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.