A couple days ago I watched a clip from ESPN’s show His & Hers featuring Michael Smith and Jemele Hill (which is low-key becoming my favourite show on that station) and they did a very interesting segment on an inner-city teacher who wrote an open letter to Steph Curry telling him not to visit his high school. The teacher was essentially saying that Steph coming to the school to extol the virtues of ‘where hard work gets you’ would be condescending since Curry has enjoyed multiple privileges that his students never have and probably never will. Clearly the teacher used Curry’s specific name to make a much larger, more nuanced point about the challenges of educating this generation of kids, especially those living in at-risk neighbourhoods.
I appreciate the teacher employing the belief that young kids need to be taught perspective but the entire essay and some of the remarks in the video above support a running narrative that I HATE hearing: Young, poor Black kids NEED to be taught that they SHOULDN’T pursue being a pro athlete because if WE don’t collectively kill their dreams, they will become unproductive and unfulfilled members of society. This is the same problematic narrative that the President of the United States and the first lady have parroted at commencement speeches to Black students that Ta-nehisi Coates brilliantly dissects:
At a higher level, there is the time-honored pattern of looking at the rather normal behaviors of black children and pathologizing them. My son wants to play for Bayern Munich. Failing that, he has assured me he will be Kendrick Lamar. When I was kid I wanted to be Tony Dorsett—or Rakim, whichever came first. Perhaps there is some corner of the world where white kids desire to be Timothy Geithner instead of Tom Brady.
I’ve lived in many different cities and towns growing up, each with their own different racial and socioeconomic make-up. I’ve lived in poor neighbourhoods with many Black, East Indian and South Asian kids, and I’ve lived in middle class enclaves filled with white people. But, as a child, there was one constant between each community that made it entirely easy for me to integrate into new schools and make friends: 90% of us thought we were going to be professional athletes in some sport. Whether it’s football, baseball, basketball, hockey, lacrosse, track & field, gymnastics, tennis, golf, soccer, judo or boxing, we all dreamed of becoming rich, famous and successful by dominating our favourite sport(s) at it’s highest level.
Now, as a grown ass man, I can look back and see how IMPOSSIBLE it was that I was ever going to be a professional football player, especially when it was my goal to play safety at the University of Miami and my freshman year would’ve been 2002 (I’m very confident I wasn’t qualified to hold Ed Reed’s shoulder pads much less start alongside him). But there was one thing I was very lucky to have enjoyed during my high school years: I NEVER had someone tell me I’m NOT going pro (although there was an extended teacher strike that killed school sports, but that’s another topic for another day). In fact, throughout the course of my middle class suburban years, I rarely encountered anyone who said I couldn’t be whatever the hell I wanted to, which is a big thing for Black children in North America. Yet, although my dreams were never shattered by the words of an older person who told me to take their “sage” advice, I turned out fine (which, of course, is relative). I’m not saying that we shouldn’t talk to poor Black kids about their dreams, but we do need to stop trying to KILL them and replace them with OUR ideologies of what they should be doing, because we strip them of their childhood and their passion. They will grow up and, lead by passion, find something that they want to do besides shooting a basketball – because we ALL did.
Look, I completely understand the ideology that telling young Black boys and girls that desiring to be entertainers and athletes is a productive way to get them to focus on more “realistic” dreams, but the truth is that beating the shit out of a child’s dream and demanding that they even be contemplative and judicial between watching Saturday morning cartoons and playing tag is a horrific responsibility to pile on a child. One of my biggest problems with how we talk to disadvantaged Black kids (hell, Black kids on a whole) where we demand that they sacrifice their childhood for our collective racial “progress”. Middle class white kids are given the freedom to dream of being Sidney Crosby, Taylor Swift or Michael B. Jordan and we never hear stories about how they fucked up their entire lives by attempting to attain an unattainable goal of being one of the few who turns their famous person pipe dream into reality.
Probably the most insulting aspect of this entire thing is the fact that poor kids of any race are forced to become adults faster than children of any other socioeconomic class. They are self-taught on spotting addicts, users, sellers and pushers before puberty. They know hunger pains before their bodies have even had any chance to develop. They know what the cost of a dollar is before they’ve sat in their first cafeteria. Poor kids aren’t living on cloud nine needing to be pulled back down to Earth – they are roses struggling to grow in a concrete jungle, constantly being stepped on and crushed. If they dream to be Steph Curry or Drake, their childhood at least deserves THAT humanity because allowing them to dream will encourage them to find their passions in a world where they are going to hear about everything they CAN’T do before they are even halfway done high school. It’s not “practical” advice to tell a poor Black kid to embrace a mundane and atypical path – it’s productive advice to tell a poor Black kid that it’s actually OK for them to search their soul and find out how they want to live their lives. If you think that means they will sit back and say “well, looks like I’m gonna be Dr. Dre or not a damn thing else!” then you give these children NO credit, especially when it’s poor kids who have the least opportunity to sit on their asses and chase fruitless endeavours.
You want to know what the REAL problem is? It isn’t kids wanting to be pro athletes because the poor kids and the privileged kids I grew up with ALL had sports dreams, but it was the privileged kids who had the benefit of accessing multiple other dreams which were supported by their community as equally possible too. The privileged white kids I grew up with wanted to be Wayne Gretzky or Robbie Alomar or Michael Jordan, but they also wanted to be marine biologists, architects and police officers. The poor Black kids I grew up with wanted to be Michael Jordan or Bo Jackson or Deion Sanders, but our community was critically devoid of people telling them they could be so much more. How about we STOP telling our kids to follow their dreams, and start helping them realize that they can have more than one dream at the same time? But that requires a community effort where Black folks do this thing called giving back, where instead of throwing money at a charity, you embrace engaging and teaching these kids that their dreams are valid.
This Is Your Conscience