing her client was in fact Emily Doe, that you do.

This week, as unspeakable tragedy rocked Georgia and reverberated throughout the country, many of us found ourselves stunned and outraged at this latest in a recent string of merciless attacks against the AAPI community. As I watched and listened and read news reports and emotional responses, my mind kept flitting back to Chanel Miller. This self-described shy young woman, who kept her identity concealed in part because she was raised to protect her younger sister, whom she knew would be harmed by the revelation of Emily Doe’s true identity to the nation and to her family, was not only assaulted by a young white man but also seen as unimportant by American culture. As a woman who is also Asian, Miller found herself at the unique intersection of misogyny, racism, and fetishism. No doubt, Miller’s assailant, who had also hit on and forcibly kissed another young woman in their party earlier in the evening, believed he was entitled to do as he pleased with Miller’s body – regardless of a lack of verbal consent – because of our culture, which too often treats women’s bodies as men’s playgrounds, as well as because of her Asian ethnicity, which our culture too often treats as a voiceless, submissive, fully assimilated model minority. 

As we, who are not members of the AAPI community, continue to read, listen, learn, and support this community, it is of utmost importance that if we enter conversations with others, we do so knowing that a murderer can have more than one motive, can possess unconscious bias, and that we who deny either of the prior points are complicit in compounding our neighbors’ pain.

Photo by RODNAE Productions from Pexels

In January 2015, Miller was 22 and living in her hometown of Palo Alto, California. She went to a party, was sexually assaulted, and then saved from further harm by strangers who stopped her assailant when they saw what he was doing. Six years later, eight people went about their normal daily activities on a March day in Georgia, completely unaware that their lives would be violently cut short. 

Our task, if we are concerned with showing love and solidarity to our AAPI friends and neighbors, is to listen to them and sit with them as they grieve.

Here are some of the voices I am listening to and learning from in this moment. These activists and writers, along with Chanel Miller’s bold memoir, represent the beginning of my learning. These are this week’s suggested resources:

As you lean into discomfort and join our neighbors in their grief, I hope you will reflect:

  • What stereotypes have you believed about Asian Americans – that they are all smart, especially at math? That they are submissive, meek, and quiet? That they are all wealthy?
  • How have your assumptions about Asian Americans possibly harmed Asian people you have encountered in your life? 
  • Have you held grudges or reacted angrily toward someone who didn’t respond to you in the way you expected them to, based on your belief in a stereotype that was disconnected from this person as an individual?
  • How can you show up for your AAPI friends and neighbors in solidarity right now?

I hope you’ll lean in to the discomfort that you feel. And I hope that in your effort to show support for Asian Americans in your life, that you don’t burden them with your grief while they are muddling through their own. And I hope, as always, that you will join me here again soon, so we can keep building peace in our lives and communities, one piece at a time.