On Representation

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I never thought much  about growing up in a place where black people played tennis. It just happened that my hometown happened to have the best public tennis facility in our area, so much that people from suburban areas would flock to our courts to play and practice with coaches our in town.

I think a lot about this, because I realized when I was in my late 20s that growing up where I did probably shaped much of my worldview in ways that being someplace else might not have. I’m not saying it was all perfect, it was far from that. But just the access to influences who didn’t just look like me, but who were a melange of characters who demanded excellence in different ways, helped shape my perspective because I wasn’t a stranger to black excellence. Not only that, it never occurred to me that there were jobs or things off-limits to me because growing up I saw black people who did everything. My first doctor was black, all of my school principals except one were black — my first elementary school principal was a black woman for 5 of the 6 years I was in that school.

Even the white teachers I had seemed to be hellbent on teaching us in ways that defied conventional expectations. We were reading Orwell in elementary school. We participated in activities like Odyssey of The Mind that took us away from our town and around the state and region to compete — and succeed at high levels.  When I lived  in distant places years later, it occurred to me at different times there were people who simply had never encountered a black person in a leadership position. Or a black dude who was the tech guy and not the basketball coach. I joke about this sometimes, but it really does matter. How people see  you doesn’t just affect how they treat you, it impacts the range of opportunities you’re offered and the ways people perceive your smarts because  they’re not quite sure how you got where you are — since they’ve never seen anyone doing what you’re doing.

That’s not my problem, though. And yet, it becomes my problem more often than now. It doesn’t excuse being less than excellent. Make no mistake, I’ve been afforded some fantastic mentors and people throughout my adult life who have seen things in me I had not yet seen in myself. They’ve supported my goals, encouraged me and tried to connect me to bigger and better things. Almost none of them looked anything like the people I grew up with.

I just felt the need to connect the dots on representation. I know some people look at “firsts” in 2016 and think even the mention of such things is a step backwards. “Why does it matter?” “Why can’t we just celebrate these accomplishments as Americans?” We can, but there’s an added joy to defying expectations, especially when there are structural barriers to many of the things that people still want to do today. Remember that successful might happen globally or nationally, but it starts locally.

Think of bridge trolls as gatekeepers. Every time you want to do something, there might be one person to determine whether you get to do it or not. Sure, you can go to another town but that takes time and money. Or find a private club that’ll accept you. Maybe it’s just finding someone who sees your ability and talent and is willing to nurture it. Success is measured in small distances, not big gaps, especially at the elite level. What separates the people who make it, is often a matter of timing and opportunity.

Whenever there’s some historic achievement where someone is mentioned to be the “first” to do something — specifically here in America — I often vacillate between being annoyed that we have to mention it and grateful that we live in a time where such barriers are falling.

I try to reflect on every moment  as if it’s penance to the people who  were denied access, who fought and broke rules and raised hell to give their forebears access to the opportunities they now enjoy freely.

Every time you hear “so and so is the first _____ to do _____,” it’s a little whisper of apology from every single person who might not have been complicit, but part of the collective debt we all share from a past with fingerprints all over our lives today and how we live them.

A tale of two internet columns

Today was an interesting day in internet columns. On one hand, you had a Forbes.com contributor Gene Marks who shared his “insights on what he would do if he were a “poor black kid.”. I’d quote some of the absurdity here, but I’ll just make you look at their site because well…the only reason to run tripe like that is for eyeball traffic.

On the flip side, I did enjoy Wesley Morris’s The Rise of the NBA Nerd in Grantland.

 

Blackbird browser and its discontents

There is a pretty big hullabaloo over at TechCrunch about the Blackbird web browser. It’s made by a company calling themselves 40A.

According to its makers, the Blackbird browser is:

Blackbird was developed on the simple proposition that we, as the African American community, can make the Internet experience better for ourselves and, in doing so, make it better for everyone. Primarily we believe that the Blackbird application can make it easier to find African American related content on the Internet and to interact with other members of the African American community online by sharing stories, news, comments and videos via Blackbird.

I downloaded the browser and surfed with it for about 30 minutes before deleting it. It looks like a cluttered Firefox install with a bad theme attached to it. The UI wasn’t intuitive and it’s not a particularly useful product, but I suspect they’ll grow it because there will be folks who know nothing about the audience this company is targeting and will believe what they’re told about the so-called needs of black web surfers.

I can’t imagine it being useful for an entry-level user, either. I won’t bother with a full blown review, because that’s been done already.

The whining at TechCrunch via the comments are kinda silly. You have a bunch of folks ranting and raving over the merit of this project’s existence, rather than debating it on its flimsy technical merits. The point isn’t whether there ought to be a browser that purports to reach black Americans, it’s whether said browser is 1) any good and 2) actually manages to be what it says it wants to be.

The PR they’ve received, mixed or not, has probably helped them more than anything else they’ve done to date. The techies who are arguing about it, simply aren’t the demographic the Blackbird founders are seeking out anyway. They want non-technical folks who listen to a particular segment of radio and might be inclined to visit certain sites they’re peddling.

It’s nothing to get too worked up about, because it’s not good or bad enough to really matter.

A story about my tennis coach

Story

I’m always talking about him, because he’s truly an astounding person. It was great to see him recently and of course, he omitted this outstanding honor to cap off an amazing career. He’s a humble guy, though.

In any case, the story was interesting and it’s just great to google him and found something so super. I still say my high school tennis team story would make a great screenplay. :)

Killer Mike

I Pledge Allegiance To The Grind II review

The album is shaping up to be pretty great. Especially since Killer Mike doesn’t have a major label distribution deal. I won’t even bother to review it, because that review summarizes it pretty well and it’s a real contrast to say, what Nas is talking about on his album.

Sentiments are similar, politics are decamped in the same neighborhood and Mike wins on technical merit.

But the rap game isn’t figure skating and as such, no one will care. But if you listen to the Nas album, at least check this out too.