Is Black Just a Shade of Gray?

I heard that there was an ESPN documentary on a few days ago about the Fab Five.  I convinced myself that it was a re-run of 30 for 30 on the fab five, so I purposely missed it.  Then I heard the fall-out.  

Apparently Jalen Rose, who was one of the five Michigan basketball players from the early 90’s that comprised the “fab five” stated that Duke only recruited black basketball players who he considered to be “Uncle Toms”.  Here is an article on Grant Hill’s reaction (Grant Hill was a Duke basketball player at the time):

Jalen Rose had apologized to Hill even before the documentary aired.  However, Hill’s reaction is certainly warranted.  This prejudice among those of the same “race” has always existed, but the fact that it still exists today is a bit shocking and very disappointing.  Rose, essentially accusing those who Duke recruited as being less black than presumably himself and those who played for other (less white) schools.  The NY Times article analyzes Rose’s comments about the Duke players as Rose essentially reducing or changing what it means to be “black”.  Does it mean that someone who comes from an educated, two parent household, who speaks well and wants a good education themselves isn’t really black?  I don’t think that’s what Rose meant, but it is the unfortunate result.

I have been thinking a while about the value of cultural identity, as mine has come into recent question by many.  I am a quarter Japanese, but was raised by the Japanese half of my family and it is the culture I identify most with.  I just happen to have blonde hair and eastern European looks, but I am, and have always considered myself to be, Japanese above all.  Last week, an earthquake and tsunami hit Japan.  I have so many family members over there I couldn’t even keep track of where they all live, which frightened me due to the fact that many of them live by the coast.  Telling people that I have family there and that I am Japanese took some by surprise.  If one of my peers, Japanese or not, tried to tell me that I was less-Japanese than, let’s say, my cousin who looks the part (but was by no means raised in the same sort of household), I would be offended.  

I know it isn’t the same thing, but it is unfair for Rose to make those kinds of comments.  I also think it serves an injustice to those in the black community who aspire to rise above common stereotypes.  Rose and the rest of the fab five truly made a huge impact on the sports community and created a kind of history that most can only dream to make.  Many looked up to them as amazing talents who inspired children from those in the same communities to also achieve their dreams.  I honestly don’t know what he was thinking, saying those things.  In all fairness, I am trying to track down the documentary so I can watch it myself and make sure that all the things I am talking about here are actually accurate, but until then, consider it undeserved opinion.

If there is one thing I identify more with than being Japanese, it is being from New Jersey.  Recently, I got completely hooked on the Sundance documentary series: Brick City, about the mayoral politics of Newark, NJ and Cory Booker (Newark’s mayor).  Booker is a young, energetic, charismatic, educated, well-spoken man.  He is a former football player for Stanford, a Rhodes scholar and a Yale-educated lawyer.  Both his parents worked for IBM.  They also happen to be black, and so is he.  This normally would not be a big deal, but after watching Brick City (and especially the documentary Street Fight which followed him in his unsuccessful 2002 campaign to knock Sharpe James out of his long-held office as mayor of Newark….Booker lost in 2002 but became mayor in 2006 when James pulled out of the race), it is very evident that Rose’s views are mild compared to others who hold similar ones.

In the 2002 mayoral campaign in Newark, Booker was accused by Sharpe and many of his supporters as “not being black”.  They accused him of being a terrorist, Jewish, white, a Republican, Muslim, a fake black, and gay.  And this is mostly because Booker came from a two parent household.  Both his parents were self-made individuals, were activists during the civil rights movement then became some of IBM’s first black employees.  Living in a predominately middle to upper class and white community in New Jersey, the Bookers made sure that Cory was integrated into the school system regardless of his race and fought to get him into the best schools possible.  Cory was a bright student and excelled in his studies and went on to become an educated man and a productive member of society.  He also did not resemble the typical african american demographic in Newark during the time of the 2002 campaign.  And that scared people, and Sharpe James capitalized on it.  James accused Booker of many things, the most hurtful of which is that he wasn’t really black.  James grew up in the projects, was in the military and worked his way up to his position in life.  People in Newark liked that he was just like them.  And Booker felt a world away.  

Many of Bookers black supporters, however, stood with him and fought against the intra-racial prejudice.  They argue that their parents fought and struggled to give them opportunities, to educate their children, to make sure that they had the things that previous generations were deprived of because of their race.  So once a black person achieves success, gets educated, moves up in the world, they aren’t considered black? What were our parents fighting for then?  It didn’t make sense to them to penalize Booker in such a sensitive way just because he was able to make something of himself.  It makes him no less black.  

President Obama also faced similar accusations about his cultural identity, nationality and loyalty.  And I don’t know if any were made solely because of his life achievements, but perhaps.

Now I hate Duke.  Everyone that knows me, knows that.  However, I respect both Duke’s basketball program as well as their academic program.  I would not have been smart enough to get into Duke, most likely.  I have nothing but respect for those people who chose that institution to educate themselves—black, white, athlete, non-athlete.  There is no reason why african american men should be bashing their peers for making good choices.  And Rose should not be bashing Duke.  Hopefully, in the early 90’s as well as today, Duke takes the best athletes and the smartest students that it can to improve the school, regardless of race.

My heart goes out to anyone who would have their cultural or racial identity questioned just because they might look a little different, talk a little different, go to a different school or act a certain way.  It is 2011 and we should be WAY past those stereotypes and prejudices.  And I’m not sure why some of us aren’t.  I don’t mean to sound like I am picking on one particular race here, as I am sure this exists across the board.  We should be teaching our children to always remember where they came from, but to be the best version of themselves they can be, to not let race hold them back, but to let it be something that they can celebrate.  I only hope that more parents are like the Bookers, recognizing the sacrifices that were made in order for Cory to be where he is today.  In Street Fight, Cory Booker said that his late grandfather told him the day Cory graduated from Yale Law School that the diploma he held in his hand wasn’t free—it was paid for by the blood and sweat of previous generations, and to never forget that.  His grandfather told him that the only way to repay that debt was to pay it forward and continue the struggle, to always remember where you came from and understand how far the world has come, but how much farther it has the potential to go. 

Jalen Rose, you’re racing yourself to the bottom with comments like that and it does you and your legacy no justice to make them.  Be proud of what you’ve done and don’t be so bitter that Duke beat you back in ‘92.  ACC, all the way baby.  

On a serious note: My thoughts and prayers are with my family in Japan and to others who were affected by this tragedy.  My heart goes out to the whole region.  To donate to the relief efforts, please visit the red cross website.  If you live in the Bay Area, the Japanese-American community in Japantown, SF is also taking donations to send cash and supplies to the region.  The recent total has around 5,000 dead and thousands more missing.  About 440,000 people are living out of temporary shelters through below freezing temperatures with dwindling supplies of food, water, blankets and clothing.  Japan may be a wealthy country, relatively speaking, but the regions that were hardest hit were smaller, poorer fishing and coastal communities.  Now the fear of a nuclear catastrophe is looming.  This is a devastating disaster and loss of life is heartbreaking no matter what your station in life.  May we all come together to help the Japanese people through this tough time.

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