“you getting good to try and impress my daughter?!”

It was the offhand comment made by the basketball coach at the first practice of the season – the one that my son is still stewing about three weeks later.

Mind you, my 6th grade son is not the best kid on the team. He is strong on defense, got solid passing skills, but isn’t the best shooter (yet). He has worked hard in the off season to improve that though. And he was determined to show the hard work he had put in his game on the first night of practice. And the coach shut him down in the first twenty minutes, with one comment:

“You getting good to impress my daughter?!”

An 11 year old does not have enough maturity yet to fully understand why it was bothering him so much, weeks later. He does not yet know the subconscious stereotyping that is playing out in that one comment. But I was fully aware. Without thinking, that coach took all my black son’s hard work and athletic skill, and he made it about a white girl. His daughter.

That coach sexualized an 11 year old boy into a black buck. He took my son’s frail ego and need to be validated in the sport he loves so much, and he deflated him with one offhand comment. He turned my black son’s hard work and centered it on his white daughter. As if the only thing that would motivate my son to want to improve his ball handling game was the thought of “getting” his daughter. As if his only motivation is sexual. In. The. Sixth. Grade.

“you getting good to impress my daughter?” I’m still not sure… was it an observation? a joke? a threat? It was certainly more than a question. It was like a turn in the road — from the left hand lane — that leads us all down a path that heads straight to the Emmitt Till Memorial. We might not be at the grave yet, but we are certainly headed down that road.

Did the coach know what he was saying? Probably not. This was much more of a Malcolm-Gladwell-Blink-moment (https://www.enotes.com/topics/blink-power-of-thinking) than it was any sort of overt racism. I am sure that my son’s coach would pride himself on not being a bit racist, if someone asked. And I’m sure he would deny it vehemently, if someone accused.

But here we are. While my son’s (white) teammates are practicing impossible 3 point shots and perfecting their between the leg passes, my son is worried about flexing any sort of athletic muscle for fear of being called out for only trying to impress girls. And while he is practicing for hours at home still perfecting his ball handling, he is content to sit on the bench during games, so as not to have any more unwanted attention from another offhand comment he doesn’t fully understand (cause he really isn’t interested in girls yet). He is wondering — still, three weeks later — if he is ever going to get to shine without dealing with the scrutiny of having his motives questions. Because before, he was overlooked for not being good enough; now that he has improved he is being overlooked because he has become some kind of threat.

And basically, my son is tentative. He is not fully himself on the court anymore. He is just wondering if the coach is ever really going to give him a fair chance. And quite frankly, so am I.

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