I wrote this story about three years ago, after an incident that occurred at my organization’s volleyball game. In light of Eric Holder’s recent comments about Americans being a “nation of cowards” on race, I decided to dig this up as a example of trepidation, guilt and anger whenever race bubbles to the surface. Although it’s a stretch to call Americans cowards about race, the fact that we are less than honest or open when we discuss race is still a big problem, even for folks born well after the end of the Civil Rights Movement. By the way, the full story is also on my website under “Other Writings”
I played on my company’s volleyball team, one that hadn’t won a set of a volleyball match in two years. With a recent change in coach and a lack of available players, we were left with seven players for a game that required six starters. For this game I was the only person of color who attended. During this match we finally won our first set, which was the match’s first set. Our new coach increased the pressure, saying that it was time to win our first match. Our team proceeded to miss a ton of balls in the second set. I mishit some easy balls, and others missed balls hit directly to them.
I noticed as the second set drew to a close that some of the players were covering spots on my section of the floor. Not just covering my section. They were literally jumping right in front of me to do so. At first, I didn’t think anything of it, chalking it up to poor team communication. But after a third time of someone nearly running into me to hit a ball I was already in position to hit, I finally noticed that there was a strange team dynamic developing.
Just before the start of the third set, our coach said, “All right, we need a victory here.” With that, the six other players were assigned spots while I sat out as a substitute player for the start of the set. I said to myself that it “figured that the one Black guy on the team would have to sit out….”
After the match, I sat in the bleachers, still processing what had just happened. In the process, I hadn’t talked to any of my teammates. Our coach came over and asked me what was going on. I said hesitantly, “Well . . . I felt that there was some bias involved the decision to have me sub out.” When asked to explain what I meant by “bias,” I said, “well . . . I felt like race was involved here, seeing that, after all, I’m the only African American on the team.” My statement was received with several moans and a sardonic “Oh God!” by my teammates. I had instantaneously transformed myself from a teammate, co-worker, writer, historian and teacher to Kevin Powell on MTV’s The Real World in their eyes—a stereotypical, angry Black man. This despite the fact I felt more confused and disappointed than angry.
Our coach said that the “rest of us are White and that’s not going to change” and that I wasn’t “being a good sport accusing [them] of racism.” “I haven’t accused anybody of anything,” I said. “This isn’t about intentions; this is about perceptions.” I went on to say that I temporarily took myself out of the game because I didn’t want to hurt the team, considering how angry and confused I was at the time. With that, all but one teammate left the gym….
As I left the gym, I found the rest of the team waiting for me in the parking lot. At least they weren’t carrying sticks and stones. It seemed like a positive gesture at the time. They wanted to “hear me out” regarding my perceptions of bias and what might have caused them. I was already emotionally exhausted at this point, and didn’t want to talk to a group that had collectively banded together as Whites to defend themselves. I repeated in four different ways my emotions and my thought process during the third set, adding that I hadn’t drawn any final conclusions about their intentions or my perceptions. “Whether it was intentional or unintentional or my perceptions were correct or incorrect doesn’t matter,” I said….
I knew that my teammates, though well-intentioned, had disregarded my perceptions around racial bias, assuming that other bias issues were involved. I knew at least one had thought I was playing the so-called race card to deflect from my inconsistent play. If I could discuss my perceptions again, I would’ve used another example. I would’ve described a company basketball team with six players, of which only five could start. Five of the six players are Black. One is White. When the White player is in the game, his teammates consistently cut in front of him to catch passes and play defense. The White player is riding the bench at the beginning of the final period. When combined with the reality that his teammates aren’t exactly NBA All-Stars, the White player recognizes that his teammates don’t trust him. Most likely he thinks that the Black players have unintentionally and unconsciously made him a bench player because he’s White.
If I had used this analogy, I’m sure most of my teammates would’ve better understood what I had attempted to say. That a group dynamic had set in. It was one in which good, well-intentioned people had brought their unconscious assumptions together in a negative, unintended way. It included the fact that some teammates were desperate to win the match. There was the fact that my play wasn’t at a level superior to my other teammates. And there was the reality that I was a relatively new teammate among the seven playing on this night. All of these were inadvertent, unconscious and unintentional factors in my teammates’ actions, ones that at a minimum proved that they didn’t trust me as a teammate. When combined with the fact of my Black maleness (with the possibility of athletic stereotypes attached), it made sense for me to pick up on these dynamics and to interpret them as I did.
That’s just it, though. As surprised as I was initially by my perceptions around the volleyball incident, I found myself equally amazed by how much stronger the group dynamic became the moment I mentioned “race” to my teammates. Their individuality as White women and men, Israeli Jew and Scotch-Irish Americans completely disappeared as they moaned derisively with one voice. The continuation of our conversation about what happened during the game confirmed for me something about the unintentional and unconscious assumptions we all make around race. As my teammates gave me their assurances, I reminded myself that many Whites and those who identify with Whiteness find it difficult to sort out how their sense of universal American privilege clouds their ability to see bias. This privilege, no matter how gently one confronts it, brings with it knee-jerk guilt and automatic anger.
This doesn’t mean that someone like me should stand by because I’m not completely certain about my colleagues’ intentions or actions or because I don’t want others to see me as the “bad guy.” Even if race wasn’t a significant motivation for their actions, their lack of trust was obvious. And mistrust in a multicultural setting by definition possesses racial undercurrents, for we are humans after all, each living our lives within a specific social context. We each need to have the space to confront group dynamics that work against us, even in public. We should be damn sure about our own perceptions before we speak of them. But we also should feel welcome enough in our group circles to raise race and be taken seriously before folks who otherwise see themselves as “colorblind” dismiss what we’ve said. Maybe it’s here—in the everyday group dynamics that occur at work, at school and in other settings—where it’s most critical for all of us to strive for a more tolerant society.
I think that this last paragraph encompasses a lot of what our new Attorney General was attempting to say. Any conversation about race is tainted by knee-jerk reactions on all sides, whether race is an issue, not an issue, or the issue that needs to be explored. For some of us saying the word “race” is equivalent to shouting “Fire!” in the middle of a crowded theater — hence the title. For others, it’s either treated as the joker from a deck of fifty-two cards or, if we’re seriously raising the issue, it’s as if we’ve lost our minds by bringing it up for conversation.
Whether one agrees with my perceptions really isn’t the point. It’s whether my perceptions or perspective is treated with the respect that it deserves. Falling short of that means postponing a conversation that has been necessary for at least four decades in most circles, and generations longer in others. Maybe we should shout “race” in the theaters of our lives, along with “money,” “power,” and “sexual orientation.” It would mean that we as a nation would need to shed our uncomfortability around these issues if we shouted about all of this more often, and in a proactive way at that.