On the John
'Color blindness' a myth
Originally published in the Indiana Daily Student on December 4, 2001
I'm thinking of an NBA player. Tell me when you know who he is.
This point guard is in his fourth year out of college, and was traded in the off-season for being too erratic. He's often described as a "flashy showboat" who would rather make a pass behind his back and off of his elbow than make an easy pass to help his team. Although his passes excite the crowd, they often confuse his teammates. His assist-to-turnover ratio, is 2.2-1. In comparison, John Stockton of the Utah Jazz—a future Hall-of-Famer—averages close to 4 assists for every turnover. He helped lead his team to the post season in his first three years, but his coaches did not feel comfortable leaving him in a close game. He was suspended in college for marijuana violations, and did not finish school. He has tattoos, a shaved head, a baggy uniform, and a dirty mouth.
For those of you who don’t know, the player is Jason Williams of the Memphis Grizzlies. Even though he is a streaky player who thrives more on style than substance, he is very popular. There is another player in the NBA who’s physical appearance rivals Williams’s. He is Allen Iverson, the defending league MVP. Iverson is fast and tough, a great player and great leader who almost single-handedly took his team to the NBA Finals last year. But when Sports Illustrated put him on their cover on April 23rd, the magazine received hundreds of hate mail letters for putting such a “thug” on their cover. Iverson is black, Williams is white. It’s one of their few physical differences, but it seems to speak louder than any thing else.
Williams’s popularity and play can be easily summed up by his nickname: “White Chocolate.” Any black player who played professional basketball like a video game and didn’t make his teammates better would have been dismissed as an “uncoachable street-balling thug” long ago, but Williams’s unconventional play for white guy seems to override those labels. Other white people have benefited from this stereotype crossover as well. Elvis, Eminem, New Kids on the Block, and Giants cornerback Jason Sehorn (the league’s only white corner) are just a few.
What is it about white guys who excel in areas of life stereotypically reserved for blacks? Why are they embraced by the white community more easily than their black counterparts? Maybe it’s due to some kind of “fish out of water” symptom. That is part of it, but when blacks excel in stereotypical white areas, they are not embraced. Take the NFL for example, where until recently most highly-touted black college quarterbacks were converted into running backs, wide receivers, or corners, positions that require more athleticism and less mental capacity than QB’s. Even now, players like Donovan McNabb and Daunte Culpepper are commended more for their physical ability (which granted they do have a lot of) than their decision-making ability.
It could be that it’s just a case of what’s cool and what’s not. Pop culture today is dominated by hip-hop, and so it’s natural for whites to take a liking to a white guy who “acts black.” I think there’s more than that. People say that we must become “color-blind” in order to achieve racial harmony. But how can you be blind to something that, for many people, defines the way people and situations are judged? True color-blindness is impossible today because color is all around us. People who think that color-blindness is an option are trying to look at a problem with their eyes closed.
Copyright 2001, jm silverstein