The Playbook - A Response to the Trayvon Martin Murder
My brother wrote this in response to the Trayvon Martin murder. We have a unique relationship in that we both recognize that I, as a light skinned black woman, am privileged. In turn, my brother recognized that our father made my brother the golden child and attempted to make all of his children responsible for his sense of black masculinity, particularly his daughters. To his credit, my brother has struggled against this and refused to engage with my sister and I under that paradigm. He’s a unique individual and I love him. It’s a delicate dance but it’s a dance…
The Playbook We Still Need and Use
This story is not about Trayvon Martin’s murder. It’s about the playbook that’s still in use. It’s the playbook that almost all black parents of black boys must use when it comes to raising and teaching black boys how to survive in White America. Hearing stories surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin, a light bulb came on for me and it gave light to some memories from my past. If you are white and reading this you might feel upset because it might portray White America in a negative light. And if you are black and reading this, you might be angry because I am revealing to the general public some insider information. I am a black man.
As a young child, my father often told me that it will be hard for me once I grow into a tall black man. My father often said that my two, older, light skinned sisters would experience racism, but not to the same extent as I would because of the darkness of my skin. Growing up I didn’t completely understand or want to believe this. In high school I lived with one sister and my father. My father frequently reminded me to bring my school I.D. or driver’s license with me no matter where I went. He taught me about DWB – Driving While Black before there was such a thing called DWB. He told me to immediately get out of a vehicle if anyone was under the influence of drugs or alcohol. If there was an altercation with law enforcement, even if I was innocent, I would be guilty because I was black. He told me to obey the law, but to be cautious of police. And if stopped by police while walking or driving, do not make sudden movements and do not be argumentative with police – period. Otherwise you could end up arrested, hospitalized or dead. Despite experiencing and observing actions rooted in racism growing up, I was reluctant to accept all of these cautionary messages from my father’s playbook.
My mother on the other hand was usually not as vocal and did not give me such direct messages from her playbook, but she kept me particularly close to her as a child. My mother was more fierce than I was when I was faced with a potential injustice. For example, in 2001, I had to physically remove my mother from arguing with a police officer in a police station because she thought I was being held responsible for an accident because I was a young black man. She was probably right. Outside the station I said something like, “Let it go. It’s not worth it. I’ll pay the fine. I’ll be moving and soon this will just be a memory.” My mother doesn’t drink alcohol. She has no addictions and only uses aspirin to subdue a headache. She pays her taxes on time. She has never broken the law. And she was dedicated to the honorable profession of teaching children life skills and empathy in public schools. My mother’s playbook included messages that constantly reminded me that education and hard work were key ways to surpass some aspects of socialized racism in the United States. Her playbook told me to study first so that my academic actions would silence some racist critics who doubted my ability because of the 2% of melanin that makes me a black man. My mother’s playbook included messages that reminded me that black is beautiful, my hair is beautiful, and my skin is beautiful. Her playbook taught me that there is strength and beauty in my ancestry. My mother’s playbook countered all of the negative and stereotypical imagery that I was surrounded by as a black boy in White America.
Growing up in predominantly white communities, I learned to keep a pleasant demeanor, adapt, and to fit in despite sensing and recognizing that others perceived me as a threat. As a teenager I became very well aware that some people were threatened by my blackness and by my height. I’m now 6’6”. I noticed nervous and abrupt glances while passing by some white people. I noticed women, who noticed me walking in their direction and then not so subtly shifting their handbags and purses to the side farthest from me. Sometimes I would frustratingly vent to my mother about these mere glances that people gave me. She would say, “I get it. They are scared of you probably based on the stereotypes they believe. But, that’s not you! Yes, you have to live with the reality of how to deal with racism - racism that could potentially alter your entire life. But you are a caring, responsible, diligent, hard working, smart,
strong, funny soul and light to this world. You do not have to believe the malicious things others say about black men nor do you have to lower yourself to others level of injustice, fear, or ignorance. You have been blessed and you have much to offer in making this a better world by being you and letting your light shine.”
Growing up in predominantly white communities I learned to carefully watch others and to be guarded when sharing my opinions. This I believe was a necessary tactic for me to assess allies and potential threats and to fit in without intimidating others around me. Right or wrong, I believe this tactic I used growing up is a critical part of my present modus operandi and if I have children, it will be a part of my future playbook.
I chose to watch and to listen more than to talk or share my opinions because the communities I lived in said that my words held little value. While the acute observation skills I have honed over the years are beneficial in many situations, sometimes I wish I had tunnel vision when reading some white people around me – sometimes I wish I didn’t recognize the fear some white people have of me.
In elementary school I met my best friend, Osric. We were the only two black boys and we were conveniently seated together in the back corner of our 3rd grade classroom. That was 1987. A third black boy, Kari, became a friend of Osric and mine in speech therapy class. From 3rd grade to 5th grade, Osric, Kari and I were the three black boys at our elementary school in Santa Monica, California and we were also the three boys who were conveniently identified with having speech problems. While other children might have felt a stigma of going to speech therapy class, I always looked forward to these sessions because it was a time I could just relax. While other kids were playing or studying something else, the three of us were practicing our “r” sounds, “s” sounds, and combination sounds. Osric was a mischievous and skinny class clown with a big grin. He could make anyone laugh at anytime and about almost anything. Kari was a thick and at times serious kid who dominated any sport he played. He could kick the ball the highest and throw the ball the farthest. And I’d like to say that I was just a quiet and amiable boy who chose to play the flute because it was easy to carry. I was pragmatic even in the 3rd grade. I could read music and play a woodwind instrument at 7, but I couldn’t pronounce the letter, “r.” The three of us cracked jokes as we took turns having our voices recorded on magic sheets of paper that went through a recording machine. I am sure we made our speech pathologist earn her salary. Osric, Kari and I even found humor in the fact that the only black boys at school needed speech therapy. Our teacher was a white woman with good intentions, but I don’t think she always appreciated our self-deprecating black humor - no pun intended. She drove a yellow Porsche.
In junior high school, I lived in North Haven, a suburb of New Haven, Connecticut. A classmate named Ralph called me nigger in the middle of class for some mundane reason. There is no good reason to be called nigger. I raised my hand to get the attention of the teacher, but no response. I was at the back of the classroom again and I then anxiously yelled out, “Ralph called me a nigger.” I got the teacher’s attention and both of us were sent to the principal’s office. Ralph eventually wrote an essay about the continent of Africa and I was told by the principal that the next time something like this happens, I should quietly tell the classroom teacher instead of yelling it from the back of the class. Even as a junior high school student I silently questioned the principal’s advice. And I thought to myself, “Why is Ralph writing an essay about Africa and how does this relate to him calling me nigger?” At the end of that school year, Ralph signed my yearbook and I signed his yearbook. Even before signing yearbooks I made peace with Ralph. Making peace with former adversaries and not lowering yourself to someone else’s level was key to the playbook. After two years of junior high school in the suburbs of New Haven, Connecticut, I moved back to Southern California.
In 1993, I was 14 years old and began high school in Mission Viejo, California. I was also called, “coon” for the first time. Since I was genuinely confused about the meaning of this word, I asked my father when I got home what this word meant. When he explained, I remember laughing at the absurdity behind the word. I knew it was a word used to hurt and I knew it was a slur to sling! High-five to perceptive listening!
In 1994 the O.J. Simpson murder case or, “The Trial of the Century” began. O.J. Simpson, a black man, was on trial for murdering his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, a white woman. She was from Laguna Beach; a coastal town less than thirty minutes away from where I lived and attended high school. Two years earlier on April 29th1992, the Los Angeles riots began after one Hispanic and three white police officers were acquitted of brutally beating the black motorist, Rodney King. If whites in Southern California were on edge after the Rodney King verdict, whites wanted justice to be served to O.J. Simpson. Actually some wanted O.J. Simpson to be served up as the main dish of justice.
In 1995 I was a tall and lanky member of the high school basketball team. After a game one night, my teammates and I went to a pizza parlor that was just blocks away from my home. Reports about the O.J. Simpson trial were the only thing buzzing on T.V. Also on the walls were monitors that displayed the team names for electronic games being played by customers in the pizza parlor. I don’t remember the electronic games, but I do remember the team names. They included, “ hangOJ, killOJ, burnOJ,” and other names with similar epithets. It was a moment when I felt angry and afraid at once. I felt hurt, yet I wanted to lash out at the people around me. That would have been especially foolish since I was the only black boy there and that would definitely be going against the playbook. So, I quietly ate that damn pizza pretending to be ignorant of the hateful and dangerous messages broadcast all around me.
Maybe if I didn’t have the messages from my parents playbook, things would be different for me. If I didn’t respect the rules of the playbook, maybe I’d be in prison or dead. But I know that even if I did respect the rules of the playbook I could end up in prison or dead prematurely by the actions of another who simply found me threatening. This playbook has been sent down from generation to generation. The playbook has evolved to include new tactics, but the message is the same: “ Be strong and be smart, but don’t let White America catch on or you will be seen as a threat and then targeted.”
I didn’t live during a period when legalized segregation openly targeted blacks. I didn’t live during a period of overt institutionalized racism. I didn’t live when witnessing a lynching was treated as a family activity. I didn’t live when German Shepherds and fire hoses were used as crowd control against black citizens of the United States. All of these are stories found in the past, in textbooks, in historical documentaries, and in the hearts and souls of strong, smart, and brave blacks, whites, Asians, and Latinos who fought together for justice and equality. While in my life I never experienced the reality that my parents or grandparents faced, the racism of my generation, racism 2.0 (or 3.0), is still prevalent, pervasive and hindering. It is subtle, hidden, and often denied because it is no longer politically and socially acceptable to be openly racist or to talk openly about race. And it is because of the insidiousness of racism today that we still need and use a playbook.
The playbook is still in use and it’s still essential when living in a society that mainly values black men and black boys to entertain, to humor and to serve the needs of white America. The playbook is still needed when an unarmed black teenage boy is killed. The playbook is still needed when some moviegoers in their teens and early twenties are disappointed and disgusted when a beautiful little black girl portrays the fictional character Rue in the film, Hunger Games. A playbook is still needed even though many liberals profess to be colorblind. The playbook is still needed even though there is a black president in the White House.
Someday I hope a playbook will no longer be needed. Regardless of any challenges I experienced, I am thankful for my past, my present, and hopeful for the future. While it is much easier now than just a decade ago for more people with different opinions and perspectives to participate in meaningful dialogues, there are still many social barriers and hurdles we face as a nation. And that is clearly evident in of our current political atmosphere.
While there have been domestic acts of brinksmanship just in the past 12 months such as the Komen Foundation’s attempt to eliminate funding to Planned Parenthood, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s attempt to strip union rights, and multiple state legislatures attempts to deny women access to healthcare, there have been equally powerful responses. These responses are creating networks and unions that are bringing people together of different ethnic, socio-economic and cultural backgrounds in new ways. And this convergence I believe is a good thing.
While the United States continues to face many complexities because of its contentious history of slavery, immigration, and racism, I am hopeful of the future. While lobbyists influence institutions and members of congress attempt to pass legislation that is more fitting of the 1950s, I am hopeful of the future. I am hopeful of a future when a playbook is no longer a reality and just a part of our diverse history as a nation.
I have a B.A. and an M.A. I was a United States Peace Corps volunteer. I have worked abroad for 7 years. I speak conversational Japanese, Macedonian, and Albanian. I play the flute and I have a black belt in Judo. I have never been to prison or arrested and I am a black man. I am not part of the wealthiest 1% but I am part of a 1% - thanks in part to the playbook my parents taught me.