Monday, May 23, 2011

Basketball Diary

Five years after my mother died (I was in my mid thirties), my father married my mom's friend's daughter. My mom was Mexican; my father and his new wife are Caucasian. When they got married, I was dating Kadin, my now husband. The wedding took place at a golf club in Palm Desert, California, and my father had asked that my siblings and I stand at his side during the ceremony. That meant we needed to also attend the rehearsal dinner the night before the wedding.

The party was at the home of my dad's soon-to-be mother-in-law. The house was situated on the edge of the same golf course they were to be married on. It was a gated, residential community/golf country club. Picture lots of golf carts with personalized license plates, older folks in Polo or Hawaiian shirts, and Midcentury houses with manicured lawns and swimming pools.

When Kadin and I walked into the party, it was startlingly clear that he was the only black person there. There was not an Asian person, or even a person who looked Hispanic (my siblings and I are light complected). Kadin was immediately a little uncomfortable, but okay: He attended prep school and is quite used to being in the minority. The fact that there was a sunken bar, where guests were mixing their own drinks, definitely helped. We visited quite often during the two hours we were there. After mixing drink number one, a guest (I'm pretty sure it was a family member on my dad's side who we don't see too often) asked how my family felt about my boyfriend, implying that there must be some sort of controversy. Naturally, I was almost rendered speechless, but managed to spit out something along the lines of: "You know my mom was Mexican, right? Color isn't that strange to us."

During drink number two, one of my dad's co-workers approached Kadin and asked, "So do you play basketball?". Kadin chatted him up for awhile, but grew quiet once the conversation was over. About twenty minutes and another drink later, a different gentleman came up to Kadin and asked him about playing basketball. Thirty minutes after that, my dad's soon-to-be mother-in-law, who doesn't play or watch basketball, stood next to Kadin and said, "I hear you like to play basketball."

We left almost ten minutes later. The multiple strong drinks were suddenly not strong or multiple enough. Now, Kadin watches basketball and plays pick-up games twice a week at the local high school. He's never played professionally or even very much in school. But he was born in the British Virgin Islands. And he did grow up on the East Coast, spending a lot of time in New York City. And he did get a master's degree in Public Health from Yale University. Why for the love of all that is good and holy, wouldn't anyone ask him about THOSE things? Well, I found out later that my dad, in an effort to provide a conversation topic and encourage mingling, told all of these people before we got there that Kadin really enjoys basketball.

My dad and I've always been very close. We spent many, many days and hours in silence together, grieving my mother's death because we were too sad to speak, but didn't want to be alone. A part of me knew he was doing his best to try and support me in my relationship and make us feel comfortable that evening. Another part of me knew Kadin felt awful, self conscious and bruised and sore by the time we left that party. And I knew that he has spent way too much of his life feeling like this because of how some other people view skin color. But I also know that when we're together, he feels none of those things. I couldn't bear the thought that some part of MY family was recreating bruising and soreness for the person that I'd grown to love with every fiber of my being.

I felt trapped. I loved them both. And I didn't want to hurt anyone by saying something or not saying anything. I finally realized that by being with Kadin, I was agreeing to stand up for him and beside him. I realized that it was my job to continue to give him a home in our relationship, a place where he could feel comfortable, confident, happy and not broken, judged or awkward. So I called my dad and told him how I felt. My dad, in his late sixties, is a conservative traditionalist. I was terrified of his reaction. I told him that I knew he meant well, but that you cannot reduce the only black person in a room to the basketball guy. It's hurtful, especially when that guy is so many other things. And that next time, maybe he could tell his friends to ask about Kadin's job or education or where he's from.

My father surprised me. He apologized and said that he saw my point. And he cried. I can't remember his exact words, but he said he didn't want to hurt the person that I love and reduce him to some stereotype or gravely disrespect him. And I don't know if my dad subconsciously had a stereotype in his head when he told his friends to ask Kadin about basketball and didn't mention anything else. And I don't know what his guests were thinking when they engaged Kadin. What I do know is that after my dad and I talked, he understood Kadin is much more than someone who plays basketball. He also understood that encouraging people to ask him about this instead of something else reduced Kadin to a popular stereotype--whether he meant to or not--rather than a complex human being with varied interests and experience.

Photo by Shannon Corr


Leslie said...

Nice ending to your pretty sad story. Really goes to show that most people mean well but just go about it the wrong way. Nicely written! And I feel for your husband. That must be tough.


Flora said...

Love your post. It really puts into clear terms a standard we should all live up to and why.

Miss A said...

Its sad yet most of us poc (people of color) have had such experiences.
I've had to deny the fact that I'm naturally a good dancer (I'm not), that I'm a natural cook (I had to learn, thanks Martha Steward cookbooks, and thank you my best polish friend for teaching me). Within my own multiracial family, I've had to endure many stereotypes.
My new pet peeve: being invisible. So many times, when I'm out with my white friends, I will go unnoticed. It's something that I've talked about with other black women, its a common feeling. Yikes... Or people will question my judaism. Or deny it. It makes my blood boil. Anyway, I've just discovered your blog. I like it. Take care.

Laura Mauk said...

@Flora: It really is so nice to hear that. Thank you.

@Miss A: Thank you for liking my blog. And thank you for giving readers and myself tangible examples of your own experience, moments and feelings like the one I talk about in this keeps the conversation and thought going and gives insight where I think it is greatly needed. Your comments are in my thoughts...Laura


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