Give a Black boy a ball, and he’s destined for greatness. Give a Black boy a book…
Tragic isn’t it? That many of us had the same thought just now, or no thought at all? Unfortunately, most of us have been conditioned to see Black folks as athletes and entertainers, which are aspects of society that are key to our leisure, but not as lawmakers, engineers or students — the backbone of what makes society possible.
Let me first make it clear that Black folks who follow their dreams and become key influential figures of society are awe-inspiring, and I am tremendously proud of those of my community who ascend to such positions, considering that 200 years ago this was almost unheard of.
So then what does it mean when society wants and desires nothing but our incredible talent and finds our intellect, perspective, work ethic and existence nonessential, and frankly, unwanted?
I’ve lived this experience. Playing basketball (and being good at it) was the way to be accepted by the other Black boys at my elementary school. But I wasn’t all that great — I loved the game, but I also loved to read. While kids were outside practicing and playing, I was trying to accomplish the goal of reading all the books in the classroom library.
It wasn’t too long before the way I played and even the way I talked became a point of ridicule and bullying for the white kids who’d already begun to stereotype me (“You’re Black, shouldn’t you be good at basketball?”), as well as for the Black kids who did not hide their shame. I felt trapped for not fitting the sociocultural boundaries imposed onto me by friend and foe alike.
This issue started at an early age for me, and it affects all of us. We are bombarded with this mentality so much that we do it to ourselves. Black students see doctors and lawyers in their textbooks, but none of them are Black. None of their teachers are Black. They learn about scientists with difficult names, the founding fathers (minus their slave holdings), the poets of Europe and the philosophers of Greece — and none of them are Black. And until most recently, none of our country’s presidents have been Black.
A Black student then goes home, and after finishing their homework, sits to watch football with their father and sees that everyone on the television screen looks just like them.
Before long, both social norms and the exposure we have of what we see around us inform our consciousness and subconsciousness. Black and white students alike see Black students who are good at math as an anomaly. Black and white students alike, upon hearing that a Black student wants to be the president or a lawyer, believe that those careers are a little too far-reaching. Black and white students alike think the Black boy passing his vocabulary quizzes suddenly “talks too white.”
Does anyone else see the absurdity of having to speak or act in a certain way because of a forcefully inadequate box of vocabulary words that’s assigned to my race? My vocabulary does not stop where another person’s starts, and the knowledge that I partake in and absorb has no race affiliated with it. My talents stretch beyond my athletic capability or my vocals (but respect those talents regardless, for they are additive to my greatness). No one gets to define my Blackness — whether you are Black or otherwise — but me.
This is the gift of entrapment. Black folks get pigeonholed into this stereotype of a tool or accessory for people’s entertainment, but nothing else. We are given the pedestal of nationwide fame and fortune, but as we initiate our God-given agency to use our brain, we are told to stay in our lane. Just look at the public’s reaction to the NFL players entering the political activist arena — they’re met with disdain by white folks who tell them to stick to the football field and complacency by the very Black folks they’re kneeling for.
Regardless of whether the ignorance is coming from a white person or a person of color, the core problem is that what’s equated with intellect and intelligence and creativeness and innovation is whiteness. In other words, if you’re Black, you can’t be a doctor or a lawyer — you lack the capacity.
Black people: We must continue to push back.
We must push back against the collective, imposed hatred on our skin and intellect and further resist the temptation to fall within the oppressor’s colorized, boxed definitions of who we are. We obviously didn’t make these stereotypes on our own — it was internalized into many of us by white oppressors, motivating Black folks to perpetuate such ignorance against our own. But we must push back against the belief that the Black body isn’t useful unless it’s carrying a ball, shaking its ass or filling a prison cell. We are so much more.
I am more than America’s fetishized plaything. I am more than the tune I can carry (and I can carry it, believe me). And I am more than a background character in your leisure. My dreams and ambitions extend so much more beyond the sparkly, golden cage that America imposes on me, and I will relinquish my shackles to flex all of the facets of my being.
Dominick Williams is part of the UC Student Association and works with the EAVP. Cal in Color is The Daily Californian’s weekly column on race.