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Charles Barkley’s ‘American Race’ overlooks NBA’s most pervasive form of racism

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In his very respectable TNT special, Barkley travels from city to city in search of answers on racism in America. Here, I dig through language and history in search of understanding.

2016 NBA Finals - Game Three
Stephen Curry (L) with Draymond Green (R).
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

In American Race, Charles Barkley travels from city to city to bring attention to what remains the greatest societal ill in the United States of America: racism.

Considering the ever-rising numbers of hate groups and hate crimes in recent years, state-sanctioned Islamophobia and general hostility and tension on the streets of every city and town, Barkley was right to title the fourth episode “The Divided States of America.” He also was right to title the second episode “Muslim Is the New Black,” and Barkley should be commended for using his platform to bring about social change.

However, Barkley’s valiant efforts came up short in some ways and were misguided in others. So, instead of looking outward for answers, as he did, I turned inward, and I would like to ask the NBA Hall of Famer-turned-TNT analyst to do the same. Only through self-reflection can he understand the way the language he uses on the very platform that afforded him the opportunity to make American Race contributes to the problem. Only through turning inward, can any of us begin to understand the power of our own words.

By turning inward, I was able to understand how my personal history — dating back a few generations — links directly to the most pervasive form of racism in the NBA today.

“Satan is his father”

In the famous line from the 1968 thriller Rosemary’s Baby, Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) is told the baby she birthed was not fathered by her husband, Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes) — but Satan.

When my great-grandfather looked down at his baby son, my grandfather — a pale, almost white baby — he basically said the same thing.

And then he tried to kill him.

My grandfather’s fair-skinned appearance meant he didn’t belong with his own brown-skinned family. Yet, his hair was curly, indicating that he wasn’t white, either. He belonged nowhere. So, it is no wonder that my grandfather would become a lifelong alcoholic, living in a dank trailer on the literal margins of society.

As a kid, I never once saw him sober. It is no wonder he literally drank himself to death. How could he not, when his first experience of life was his father taking one look at him and wanting him dead?

Interestingly, earlier in the movie, Rosemary tells Guy: “I dreamed someone was raping me. I think it was someone inhuman.”

In Rosemary’s case, it was Satan, apparently. But in my great-grandmother’s case, it could have been any white man she worked for or came into contact with in her daily life in a small, Southern town. It could have been someone she passed as she walked the dusty dirt roads from one menial job to another. It could have been the boss at one of her menial jobs — a landowner or a homeowner — where she, like other poor, disenfranchised blacks, suffered egregious abuses.

All of my great-grandparents’ interactions with white people, especially white men, were degrading, subjugating and violent in nature, leading them to live in constant fear. What other word could they put to the abuses heaped upon them, but evil?

Another word important to this story, but that was never uttered in my family, ever, is rape. My great-grandfather knew the baby wasn’t his son, that his wife had been raped and impregnated by a white man. He declared the baby to have been fathered by Satan, and he wanted the baby dead.

Really, he could not bear the pain of raising a boy who would bring deep shame to the family. He could not live with the agonizing reminder that nothing was his, not even his own wife and the family they tried to create.

My great-grandfather navigated a segregated society that made him drink from a different water fountain, that made normalcy and safety unattainable, that would result in his death if he reacted to a white person walking by and spitting on him, where people regularly let out vicious dogs to chase and attack him in the street, where the only thing he had was the ramshackle house he likely built with his bare hands and the plot of land on which he grew vegetables and raised a few chickens to feed his family.

Everything he had was under that ramshackle roof and, through the violent act of rape, the only sanctuary he ever had was forever soiled.

My great-grandmother was able to stop him before he drowned the baby.

Her baby boy may have been a product of rape, but she still had carried him for nine months and half of the genes were hers. Motherhood, in that moment, outweighed her own anguish.

She saved my grandfather from death at the hands of his own father.

My grandfather would grow from a baby into a toddler into a child into a teenager into a young man who, as a young adult, strongly resembled Stephen Curry.

Even a drop of black makes you black

By that logic, even a drop of white makes you white.

(Maybe we should stop thinking in terms of black or white?)

But this is where colorism — black-on-black prejudice or stereotypes — comes from. Put another way, it is internalized racism.

Had my grandfather been born female, life may not have been so bad. With light-colored skin and European features, a woman would have been deemed “acceptable” and, therefore, invited to work in a home as a domestic. But he was born a man and black men were never acceptable, no matter how pale their skin.

And this is how it started.

Colorism then evolved into darker-skinned black people developing animosity towards those with lighter skin, who were considered to have privileges that darker-skinned people did not enjoy, such as better jobs or greater social acceptance.

Throughout our country’s history, since the emancipation of slaves, whites declared blacks to be dangerous based on their own fears of retribution for the abuses they had doled out during slavery times — the shackles, the chains, the whips, the rapes. Thus, darker skin meant a black person was more likely to be feared; lighter skin meant a black person would still be shunned but maybe not feared outright. After all, the light-skinned person couldn’t be all bad given that she or he had that drop of European blood — no matter how it got passed through the generational bloodstream.

As a kid, I was repeatedly bullied by the black kids at my middle school, who would call me Oreo: black on the outside, but white on the inside. I repeatedly had to fend off questions about whether my mother — the daughter of my grandfather — was white, or if she was “mixed.” In other words, I was forced to prove my “blackness,” and often under threat of violence. “Fight me,” one girl said. “Prove you’re black, or I’ll smash your violin.”

How sad for both the bully and me that these were the messages we were gifted as a result of living in a country founded on cruelty: obliteration of the Native Americans and enslavement of Africans. To her, I — a light-skinned, middle-class kid who was a high achiever academically and played violin — had privileges she did not enjoy.

However, it is clear that her hatred of me obscured her vision, that her anger towards me prevented her from seeing that she had approached me alone at lunch because I had no one to eat lunch with. Like my grandfather, I didn’t really fit in anywhere (until I got to high school and started running with a pack of nerds and orchestra geeks of various ethnicities).

At home at night, my dark-skinned father — an achievement-oriented, military man — would lament the way so many in the black community associated success and achievement with whiteness and trouble and violence with blackness.

My bully had taken this on without knowing it; it wasn’t her fault. She had been brainwashed by the narrative racism wrote for her. She had bought into the lie. I hadn’t bought into the lie — that black people are stupid and worthless and all that is wrong with society — because my parents wouldn’t allow it.

Still, to this day, I am confounded by the privilege my bully saw in me. Other black kids accepted her; she at least had friends. I, on the other hand, would eat lunch alone or spend the hour crying in a bathroom stall.

Some privilege.

But this is why many NBA players have an animosity towards Stephen Curry, apparently.

White Men Can’t Jump

On his “Dray Dray” podcast, Draymond Green speculated recently that other players — maybe fans and media, too — perceive Curry to be “soft” due to the light color of his skin and his privileged upbringing.

Remember: To prove my blackness in middle school, I was challenged to a fight to prove my toughness. Dark-skinned and from a rough background equals tough; light-skinned and from a middle-class, upper middle-class or wealthy background equals soft. A cupcake, in dessert terms. Therefore, to some, it is shocking that Curry could become the best shooter to play the game — the back-to-back and reigning MVP of the league.

“People just automatically think, ‘Man, this guy ain’t from the hood, he ain’t cut like that ... he’s supposed to be soft and this, that,’” Green said. “And, of course, Steph is light-skinned, so they want to make him out to be soft. So everybody just wanted to make him out to be this soft, jump-shooting guy and he continued to get better and better and better.”

Toss a stupid 1992 comedy into the toxic cultural stew, and everything is brought to a nice boil — reinforcing the idea that white men are naturally athletically inferior (soft, cupcake) and black men are naturally athletically superior (hard, tough).

Have Kobe Bryant, one of the all-time greats to ever play the game, coach rookie Jordan Clarkson on his need to drive to the basket “like a dark-skinned dude” — implying that dark-skinned basketball players are tougher and harder than players who are light-skinned or not black at all.

Ah, they’re just words.

Kobe didn’t mean anything by it ... right? He was just trying to get the kid going.

Wrong.

Words matter and have damaging, long-lasting consequences — across generations.

Here we are, in 2017, and dark-skinned black men are perceived as dangerous, stronger and bigger than they actually are, a natural threat (which makes them a target for police violence), while light-skinned Stephen Curry is not to be believed on the basketball court because he is a “golden boy” with light-colored skin, and light is close enough to white, and white men can’t jump, so ...

Kobe probably didn’t mean anything by it; it is unlikely that he meant to cause any harm with such “advice” for a rookie. But words are peculiar, and not to be messed with. Words are like eternal echoes. One never knows who will hear the echoes, or how they will hear them.

Words are powerful — strong enough to carry history through time.

Without meaning any harm, a simple directive on a basketball court from Kobe Bryant echoes out messages of internalized racism ... into infinity. And it is especially interesting that he, of all people, would say something like this, considering that he, too, had his basketball credibility/blackness called into question when he first entered the league ... being that he was the son of a former player and grew up in Italy.

Italy: the country where I spent part of my childhood, too, which would forever have people asking me (at least when I lived in the South): Where are you from? Or, after speaking to me on the phone and then meeting me in person: I thought you were white.

“Girlie” goes beyond gender

And this is where Charles Barkley and his pet, Loose Tongue, re-enter the picture.

Despite winning the NBA Championship in 2015, shooting their way to a history-making 73 wins in 2016 and having as the face of their franchise the two-time, reigning MVP, the Warriors apparently play a “girlie” style of basketball, which Barkley despises.

Rachel Nichols took him to task over using the word “girlie” as an insult, reporting aptly on why this word used in that context validates notions that women are inferior to men and the reasons it is damaging for both girls and boys to receive this message.

Nichols said she discussed the issue with Sir Charles, who claimed he didn’t mean anything by it. Of course, he didn’t, and I believe him. But absence of bad intent does not make the damage any less real. A person may glance at his or her cellphone while driving and accidentally hit a kid crossing the road. The driver did not intend to hit the child, but that doesn’t make him or her any less dead.

Brian Windhorst, who initially bungled an attempt to reclaim the word “girlie” as something positive (the way some black people feel they have reclaimed the N-word, or the way some gay people refer to themselves as “queer” although that once was a slur), finally settled on something important in calling it “coded language.”

But, code for what?

A little deductive reasoning uncovers the way this term not only is an insult to girls and women — and bad conditioning for boys and men — but a buttress for misguided views about masculinity and skin color.

Kobe Bryant said his rookie needed to drive to the hoop “like a dark-skinned dude” ... because dark-skinned guys are tough and gritty, while light-skinned or white players are weak and soft little cupcakes.

Any way you slice it, the term “girlie” as used by Barkley derives from internalized racism as much as it does from gender inequality and warped views about what it means to be a man. More importantly, this is a situation in which Sir Charles — and anyone else, from Steph haters or Kobe Bryant to media and fans — cannot have their cake and eat it too.

You cannot proclaim that the only model of toughness in the NBA (or anywhere) is guys from rough backgrounds with dark skin, while also condemning general societal views about black men being dangerous. Both views are products of racism — internalized or otherwise — and both are perpetuated through language.

So, although Kobe Bryant probably meant something good by imploring Jordan Clarkson to drive to the basket “like a dark-skinned dude,” and while Charles Barkley probably didn’t mean anything bad by using the word “girlie” to describe the Warriors’ style of play, Bryant’s and Barkley’s words were careless and, therefore, bad because they carry forward the legacy of internalized racism.

Racist behavior by fans in arenas is one thing. But internalized racism amongst players on the court is probably the biggest issue involving race in the NBA.

Now, whether anyone considers it a big deal is another matter entirely.

Epilogue

Even before Barkley started with the “girlie” stuff, when the Warriors first started to get hot, media talking heads referred to Golden State as “a goofy basketball team” and “a group of goofy-looking guys.” In other words, they didn’t embody the characteristics of masculinity or toughness sanctioned by society and the world of sports. They didn’t look like what many think basketball players in the USA should look like, despite the great international expansion of the league.

Warriors, circa 2015.

Basically, the squad was not filled out with lots of tough-looking “dark-skinned dudes,” or rough-looking guys from hard backgrounds covered in tattoos. You know, the stereotypical baller.

This squad with one dark-skinned dude? A team of vanilla cupcakes? How could they possibly be about anything at all?

I don’t know, but I bet someone like Serena Williams does. After all, she and her sister, Venus, were told they didn’t look like tennis players.

Serena only went on to become the greatest tennis player of all time.


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