SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch Fall 2014 Personal Memory Ethnographies
Token White Boy
In the fifth grade I was the only white player on what had been an all black football team. How did that happened? My mother and father divorced when I was in third grade, after that my mother and I moved from 27th Ave and Bethany Home Rd. to 36th St. and Southern in South Phoenix. We moved in with my aunt to save money so that my mom could attend classes at ASU. I had been an only child until we moved in with my aunt. She had nine children but most of them were much older than I. In the 80s South Phoenix had the highest concentration of minority ethnic population in the valley, this was a completely new experience for me. That first year I played Pop Warner football on a team called the Bulls in Tempe. It was the closest team in my age and weight division. The next year was1983, 5th grade, and I wanted to play football again. Luckily there was a team that practiced at Estaban Park on the end of my block. I signed up and went with my mom to the first practice, where I met the coaches and all my teammates.
I could tell they were shocked to see me and I thought, they must be wondering what I was doing there. The coaches did not treat me unfairly nor did the players; it was just uncomfortable for them at first. Yes, I was the only white player on what had been an all black team. It was uncomfortable for me as well, I was used to being around white kids. The first couple weeks were strictly conditioning. We did lots of running and pushups. I was getting to know my teammates. I have to admit I was afraid of my teammates at first but once we put the pads on and started running plays and hitting each other, I realized that we were becoming friends and teammates. A tall black kid named Jamal was the first person on the team that I got to know.
My name is Jamal; I played Pop Warner football on the Suns in 1983. I remember that first day of practice it was hot out and the grass was sticking to the sweat on my legs. I also remember that was the first day I met Max Rice. I was shocked to see a white boy step on to the field with us. I thought this must be some kind of joke or experiment. You see, this was my third year playing with these guys and we had the same coaches every year. We had never had anyone outside of our race on the team, until now.
Playing football that year on the Suns was a great experience for a young white boy to have. I think back on that time in my life, when I was shaping my beliefs about society and the way the world works and I realize that playing football on an all black team helped me to become a stronger person. It was so much fun winning and being a part of a team during a very difficult emotional time in my life. I have struggled throughout my life with emotional and behavioral issues and during that time in my life, on that team, I belonged, and I was actually doing well in school. Jamal could see that I was not like the other white kids at school. I think he was watching me carefully to see how I would react.
I could tell Max was nervous because he didn’t talk to anyone and he was trying to act all tough in the way he stood and walked. I thought that he was just like the other white kids at my school. They didn’t talk to me either. The coach lined us up on the 50-yard line to run sprints to the goal line. Max was fast, but not as fast as me. He was right on my heels and when we got the goal line he said, “ dude you’ve got wheels.” I laughed and thought to myself, this kid might be all right.
I didn’t learn about racism from my teammates or my coaches. Like I said it was awkward at first but that faded quickly, we were a team. I learned about racism that first game. It was subtle, like an omnipresent malevolent subtle feeling. I could feel the fear in the air and I could see the looks on the parents’ faces. They were afraid of us because our team was 99 percent black; we fed on that fear and we used it to our advantage on the field. That first game we won 28 to 0. In fact we won every single game, and our defense was not scored on for the whole season. Our team could not afford fancy equipment like the other teams we played. We had all-white helmets, plain blue jerseys, and white pants. Other teams helmets were neatly painted with their team colors and the team logo on the sides. Our white helmets instilled fear into our opponents because they were covered with the paint marks made from impacts with the other team’s painted helmets, signifying that we hit hard. We took pride in those scar-like marks, like a gunslinger’s notches on the handle of a pistol. We would compare and brag about our new paint scars after each game. We went to the state championships, where we lost our perfect defensive record when the other team scored a touchdown. We did win the game and became the state champions for Pop Warner in 1983.
That same year President Ronald Reagan signed the bill that established Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a federal holiday. I remember the coaches telling us about it and I thought it was a good thing. The holiday was not recognized until three years later in some states. I remember that Arizona didn’t recognize it at all. The state was boycotted for its refusal to celebrate the holiday and lost the super bowl opportunity when the NFL decided to hold the game in Pasadena in 1993. I remember the state finally recognized the MLK holiday in 1992 after voters approved it in a state wide referendum. I thought about how my coaches had talked to our team about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and what he had done for the civil rights movement.
The next few weeks I watched Max show up to practice with a good sportsman-like attitude. One day, coach lined us up to run some tackling drills and Max was supposed to tackle me, I juked left and lunged right to no avail. Max was right there to wrap my legs up and drive me into the dirt. I sprang from the ground and said, “ nice hit white boy.” Max was making an impression on me and I was beginning to like him. He was beginning to bond with the team. That awkwardness that he and I felt in the beginning was gone.
Playing football and being mentored by the all black coaching staff helped me to establish a strong constitution about how people should be treated no matter what color their skin, sexual identity, or gender. I had held a lot of fear and prejudice about ‘others’ through out my life. I think that having that experience on that team helped me to recognize this as my own racism and encouraged me to change.
Later that month we played our first game against a team from North Phoenix. Most of the kids on that team were white. We could tell they were scared. I noticed that they looked at Max like he must be crazy for playing on an all black team. They feared us; we used that fear to our advantage on the field. Max won my respect by playing hard every play. After that first game Max and I became friends, we hung out after school and on the weekends we sometimes went to the movies. I think it was Max’s attitude that made me think differently about race. I used to classify all white people in the dangerous category. I see things differently now and I’m proud to call Max my friend.
Last week I talked to my mother about how she felt when I joined the team almost thirty years ago. My mother told me she was so scared to let me play on an all black team, with all black coaches. She told me that she even asked one of her black friends at work about it and her friend told her not to let me play because no one should have to experience “that kind of prejudice.”I guess they thought that I would be picked on and made fun of, or worse. I assure you that was not the case. They called me “white boy” but I took it as a term of endearment, or a nickname. My mom made the right decision to let me play. She told me that she put aside her prejudice and let me play because she knew it was the right thing to do. I didn’t think much of it until this assignment, now I see that it was a great learning experience and I am still proud to have been champion on the Suns.
Being a part of a winning team was a great experience. Looking back it seems strange to me that I was the only white kid on that team and I was totally accepted. I had issues being picked on and getting in fights for being white in that mostly minority neighborhood in South Phoenix where I grew up. The thing is, all of that racial tension and separation went away when I stepped onto the field with my team. I made some life long friends that season and we attempted to accept and understand each other’s differences.
I realize now as I complete this story that I had chosen to write about this experience as a cop out, to identify myself as colorblind. This class has opened my eyes to this self-limiting belief. I am beginning to see things through a new lens of the borderlands of difference. I am inspired to use this class as a tool to further my self-development and become an ally and stand up for antiracist action.
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