Rasheed Wallace Does the Work

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There’s a lasting image I have of Rasheed Wallace.

Think back to arguably the most chaotic scene in sports history, the Malice at the Palace in November of 2004, when a drunk idiot threw a beer at Metta Sandiford-Artest (then Ron Artest), hit him in the face and instigated a brawl near the end of a Pistons-Pacers game. Players and fans were fighting, drinks and other projectiles flew everywhere, a panicked Mike Breen briefly tried to focus on what was left of the game and instead instantaneously became a breaking news reporter for ESPN. Bill Walton was also calling that game, and not even the weed he’d definitely smoked before the game could keep him from getting hysterical. Some players raced into the stands to break up or join fights, and virtually everyone was looking for either cover or a safe escape route to avoid getting hit by objects — or fists — being wildly thrown throughout the arena and on the court as security lost control and fans trespassed in the paths of players, coaches, and other officials trying to exit.

Watching live, it was easy to lose track of virtually everyone in the blur. But then there was ‘Sheed, standing tall, watching everything, protecting players, breaking up altercations, surveying the turmoil, making sure people were safe. There’s a presence about Wallace that is unmistakable — a wise, serene, stillness that on the surface is in direct contrast to the often outwardly passionate and emotional way he played basketball. But those elements of his persona weren’t actually contradictory at all, they were complementary.

Basically, Wallace relentlessly gives a damn. That explains both his uncontrollable bursts of emotion that made him a true artist in the medium of collecting technical fouls, and it also fueled the deep levels of chill that made him stand out during the Palace brawl — simply, he cares. He was looking out for others.

Rasheed Wallace was in Flint again on July 17. He drove his truck with North Carolina plates here, he pulled into Evergreen Regency, and he precisely, cooly backed it into a tiny parking spot that appeared to be way too tight a fit for the sleek looking new Dodge Ram he was driving. Then he was immediately swarmed by people happy to see him as the TV news van parked next to him pulled out and found another parking spot since ‘Sheed left approximately two inches of room for that driver to open his door — again, PRECISE.

A celebrity visiting Flint in itself isn’t particularly remarkable — a who’s who of Hollywood paraded through the city for concerned photo-ops during the height of the water crisis. But when the attention on Flint waned, the celebrities stopped visiting.

The work wasn’t done. Wallace has never been about photo-ops, though. He came to Flint, and continues coming here, because he cares, because he will show up to do the work — to show people through his actions that they matter, that they’re worthy. He brings people food and water by the truckload, and he and his volunteers unload it and walk it to peoples’ doors themselves. He uses his platform to talk about Flint, and he won’t let people forget why we have to keep talking about what happened here — not because it could happen anywhere, but because it DOES happen in poor majority Black communities all over the country.

“Where are all the white people now?”

Flint, like all major cities, has had Black Lives Matter protests in response to the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police. Those rallies have been well-attended and had crowds of people of all races. But those rallies have been downtown.

Evergreen Regency is low income housing in southeast Flint. The residents there are predominately Black and deal with high rates of crime, drug abuse, and violence. It’s tucked away from the shiny new parts of the city, the universities and the improving downtown with new restaurants, and a handful of historic neighborhoods that are populated by middle class or above residents. There are not paved trails or bike lanes or connections to the investment and energy downtown Flint. Evergreen Regency and places like it are usually just comfortably forgotten.

Which is why Wallace and Stephen Jackson, another former NBA star, were there, to take care of people who are ignored. When they were talking with residents, a woman near Jackson said, “Where are all the white people now?”

She was right. Other than my son and I, there may have only been one or two others in the crowd of over 100. The rallies downtown were comfortable, with space in lots, proximity to college campuses and city hall. Trekking into a part of the city that white people rarely enter isn’t comfortable. Which is why I went there. It’s not supposed to be comfortable.

I don’t think it’s productive to be overly critical of well-intentioned people, particularly young people, who want to be helpful allies and protest in comfortable places. But the quote from that woman is what will stay with me. The reason I’m sharing it is because I hope more white people will take this to heart: get uncomfortable. Go places you aren’t familiar, and do it in a way that isn’t trespassing or disrespectful of the people who live there. Go there to serve, to listen to, to uplift the voices of the people who live there. Go prepared to back off if your presence is intrusive, but go there to hear people, to offer help when and how it’s appropriate, to do the work of taking care of and looking out for each other, to do what Wallace was calmly doing on the court as chaos ensued around him in 2004.

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I saw that lasting figure of Wallace again today. From the moment he arrived, his magnetic presence, his power and the ease with which he uses it, was felt. People were comforted by him simply being there. Then, after spending time talking with different groups of people who surrounded him, he climbed into one of the rented moving trucks full of supplies and promptly started handing them down to people to carry door-to-door. Because it was time to do the work.

Quit Using Flint to Score Social Media Points

IMG-8430A group of local artists in Flint painted a Black Lives Matter mural on Martin Luther King Boulevard over the weekend. That in itself isn’t particularly noteworthy outside of Flint — people around the country have painted similar murals on public streets or other prominent spaces as rallies continue to force the country to finally reckon with our racist history. Which is more accurately described as our racist present.

What was noteworthy, albeit in an infuriating way, were social media reactions when the story began to be shared. Eric Woodyard, a NBA reporter for ESPN who grew up in Flint, shared an aerial photo of the mural. Dozens of people bombarded his mentions to say some variation of “Flint can paint a mural but they don’t even have clean water?”

The striking lack of self awareness of random Twitter people (many of them white people) jumping into the mentions to lecture a Black journalist like Eric who grew up in the city, has told some of its most powerful stories during his career, and still has family here, is flat out obnoxious.

It’s also just the latest example of people using Flint’s water as a catchy meme to score social justice points. Do a Twitter search at any time for “Flint still doesn’t have clean water” and you’ll see a collection of people working some form of that line into various causes or grievances they’re advocating. Often, those people have only surface level knowledge (if any) of Flint and its demographics. Flint to them represents nothing more than some news clips they saw in 2016, and some Tweets they periodically see in the years since every time some random wants to pretend they’ve been following the water story this whole time.

Reacting to the same barrage that Eric faced this morning, Jahshua Smith said, “My partner is from Flint and she always points out how people topple over themselves to tourist-splain Flint and talk over the people who are from there.”

If you’re truly interested in advocating for Flint and its people, DO NOT DO what the people in Eric’s mentions did to him. As he later pointed out, the local government didn’t commission the mural as a hollow attempt to placate protestors without actually making any sort of substantive change — an incorrect conclusion drawn by many of the people in his mentions. A group of local artists and residents wanted to do it, and did so with the help of a great nonprofit that has helped bring hundreds of beautiful murals to the city over the last year.

Now, if you want to debate whether or not a mural actually does any good, have at it. But what’s the point of art if not to call attention to social issues on a grand scale? Artists should make art that captures the spirit of the moment we’re in while engaging people, right? A huge Black Lives Matter mural on a main street in the city certainly accomplishes that, and it most definitely doesn’t let the government or police off the hook or less accountable for reforms they, at least in Flint, have promised to residents.

It is true, there are residents in Flint that still don’t have pipes replaced. But pipes are the actual fixable problem. Most residents have clean water, and the work of replacing pipes is at least something tangible that can and is being fixed, although nowhere near as fast as it should’ve been. So tweeting “Flint still doesn’t have clean water” is hollow, and doesn’t actually articulate what the structural disadvantages the most vulnerable residents here face, and have been facing for YEARS before Flint water became a national talking point.

Instead of talking about the water, talk about the lead poisoned kids who, already struggling to get the education and nutrition resources they need, face even more structural disadvantages now through no fault of their own.

Start asking why Flint residents pay some of the highest water rates in the country — and why they were well before the water crisis.

Ask some questions about how and why a state government took away decision-making power from local elected leaders, and how that has consistently been allowed to happen in predominately Black communities in Michigan.

Understand that, even before the water crisis, Flint residents were hurt by environmental racism, structural inequities in housing, in schools, in policing.

Caring about Flint requires more than just proving your wokeness by Tweeting a tagline at people who actually live here.

 

The Joys of Letting Kids be Inappropriate

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Co-parenting under any circumstance has difficult moments, but in one household, even when parenting styles are misaligned, there is usually motivation by each parent to occasionally bend on at least some values in the name of preserving a semblance of a peaceful and united parenting front.

When marriages end, a parade of therapists, court system employees, attorneys, and others offer no shortage of advice for dealing with big rock decisions — how to divide parenting time, how to ensure children are financially supported, what school district is gonna be the “home” district, how do you divide holidays equitably? Those questions, while large in scope, at least typically come with a playbook negotiated through the court system. 

But what about the mundanity of day-to-day parenting decisions? There’s often no guide when parents who were previously coupled and made nearly all minor in-the-moment decisions in tandem are suddenly individuals in charge of their own households. That dynamic is simultaneously freeing and immensely complicated.

The mother of my children and I want what’s best for our kids, and have both created loving, comfortable environments that the kids feel safe in. We are largely in agreement about the “big issues.” But little things — like what we consider appropriate or inappropriate behaviors — often cause disagreements. When I got a text from her that said, “Isla is singing Baby Got Back pretty much word for word,” my natural instinct was to be proud. It’s a great song!

I soon learned, though, that moment wasn’t shared as a funny “kids are hilarious” situation, and instead was her probing for where our 6-year-old could’ve learned such a thing. I immediately panicked, realizing that there were probably a half dozen different ways my daughter could’ve learned Baby Got Back, with my encouragement, when she was with me.

I don’t want my kids to be rude or offensive. But I also don’t correct them much when they’re talking about gross things, especially my daughter. During an appearance on Pete Dominick’s podcast in 2019, comedian Nikki Glaser discussed the tired and easily disproved stereotype in comedy that “women aren’t funny.”

“People say that women aren’t funny,” Glaser said. “And there aren’t as many female comics, because you lay the groundwork for someone to become a comedian early on. Your brain has to be a comedic brain, and it has to be encouraged to be so. So when little boys are making jokes, what do you make jokes about? Farts and poop. And everyone goes, “tehehe, that’s silly, that’s funny.” When girls make jokes about farts and poop, because that’s what’s funny to a child, you get shamed for it. So, the thing that’s funny to a child inherently is not of access to you when you’re a young girl, because that’s gross. So you don’t develop a sense of humor, because all your jokes are taken from you.”

As someone who has flailed away at a standup comedy open mic night once, I wouldn’t say I’m trying to steer my daughter into that (or any) profession, unless she has a passion for it. But I do want her to continue developing a sense of humor, even a sometimes inappropriate one, and be as confident telling good or bad jokes as any boy is. There are immense benefits to laughing and making others laugh, and it takes trial and error to get good at those skills.

Dr. Ashley Soderlund, a child development psychologist, notes the importance of humor in a child’s ability to develop resilience and relieve or manage stress. 

Edutopia, a K-12 education foundation founded by George Lucas, points out that humor in kids stimulates goal-oriented motivation, helps students with retention, and helps build a sense of community in classrooms. 

A 2007 study published by researchers at UCLA discussed the positive impact humor can have on children dealing with pain and illness. Psychology Today notes that repeated laughter has benefits for circulation and lung and muscle health. 

So, as parents, how can we give our kids the freedom to develop their sense of humor without letting them go too far? Nemours Pediatric Health System has some helpful tips that include:

  • Model appropriate humor for them by telling funny jokes, laughing, and not getting worked up over small accidents like spilling a drink.
  • Encourage their humor by acknowledging and laughing at them when they’re funny, drawing silly pictures with them, or playing along with jokes they are making or funny stories they’re telling.
  • Point out when other people are funny, and encourage them to share their own funny observations, even with other adults. 
  • Create a “humor-rich environment” by having funny or creative books, comics, art, movies, or TV shows available.
  • Use boundaries to keep them from making mean-spirited or hurtful jokes or to point out appropriate times or places for certain jokes (like bathroom humor), but explain those boundaries in ways that are inclusive and respectful of their developing intellects.

Dr. Larry Kutner, a clinical psychologist, author, and former faculty member at Harvard Medical School, notes that humor and jokes are important to kids developing language skills and learning and understanding cultural norms, including what’s acceptable behavior and what isn’t.

My daughter, like many kids, often pretends to be a parrot and mimics every word I say to try and annoy me. My go-to move to win the game is saying something like, “my daddy is so cool and handsome!” — a line she would rather die than repeat. When she was playing it recently, I said my typically game-ending line and, without missing a beat (and staying in character in the weird monotone robot-parrot hybrid voice she does), Isla droned hilariously, “… I am not fully trained yet.” Her ability to talk conversationally and think improvisationally has clearly improved because she so often jokes around, experiments with words, and is figuring out how to appropriately interject her quirky sense of humor.

A few minutes later, I watched her pick her nose and eat it. Like all of us, she’s still a work in progress.

Raising a Justice-Oriented Sports Fan

I was 12-years-old the first time I fought with my dad about sports. 

He grew up in rural Michigan, rose every day at 4 a.m. to head into his maintenance job for a General Motors parts supplier, and rarely missed a day until he became too physically weak to turn a wrench. He proudly boasted about his “shop rat” credentials any chance he got. His sports rooting interests reflected his humble work ethic. Though he never went to college himself, no team better reflected his values than Bo Schembechler’s “the team, the team, the team,” University of Michigan. I was raised watching Michigan football and basketball, rooting for an endless parade of athletes who, I was constantly reminded, were never bigger than the program.  

Then, five talented freshmen arrived on Michigan’s campus in 1991, refusing to pay dues and unimpressed by the university’s manufactured mythology. Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson had undeniable skill and style, mainstreaming the baggy shorts and black socks look that had been popular for years on city courts into the halls of pasty white suburban middle schools like mine. Their play was flashy, with off-the-charts athleticism paired with a gleeful willingness to celebrate every play they made. They violated everything my dad tried to teach me about sports, that stars should be humble, that showboats always get comeuppance, that basketball teams that don’t run structured offenses will never beat regimented, disciplined teams. It is too simplistic and not really accurate to say my dad hated them — they played for his favorite team, after all, and he was loyal. But he was never comfortable with their style, with their willingness to speak their minds from the moment they showed up on campus, with their blackness. He was definitely not comfortable with how much I loved them. 

In 1993, I watched every second of Michigan’s season I could, prepared for the Fab Five to win a National Championship. My dad watched with me, also hoping for a championship but never missing an opportunity to question whether Webber’s ego was getting too big, or whether he was thinking too much about leaving for the NBA, or whether Rose was too much of a “ball hog” to be an effective point guard, or whether Steve Fisher should be a more forceful disciplinarian “like Bo would be.”  

Webber played beautifully in the championship game until, in a flash, his narrative was forever changed. Webber ensnared a rebound with :20 seconds remaining and Michigan down two points, the last moment in that game that he looked like the swaggering, once-in-a-generation basketball machine he had been for two years at Michigan. First, he traveled. But he didn’t just travel. One of the most instinctive, gifted players at any level of basketball looked unsure of what to do with the ball. He looked like he was trying to pass, then changed his mind and dragged his feet. The referees didn’t call it, and Webber clumsily and frenetically began dribbling. He advanced the ball himself, but then dribbled directly into a trap by two North Carolina defenders. His basketball instincts suddenly returned, and he did something most basketball players do to save a possession under immense defensive pressure — he called timeout. Michigan didn’t have any. Referees awarded North Carolina technical foul free throws and possession of the ball. The game was over, and Webber produced an iconic sports mistake that will outlast his Hall of Fame-worthy career accomplishments. 

My dad pounced. “See, he was trying to do it all himself! He should’ve passed to Jalen! He wanted all the glory!” I’d watched Webber sullenly walk off the court, clearly near tears, his once joyful eyes blankly staring in the distance. For the first time in my life, sports made me cry. I couldn’t listen to my dad. I shouted something incomprehensible at him as I stormed to my room, closed the door, and bawled. He didn’t understand why I was mad. It was just sports. Honestly, I couldn’t even explain why I was mad. But for the first time in my life, I was seeing humanity in the people playing the sports I loved, and that humanity seemed more important to me than the result of the game. My dad couldn’t figure out why a game occupied any of my thoughts after it ended. I was angry that my dad wasn’t worried about whether or not Chris Webber was okay. 

***

Although he never would’ve articulated it this way himself, my dad’s childhood indoctrination of me into sports fandom had a central theme: playing college or professional sports is a privilege. The responsibilities that come with it include never calling unnecessary attention to yourself or seeking personal glory at the expense of the team; never showing weakness or pain; certainly never pointing to unfairness or structural inequities that are inherent in high-level sports.  

Sports gospel in my house was most easily explained through Barry Sanders – my dad was far more impressed with the emotionless way Sanders tossed the ball to an official after scoring than with the otherworldly athletic feats that propelled him to the end zone. I blindly accepted that thinking, mostly. Until my mom got me a subscription to Sports Illustrated as a gift near the end of my freshman year of high school. 

I got the first issue in June of 1995. It had a teenager on the cover — someone only a few years older than me — who I’d never seen before. He was wearing a blue and white track suit, but seated sideways in a way that made it impossible tell what brand. He was holding a worn basketball that had clearly been abused by blacktop before, and posed in a way that could’ve been a senior portrait. It was Kevin Garnett, before he’d achieved anything professionally, when his legacy was already a topic of debate in sports media before he’d even played a game.  

Garnett was attempting to become the first player since 1975 to enter the NBA straight out of high school, skipping what I had always assumed was a required step of going to college first. My dad, unsurprisingly, was skeptical. Garnett was too young, too physically immature to face fully developed grown men. Who was going to babysit this teenager? Mostly, dad was just mad at Garnett’s audacity to defy convention — how dare he skip college? Everyone went to college! Didn’t he know the value of the free education he was turning down? That particular line of reasoning was extra funny in hindsight — my dad never went to college, and likely would’ve hated it if he had gone considering he’d never had a remote interest in anything resembling academia. 

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Jack McCallum’s cover story humanized Garnett for me, a rural white kid who didn’t even have cable television and learned to shoot on a makeshift court in a barn, slipping on hay and having to adjust the arc on my shot to account for a huge beam that was only about two feet taller than the basket roughly above where the free throw line would’ve been on a real court. 

I couldn’t view athletes on TV as robotic entertainers anymore. I saw and questioned my own privilege. I grew up poor, but I still went to a good public school strictly because of where I was born. I didn’t fear violent crime in my trailer park. I didn’t fear the police. Even though college was expensive, I knew I could still go. My parents were divorced, but both were prominent, largely positive influences in my life. Many of the athletes I loved watching grew up in environments that were immensely more difficult than my own. To impose the values or standards of my family or community on them suddenly and definitively felt immoral.  

*** 

As a parent who wanted to embrace my son Oliver’s love of sports but also provide him with the tools to find balance, humanity, and context in his fandom, I also turned to Sports Illustrated. Oliver stalks our mailbox each month, obsessing over when the next issue of SI Kids is going to arrive and who will be on the cover.  

The subscription has sparked thoughtfulness in him. He’s taken an active interest in women’s sports as a result of the coverage it gets in his magazines. He was engrossed with the World Cup tournament and the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team. We watched and followed this year’s WNBA Playoffs together, and he learned and asked questions about the league’s top players after reading about them. His younger sister Isla recently started gymnastics, and he was ecstatic when the poster in one of his recent issues featured Symone Biles. He asked if we could frame it for Isla.

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It has also helped Oliver understand some of the hypocrisies inherent in major college sports. The concept that individual players he roots for make massive amounts of money for the universities they play for and deserve to be compensated isn’t lost on him, even at only 10-years old. He constantly asks which pro teams his favorite college stars will play for. 

*** 

My dad died in 2009 at 53 because of a confluence of health problems resulting from years of his beloved “shop rat” lifestyle — chain smoking, using alcohol to self-medicate, and chronic pain from a lifetime of backbreaking manual labor. We fought about sports all the time, and I got better at arguing my viewpoint after tearfully screaming incoherent words at him in defense of Chris Webber. 

He was barely old enough (born in 1956) to be able to say the Detroit Lions had won an NFL championship in his lifetime (they last won in 1957, the pre-Super Bowl era). He also lived long enough to see the Lions become the first-ever team to go 0-16 in a season in 2008-09. I was a sports writer for the Flint Journal at the time, and when it became apparent the Lions had a real shot at a winless season, I began a weekly column rooting for the team’s demise in each game. After all, they were a really bad team no matter what, right? Wouldn’t it be better to be immortal than just a forgettable conventionally bad team?  

“You’re an asshole for writing that,” he’d say to me, laughing and shaking his head. Our relationship had ups and downs. We were really different people. He worked with his hands, fixed things, and hated complexity. I was bookish, uninterested in working on cars in his smoky garage, and obsess over the real and imagined intricacies of why people are the way they are 

My dad lived with pain his entire life — physical pain from his job, emotional pain from tragic losses of people he loved, and depression and anxiety that he flat out refused to seek help for. Strong men don’t need help. That’s what he believed. I could never question it as a kid, and certainly not as an adult when my awareness of his struggles heightened. We couldn’t talk about it. 

But we could talk about sports. We gained new understanding of each other’s personalities, senses of humor, concepts of right and wrong, even if we rarely agreed. He wanted to hate Rasheed Wallace when the Detroit Pistons traded for him before winning the 2004 NBA Championship based solely on Wallace’s overly negative portrayal in media from his time with Portland. When I reminded him that he used to adore another Piston center who shot three-pointers and got technical fouls, Bill Laimbeer, he quickly came around and usually laughed at ‘Sheed’s penchant for theatrically arguing with referees. And, even though I always gravitate toward loudmouths with colorful personalities, he helped me appreciate the athletes who just show up and consistently do a job. Loudmouths are fun, but sports don’t work if you have only loudmouths.  

Oliver was born nearly a year to the day after my dad died, so they never met. Sports help me feel dad’s presence frequently, though. 

Those moments when Oliver’s engrossed in a game, or asking dozens of rapid fire questions because he’s obsessed with a topic in the unique way that only kids can obsess and needs you to drop everything and answer RIGHT NOW, make me remember my dad’s patience when I’d similarly bombard him. I don’t want to force Oliver to watch sports the same way that I do. But I do want sports to be a vehicle for him to obtain curiosities about the greater world around him. I’m more aware of racism, of white supremacy, of poverty, of misogyny, of environmental racism, of a myriad of other societal and cultural issues, because of sports. I want him to find those things, too. 

The greatest gift sports gave me as a kid was a way to get comfortable challenging an adult, and the greatest gift my dad gave me was the ability to argue with and challenge him in a space that was safe, that allowed me to build confidence, and speak up passionately for things I believed in without punishment or judgement, even when he thought I was a smartass. I hope sports allows me to provide those same gifts to Oliver. 

When Oliver got to pick out a basketball jersey for his eighth birthday, he picked Ben Simmons. I got it for him, but not without a few, “He’s supposed to be a guard but he can’t even shoot!” digs. Oliver quickly responded, “Daddy, not everyone has to play basketball the same way. He’s fun to watch!” 

I’m positive my dad would’ve been on my side regarding Simmons’ lack of shooting range. I also have no doubt he’d have adored his grandson pointing out my own lack of imagination.

When Laughing is All You Have

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“… Are you funny?”

I’ve always loved standup comedy. I’ve also always been timid and risk averse, which has led to varying levels of regrets from every period of my life for things I’ve been interested in but talked myself out of trying. I’ve spent the better part of the last three years trying to reinvent my life after some seismic changes, and somewhere within that stretch, I began to question my strategy of always making the choices that seemed safest.

So when I slowly started confiding in friends that I wanted to try standup, the “are you even funny?” question was a pretty common one. The answer is … I dunno. But I have stories to tell.

In high school, I had a 10-disc CD changer installed in the trunk of my 1986 Pontiac Grand Prix. Two of the 10 discs that never left the rotation were Martin Lawrence and Chris Rock standup albums.

Don’t judge me here (I was a college white dude so I was the correct demographic) but one of my favorite comedy moments at Oakland University revolved around Dane Cook. One night, he was performing for free in the food court in front of about 80 people. I was walking through the building after a night class and stopped and listened to him. Less than two years later, he sold out Meadowbrook Hall on campus, with people driving from all over Michigan to see him.

I love stories. I love that standups can create something that resonates, find an audience, and have it grow relatively rapidly with the right combination of luck and tenacity. I love hearing about people’s fucked up experiences, especially when they can find humor through pain. And I now have plenty of fucked up, painful experiences of my own that laughter has helped pull me through. So I found an open mic and I did it.

*     *     *

I made my standup debut on April 20 at The Independent Comedy Club at Planet Ant in Hamtramck (they have comedy shows every Friday and Saturday — they’re great, you should go!). There were two open mics to choose from — 8 p.m. or 11 p.m. I had friends who wanted to watch me embarrass myself. They couldn’t get there early, so I decided to wait until 11 p.m. to sign up.

The caveat — the 11 p.m. spot includes a comic on stage who heckles you throughout your set. Which I was totally prepared to handle the first time I’d ever done comedy and the second time I’d ever talked while trying to remember to hold a microphone near my mouth. Worst case scenario, I humiliate myself, which is still a pretty great story, so I rolled with it.

I watched the first open mic, and it made me much more confident. The performers had varying styles, some who were experienced and some who weren’t. Mostly, they were just casually and informally testing material. The audience at that point was … my friend Rhiannon and I. So it didn’t exactly seem intimidating. I could do this!

Thennnnnnnn … the actual show started. And the burlesque show that was going on next door ended, that audience came over, and all of the seats in the club filled. Then a couple dozen more people were standing in the back of the room. Then a couple of the people who were casual during the early open mic got up during the main show and did sets that were really polished. Then two professional comics who were headlining had killer sets and did NOT carry notebooks up there with them like I fully planned to do. Then they filmed a live episode of a podcast, and I’m not really sure what was going on but there was an Easter Bunny, a Spiderman abduction, and loud music and dancing that had the crowd really hyped. And a few people ready to fight Spiderman for crashing into them too aggressively as he ran through the audience.

Also, I’d written a five minute set, based on googling and reading that most open mic sets are about five minutes. I found out this one was three minutes. I kept trying to read my notebook in the dark, figuring out what I could cut on the fly (after three Jamesons). I lost my pen so I couldn’t make notes.

Oh, and it was 420. I’m not sure if the number of high people wandering around was a help or a hindrance for doing standup, honestly. But I, a moron, didn’t realize I chose the biggest pot holiday of the year to try to do standup for the first time.

So my relaxation dissipated and no less than four times I plotted how I could sprint out of there and not go through with it.

But the crowd thinned out after the main show ended, so it was slightly less intimidating. I was second on the signup sheet, and got called up by EJ Watson — the comic who was serving as the open mic heckler and who was really funny in his set earlier in the show.

I led with confessing it was my first time — I googled what to do at open mics relentlessly, and found something that said you should fess up to being new, so I took that as gospel and did it.

The premise of my set was app-based dating. Namely, being an old loser who hadn’t dated in 13 years trying to figure out how people date now and then realizing that it can be pretty easy when you realize a huge percentage of men are creepy scumbags. So it was a celebration of my averageness. I had to cut a joke I liked about craft beer being commonly listed as a hobby (and noting that not only is leading with alcoholism a weird choice, but also craft beer is just regular beer with varying amounts of coffee poured into it). My joke about women having collections of tiny penis trading cards on their phones based on the number of unsolicited dick pics they get seemed to get over.

The tiny penis trading cards line got callbacks during two other sets, so I feel confident that, if nothing else, I accomplished creating a new creepy man shaming tool. Seriously, if Instagram and Snapchat created a trading card filter, it would be so popular — slap the filter on the unwanted penis and post it to the internet with the sender’s personal info. Collect them all!

I also joked about my own lame hobby — loving professional wrestling. But I have to be honest — a professional wrestling tool helped me deal with EJ’s heckling. Anyone who has watched the WWE over the last 20 years knows about “WHAT?” chants. They started in 2001 because of Stone Cold Steve Austin. Essentially, whenever someone is talking on the mic, the crowd continuously cuts them off with “WHAT?” because Austin used to do it. Somehow, even though Austin is long retired and now hates the chants he started, they haven’t died.

The best performers in WWE overcome them by changing their cadence and eliminating their pauses, which makes it hard for the crowd to keep up the rhythm. So I stole that idea and tried to talk a little faster every time EJ interjected. He got his jokes in, but I didn’t get super thrown off. All those years of watching men roll around in their underwear finally paid off with practical advice.

I was worried time would drag when I got on stage, but the wrap it up light was on before I knew it. The setups I wrote to get to my main jokes were a little too long. And I didn’t rehearse as much as I could’ve, so I looked down at my notes too much rather than paying attention to how people in the audience were reacting. There were a couple of lines I didn’t deliver right, and one I didn’t like when I heard it out loud.

So am I funny? No clue. But I tried something, I didn’t make a complete fool of myself (YET!), and I am definitely going to do it again. I have waaaaaay more messed up topics to cover publicly.

Kofi Kingston is the Pipebomb

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Image via WWE Network.

One of my earliest memories as a kid was watching Superstars with my dad, uncle, and cousin, crowded around a 20-inch tube TV with rabbit ears that sat on top of a non-working dryer (that was for some reason in the kitchen) at my uncle’s perennially under construction house.

More accurately, wrestling was on in the background. What I was usually more intently watching was my dad and uncle throwing toothpicks in each other’s faces while doing poor Razor Ramon impersonations or standing wobbly on chairs, arms raised majestically, while doing even poorer Randy Savage impersonations.

Since, wrestling fandom has come and gone from my life in waves — a nomadic attention span in the face of the daunting investment required to actually consume all of the content produced by modern WWE is not atypical and totally understandable as fans age and add life responsibilities.

My meandering back into the sport, roughly, matched when a lot of people regained interest — the 2011 Summer of Punk. But, as much as CM Punk’s pissed off, bitter, upset at the system, chip-on-his-shoulder persona spoke to me as a mid-30s khaki wearer stuck in a boring desk job, it wasn’t CM Punk alone that renewed my interest in wrestling. It was Kofi Kingston.

Punk famously name-dropped Colt Cabana in his electric fourth-wall breaking pipebomb promo, which introduced me to Cabana’s podcast. One of the most relatable episodes I listened to was Cabana’s interview with Kingston in 2012. The whole interview is great, but Kingston discussing his post-college career dissatisfaction, working in a cubicle proofreading catalog pages for Staples spoke to my soul:

“No matter how excited you seem about it, it’s still paper clips and push pins and ergonomic chairs. I can’t do this the rest of my life.”

He even drops an Office Space reference!

I’ve watched WWE consistently again since that summer in 2011, and thanks to a powerful combination of the Network, insomnia, and an … uh … exciting personal life, gone back and filled in gaps that I missed in years prior. Kingston has been among the most consistently good performers in a variety of mid-card roles throughout that entire time. He’s done it organically, with almost nothing to work with. Consider some of the following:

  • He debuted in WWE playing a Jamaican character, with Jamaican music, gear that used Jamaican colors, and vignettes that promoted his Jamaican heritage. He’s … not Jamaican. It’s the type of classic WWE cheeseball gimmick that, in the hands of the wrong performer, would’ve been dead on arrival. It’s also the exact sort of deadend gimmick often given to performers of color. Instead of failing, Kingston’s charisma combined with his unique in-ring work got him over pretty seamlessly. Relatively quickly, Kofi Kingston was so good and so popular with the crowd, the corny WWE packaging didn’t matter and in fact quietly disappeared altogether. That’s a testament to his talent.
  • In 2014, when the New Day was formed, rinse and repeat with the lame/borderline racist WWE packaging — vignettes that didn’t make sense, that with less talented performers would’ve thoroughly ruined any chance of popularity for the individuals. But, Kingston, Big E, and Xavier Woods are so damn good at this that their own natural abilities to connect with a crowd, tell stories that are entertaining, and off-the-charts chemistry as a group triumphed over any poor creative they were hamstrung with. I remember the initial New Day vignettes. I remember myself — and a lot of the collective wrestling internet — groaning with worst case scenarios based on WWE’s history of presenting black performers using the worst stereotypes. Even with the undeniable talent of the three performers, I don’t think anyone would’ve predicted then that the New Day would grow into what they are today.
  • Kingston is one of the best tag team wrestlers of all-time, with eight different title runs. The New Day is clearly his most successful team, but he’s won titles with a pretty diverse set of talents — CM Punk, Evan Bourne, and R-Truth. His run with Bourne was disrupted, twice, due to Bourne’s suspensions, and Kingston still recovered. His teams with Punk and R-Truth were seemingly thrown together and made little sense, and both were entertaining.
  • He makes everyone look good. On Cabana’s podcast, he talked at length about his belief in helping other performers achieve their best, stating, “I’ve always been willing to help people out.” It is hard to find any match over the course of his career that wasn’t entertaining. He’s had seven combined runs with the U.S. and Intercontinental titles. He’s pinned Chris Jericho — arguably the greatest of all-time in terms of longevity. He’s also served as fodder for debuting talents, like Rusev and Bray Wyatt. He’s college educated, beloved by all fans but especially young ones, and a great face for modern WWE the company in the external PR appearances that they love. His career, in terms of being a talented jack-of-all-trades, is similar to Dolph Ziggler’s. Yet Ziggler has, here and there, been boosted into the main event scene and even has two world title runs (the most memorable of which, coincidentally, came when he was in a faction that included Big E). Kingston has never received those types of opportunities.
  • He’s been in seven Money in the Bank matches — tied with Kane for the most ever — and won zero. Damien Sandow and Baron Corbin have won Money in the Bank matches, by the way.
  • He’s been in 12 Royal Rumbles, tied for third all-time, and delivered arguably the most memorable spots in the history of one of WWE’s most iconic matches, yet never come close to winning one. For comparison’s sake, Cody Rhodes has been in half as many Royal Rumbles and has more than three hours of cumulative time (among the most all-time) in those appearances.

WWE accidentally realizing that Kingston is a major star — thanks in large part to a totally organic reaction by fans combined with Kingston having incredible matches when he was subbed into the WWE title picture earlier this year — is both gratifying and frustrating. Gratifying is the easy part — anyone who has watched Kingston’s career objectively is thrilled to see one of the most talented, overlooked members of the roster finally get a main event opportunity. And frustrating, because this immensely talented, popular performer has been there since 2008! What took so long?

During this recent run, I’ve thought about Kingston a lot in the context of Punk’s famous promo.

Punk played into the belief that he’d been held down, that the company didn’t want someone like him as the face of their product despite his popularity with fans, that behind the scenes mysterious power-brokers had worked nefariously to limit his opportunities. He delivered his words compellingly, and they told a great story. But were they true beyond the storyline sense?

Perhaps, at least in Punk’s mind, which helped them resonate. But, even before his record-breaking title run, Punk was featured prominently. He’d had world title runs. He’d won Money in the Bank. He was in the main event scene and had worked with major stars. He’d led factions. When he was injured, they put him on commentary. He even got a famous Royal Rumble spot with the Straight Edge Society, where he had a microphone and got to spend a significant portion of the match as the center of attention, an opportunity to add significant nuance to his character.

Were there, surely, people who didn’t want him to succeed? People who didn’t like his look or his attitude or his independent scene credentials? I’m sure that was probably the case. But, in terms of TV time and being prominently featured, there’s not really a reasonable case that Punk was overlooked.

Now apply the sentiments of his promo to Kingston, a talented performer who — despite his popularity — was never really in the main event scene. Someone who did have the ability to talk on the microphone but never got significant mic time to help add motivations to his character. Someone who was shuffled in and out of midcard stories, often working with the same performers repeatedly (hello, endless matches with Ziggler!) with little storyline explanation as to why those feuds continued endlessly. A black performer who, when you factor in WWE’s poor history with handling race, gender, sexuality, etc., would have an extremely credible argument for why seemingly less accomplished performers get more prominent spots than he does.

Kingston has already proven himself as an all-time great, something his mentality when he talked to Cabana in 2012 foreshadowed: “I’ve always been one to try to do things differently, to the point where there’s not many people out there who can do what I do the way that I do it.” He, more than anyone in recent memory, has earned this spot, and had to do more to get there than just about anyone else.

Those realities make this, perhaps accidentally, among the most compelling stories WWE has ever told. Even if it is technically part of a storyline, the history of Kingston and the believability of performers of color having a much harder path historically to main event opportunities within WWE, make the “reality era” aspects of the story resonate even stronger. Kingston’s ascension, and more importantly where they go with this story, has captured my attention as a fan differently than any wrestling storyline ever has. The New Day as performers clearly have the ability to take this story to a riveting, satisfying conclusion. Does WWE?

Being Rich and Useless in Flint

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University of Michigan-Flint faculty member Mark Perry filed a lawsuit against Wayne State University for hosting a coding camp for black girls.

Though dickish, the lawsuit in itself is not surprising given his history. Perry has filed at least 35 lawsuits against Michigan universities alleging discrimination against males, according to his prideful bragging in The Detroit News. He has a track record of weaponizing lawsuits and media attention to push universities into bending to his will — notably, two years ago, Michigan State University changed the name of a women’s lounge on campus because Perry was aggrieved that men also couldn’t go in there.

Perry — who makes over $140,000 annually from UM-Flint — has a singular intent: to protect male, particularly white male, privilege in higher education. His viewpoint is so absurdly stupid, that it hardly merits a serious response. So let me start with a non-serious one — pointing and laughing at some of his Rate My Professor reviews:

He is a terrible professor. He lectures for hours from powerpoint slides provided by the textbook company (which he is friends with and mentions several times). He offers only one point of view and references his blog often. His political views are very obvious.

Wastes all his class time by talking about his blog posts.

Website dedicated to his stupid hobbies. In love with himself. Lives in fantasy world. Needs to get in touch with reality. has no sympathy for the common person’s struggle. Hard to do when you are a fat spoiled out-of touch brat.

He is extremely boring and seemed to have some build up frustration. He is practically useless when it comes to answering students questions.

Doesn’t seem to create any of his own curriculum, which should be considered academic fraud at the graduate level. Lectures are deadly boring.

Seriously, he namedrops being friends with a textbook publisher in class? What a hip dude! And I really enjoyed that The Root put him in their “Mayo-American Hall of Fame.”

But that’s immature of me. So here are a few better-formed responses.

  1. Mark Perry draws a $140,000 salary in one of the poorest cities in America. Forty two percent of the University of Michigan-Flint’s student body consists of students whose families earn less than $65,000 per year and it is 24th among all Michigan colleges in median parent income, according to The New York Times. If those students are Flint residents, depending on what neighborhood their families live in, there’s a chance they still can’t drink water from the tap in their homes since the lead pipes have still not been replaced in some of the city’s poorest areas. University of Michigan-Flint is a public university. So his salary is being paid by taxpayers and tuition from a large number of students from middle class and lower families so that he can file frivolous lawsuits aimed at eliminating protections for women, show students boring PowerPoint presentations, and write riveting blog posts about the scourge that is massage therapists with long fingernails.
  2. Mark Perry teaches at a university that is more than 60 percent female. This month, he said this to The Detroit News: “We’re still stuck back in the 1960s or 1970s with outdated thinking that women still need special treatment and special preferences.” Wait … I’m very curious about the “special treatment” women were getting in the 60s and 70s. And if he’s arguing that things like Title IX, scholarships, and other initiatives to provide opportunities for women have now outserved their usefulness and are depriving white men, is he really saying that, what, like, 30ish years of these things existing or being thought about in any sort of serious manner is enough to undo … I dunno … forever? I guess? … of women and minorities being excluded from opportunities?
  3. He successfully bullied Michigan State University into changing the name of a small women’s lounge and making it a common space where men are now allowed as well. You know, the same Michigan State University that harbored a serial sexual abuser of women and complicit administrators who protected that criminal for years, not to mention an athletics program that has had its own severe issues with sexual violence against women on campus. Why would they possibly need a safe space for women???
  4. While he’s attacking Wayne State for offering a Black Girls Code camp, here are a few relevant stats that I’m sure he very much considered before filing his pointless lawsuit: 95 percent of the tech workforce is white, and 76 percent of it is male (Forbes); a Brookings Institute study noted that while women’s “digital skills” have rapidly increased, their share of the “highly skilled digital” job pool has not; a Google engineer was fired after circulating a manifesto that argued, among other things, gender gaps in tech jobs exist because women are not as psychologically suited to those jobs as men; 83 percent of tech executives are white, half of Google’s and Apple’s employees are white, and unfairness/mistreatment in the work environment costs tech companies billions of dollars per year in turnover/replacement costs when those frustrated employees leave (Tech Republic).
  5. College computer science departments are still overwhelmingly white according to Wired, hence the importance of pre-college programs like Black Girls Code. Despite Mark Perry’s “what about the men!” protests, colleges are actually very successful at getting white boys into computer science programs and don’t need the help of his frivolous lawsuits to bolster those efforts.
  6. Seriously, he’s filed 35 lawsuits against public universities in Michigan! Hey guess what, taxpayers? Since these are public universities, you get to pay for the legal resources that universities have to devote to this frivolity. Hey guess what, college students? This frivolity helps your tuition costs go up!

I worked in higher education for eight years, including a significant amount of time at a STEM university. Every major company in America is looking for increased diversity in its workforce. Every major company in America is eager to fund tech-related pre-college opportunities for diverse students. Early exposure to concepts like coding is critical, especially for underrepresented or economically disadvantaged populations who haven’t traditionally had opportunities in STEM education and fields. Black Girls Code is an amazing national organization that every college campus in America would be proud to partner with.

Mark Perry’s contentions, as cited in The Detroit News, that women are actually over-represented on college campuses and, thus, don’t need additional measures like scholarships, specialized camps, and women-only spaces on campus, is infantile. Here are a couple of the more ridiculous passages:

At UM, women dominate in 17 out of 21 fields of study, with business and engineering being the only areas where women are underrepresented.

Hmmm … so business and engineering, the two fields of study that traditionally yield the highest paying jobs to graduates, are the “only” ones dominated by men. Got it.

“Gender discrimination has been embedded, accepted, embraced and institutionalized in higher education for decades,” Perry says.

Just want to throw this statistic out there: despite women composing the majority of students on college campuses, nearly 20 percent of women are sexually assaulted during the time they are in college. And that number is likely much higher considering the number of sexual assaults that go unreported. Oh, and female administrators are still paid less than male counterparts (Inside Higher Ed). White men hold 55 percent of full-time professor jobs nationally, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And male faculty members are not only more likely to assign works by male authors than female authors, they also hilariously and sadly assign nearly three times more of their own published work than female faculty. Which fits with one of the Rate My Professor descriptions above of Professor Cool Blogs here.

So no, Mark Perry, discrimination against white men has not been an “embedded, institutionalized” issue in higher ed. Higher ed mirrors the rest of society, where it has been substantially easier for mediocre white men to advance than anyone. 

Sadly, based on my anecdotal experience in universities, Mark Perrys aren’t uncommon, he just happens to be more media savvy than others I’ve encountered. I’ve witnessed tenured male faculty dominate or actively belittle or resort to passive aggressive tactics to derail meetings or silence voices of female colleagues. I’ve heard horror stories from female colleagues about the behavior of men on tenure committees who made the process exceedingly difficult for them. I’ve seen men openly scoff at being open to or showing empathy to the experiences of marginalized or underrepresented groups of students. Not all of the male colleagues I’ve worked with have done these things, but an emboldened and vocal enough minority of them certainly wield enough power to make things hell for those with good intentions.

It is disappointing that Mark Perry is allowed to use his position at a great university in a community that I love to gain media attention to attack marginalized groups. It is disappointing that he continuously finds media outlets who give him a platform and are complicit in his attacks. And it is doubly disappointing that he’s protected by a tenure system that often enables bullies rather than protects academic freedom.

Black Panther And The Power Of Siblings

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Writing in Rolling Stone this week, Tre Johnson had the following line about Black Panther:

Like anything black in America, Black Panther will be politicized for being black, which is to say for being and for announcing itself as a having a right to be here and to be heard.

Johnson is right, of course. There are dozens of Google search results pointing to troll sites dedicated to ruining something beautiful and non-white, with idiot takes if you’re so inclined to seek them out. But the easiest summation of the irrational fear related to the film is the simple fact that Snopes.com had to publish an article debunking an insane lie that white people were getting attacked at movie theaters for daring to see the movie.

I took my kids to see Black Panther because, first and foremost, I wanted to see it, and they were with me (I’m not a perfect parent … sometimes you have to do what I want to do, babiez). But it wasn’t just a selfish choice – my 7-year-old son was Black Panther for Halloween, even though he was only vaguely familiar with the story through a few comics we read together, so that piqued his interest. And my 4-year-old daughter generally enjoys anything that involves kicking ass, so she was on board as well.

There are an abundance of reasons to see the film – all of the detailed reporting on its beauty, on its relevance, on its power, on its importance … none of those things are undersold. Along with being a fan of the comic book, all of the critical acclaim Black Panther is receiving is well-deserved and can’t be overstated (although I’m positive the internet take economy will inevitably produce some contrarian ‘actually it wasn’t that good’ troll pieces). I caught myself in awe of the story and the amazing performers bringing it to life on multiple occasions.

But as most parents probably understand, I have a hard time watching things through the lens of an adult anymore. I am constantly trying to put myself into the minds of my kids, to understand what they’re thinking or how they’re processing what they’re watching or whether they’re too young for ideas I’m trying to introduce them to. Constant anxiety over whether or not you are screwing up your kids is pretty much neverending.

There are so many elements of the movie that I’m still thinking about and processing, but the relationship I was fixated on throughout was the one between T’Challa and his younger sister Shuri. I saw my son and daughter in them – a stoic, pensive older brother and a brilliant, feisty little sister who are amazing friends, supporters of one another, and reliant on each other. That is exactly the relationship I witness every day between Oliver and Isla.

Beyond that, there was a male hero whose support system and inner circle was comprised almost solely of badass women (and … uh … Tim from the British Office for some reason) who were smart, strong equals who saved him on multiple occasions.

Given the current political climate where there is an administration in power who clearly sees humanity in tiers of worthiness, or where nobody Fox News hosts can show their ass by unsuccessfully trying to chastise one of the biggest celebrities on the planet, Black Panther at the most base level is just a giant middle finger to that worldview.

My son ranked it right behind the Star Wars movies (a minor miracle considering Star Wars has been in a class by itself for him for nearly two years now) and better than any super hero movie he’s watched. My daughter, who spends a good percentage of her free time dressing up as super heroes and performing stealth fighting moves on unsuspecting adults, was in awe of the Black Panther costume.

So obviously, for my kids it wasn’t that deep. They saw it as a great superhero movie with characters they both easily related to without a second thought. And that’s exactly part of its power.

Silence is Privilege

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A couple of weeks ago, I took my kids to play and swim at our apartment pool. As we got closer, something fairly … uh … conspicuous caught my eye: a giant swastika tattoo on the chest of a man in the pool.

I grew up in and spent a lot of my life in mostly rural, “salt of the earth” places, so I’ve become pretty accustomed to how casual white people can be with their racism. But still … seeing it literally carved into a person’s chest is jarring, especially when you have a 7-year-old and a 3-year-old with you. My son noticed as well and asked what it was. I gave a typical parent non-answer, unsure where to start with explaining Nazis to a kid.

A panicked fight-or-flight instinct kicked in. On the one hand, I was by myself with my two small children, children I am very protective of, whose youthful innocence and the infatuation they have with the world around them is a constant source of joy for me. So obviously, we’d just go find something else fun to do.

But I also had this angry urge to shame this person. I don’t know exactly how I would’ve gone about that, but I also feel strongly that too many otherwise decent people are simply silent when it comes to hate – whether out of fear, over-politeness, apathy, or some combination. He deserved to be embarrassed. Innocence is worthy of protecting, but I also don’t want my kids to be sheltered, and I don’t want them to be intimidated or daunted by having to speak hard truths or stand up for things they believe in.

In the end, we just left. Me getting beat up by a Nazi while my kids were in my care wouldn’t have exactly been an exemplary parenting decision.

But tonight, in the face of the awful white terrorism and violence occurring in Virginia, I’ve thought about that moment a lot. I did the wrong thing by ignoring that guy.

*     *     *

I have two younger brothers who are biracial. Their dad was an important part of my life and father figure for me growing up. Living in Lapeer, Michigan, our family stood out – let’s just say that when I was in fourth grade and my black stepdad took me to play basketball at school playgrounds, it was noticed. I was too young to understand the complexities of racism at that age, but I … uh … noticed us being noticed, I guess you could say.

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Steve did too, I’m sure. But no one would ever know it. He was always the friendliest, most outgoing parent in those situations – shaking hands, smiling, making eye contact, saying hello to people, inviting others to come and play with us (interestingly, other kids always wanted to … it was their dads who were resistant). I’m sure people were rude or cold to him, knowing the place we lived. I distinctly remember people crossing the street when we were walking on a sidewalk, then crossing back once they’d passed us on one or two occasions. His positivity and kindness in those public situations never wavered – he made any stranger he ran into feel like a buddy. As a kid, I didn’t notice. As an adult, I think about it constantly – what it would be like to have to be “on” like that all the time, just to do basic things like go to a park and play basketball, or take a walk. As someone who can trend toward painfully introverted in social situations, the thought of having to be that friendly and outgoing to strangers – just to disarm them or keep them from judging you – all the time is anxiety-inducing.

My brothers went to Lapeer Schools and, often, were the only black faces in their classes. They had to assimilate, they had to deal with being treated differently, they had to deal with the idiotic thing that white people do when they act like they can ask racist or offensive questions about black people to their “black friend.” My brother Adrian came home from elementary school one day with a confederate flag sticker – the symbol of treasonous traitors and losers – proudly on his shirt. Adrian was happy that someone had paid attention to him and given him a gift. He thought he’d made a friend, a “friend” who was no doubt laughing behind his back. I was in high school at the time, and I just remember my mom, sister and I sitting around thinking, “how the hell do you explain the shitty thing that just happened to a second grader, and tell him he can’t wear that sticker that he’s excited about?” There are probably countless other experiences that they can share that range from simple ignorance to maliciously racist interactions with people when they were just trying to go to school like everyone else.

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And, as most black people in this country experience at some point in their lives, my brothers were harassed by the police. Dangerously harassed once, in fact. They were about 13 and 12 (or in that range) and playing with toy airsoft guns in my parents’ yard. One of the dogs got out of the house and ran across the street into a field (my family has a long history of having the worst dogs on the planet, but that’s a story for another day). They crossed the street to get him.

By the time they’d got him corralled and back home, multiple local police cars had sped into the driveway and road in front of the house. Someone had called the cops and reported “two black men with guns.” They were children. My brothers, children, were forced to lay face down in the ditch, were handcuffed, had grown officers put their knees in their backs. They were not resisting or doing anything wrong. They were terrified. Thankfully – as if “not being killed” is any reason to be thankful – that’s as far as it went. A state police officer showed up, noticed from far away that the two guns laying on the ground were toys, pointed it out to the yokels who’d cuffed these children, and they were let go with a stern warning to be more careful when playing in their own yard.

I tried to file complaints and get information, FOIA’d the police report just to try and make the officers involved feel ashamed and ultimately, nothing happened. No one really forgot, necessarily, but time has a way of pushing things to the back of your mind.

And then, several years later, Tamir Rice was shot and killed by a police officer in Cleveland. A 12-year-old child who was killed for playing with a toy gun. He was roughly the same age my brothers were that day.

*     *     *

My brothers are smart, talented, funny, grown men (who have EXACTLY the same ripped, muscular physique that I do, it’s weird how genetics work). My kids adore their uncles – they can climb on them, wrestle with them, get thrown around by them and they light up any time we get to visit them. I’m not sure Adrian and Anthony look forward to getting immediately pummeled by two babies (babies who are unafraid to go directly for punches to the groin), but they’re good sports about it.

I love seeing my kids with them, I love that my kids just automatically connect with them and solely see them as nothing but their fun uncles.

But it also makes me think about my own privilege, about things I’ve never had to worry about, about inherent obstacles that Adrian and Anthony have just had to deal with and figure out ways to maneuver around that I never will have to worry about.

It actually isn’t hard to get white people to discuss race. We do it all the time – cable news and the internet are filled with white people (to be more descriptive, mostly white men) who do nothing but tell people of color, women, and the LGBTQIA+ community how to feel about their experiences, what is “real” racism and what isn’t, why they themselves couldn’t possibly be a racist. White men talk too much. (Yes, I get the irony that I, a white man, am writing a wordy blog post about white men talking too much, but if it helps get other white men to shut the fuck up, then it has at least provided a service).

Understanding your own privilege is a starting point. I grew up poor – a long portion of my life was spent in a trailer park with three siblings being raised by a single mother. I had to work nearly full-time in high school (thankfully, my boss ignored the legal limits on hours teenagers could work) to save enough money to have a car, to pay for college. I worked all the way through college just to be able to stay enrolled. I’m still paying student loans off. I’ve rarely taken vacations. My life isn’t luxurious by any stretch.

And I’ve benefited from being born into privilege. As a poor white child, I still lived in a community with well-funded and well-run schools, so I received a good, free, public education. I grew up with people around me who told me that I could, in fact, go to college even though my family couldn’t afford it. I grew up in neighborhoods that were safe, where crime and drugs weren’t major day-to-day presences. I did not grow up fearing the police. As an adult, people listen to me and give me more automatic credibility simply because of what I was born as.

My life hasn’t always been easy, but it has certainly had privileges built in that have removed barriers that minorities, that women, that LGBTQIA+ people face on a daily basis. I could choose to never think about those things – and A LOT of white men do make that choice every day. But just being mindful isn’t enough, that’s what the ugliness in Charlotesville illustrates.

It’s easy to see a guy with a Nazi tattoo and be horrified. But what is more horrifying to me is this picture. Those are just everyday, mayonnaise, white bread joes. They could be your cubicle mate, they could be your neighbor, they could be members of your church. They have the same views – and the same level of comfort espousing them – as the guy who felt the need to carve a symbol of evil into his chest.

Hate isn’t an ideology. Hate isn’t the norm. People aren’t born into this world full of hatred. And even in the face of awful, soul-killing days like today, there is always, always more love in the world than hate.

But don’t be silent. Silence is complicity, and complicity is what normalizes and emboldens people like this.

Be a Feminist for Your Sons, Too

President Obama wrote an essay for Glamour, proudly proclaiming why he is a feminist. The entire thing is beautifully written and worth reading, but this particular passage really stood out to me:

Michelle and I have raised our daughters to speak up when they see a double standard or feel unfairly judged based on their gender or race—or when they notice that happening to someone else. It’s important for them to see role models out in the world who climb to the highest levels of whatever field they choose. And yes, it’s important that their dad is a feminist, because now that’s what they expect of all men.

President Obama is speaking here from the perspective of a father with two daughters. But I’d like to expound on that a bit as a father of both a son and a daughter.

A cliché that I’ve long found grating is the notion that men don’t become more receptive to sexism and gender inequality until they have daughters, then expect some sort of pat on the back for having a way-too-late-in-life epiphany that, hey, maybe you actually shouldn’t treat women like garbage. Here’s a recent example of this phenomenon from former ESPN blogger and epitome of Cool Dad syndrome Bill Simmons, via Sports Illustrated:

“One of the ironies of my life is that I was definitely a chauvinist with men’s and women’s sports before, I’d always make WNBA jokes and stuff like that. And now I’m like a feminist, and it’s all because of her,” he said in reference to his 11-year-old daughter. “In L.A., they have all these academy teams for boys, and the girls are treated like second-class citizens. The fields we have are worse than the boys’, too. It all just drives me f—— crazy.”

In his essay, President Obama pointed out that his early experiences with strong women in his life influenced how he viewed sexism, the glass ceiling and the myriad other challenges women are faced with in our society. I had similar experiences in my life – I’m one of four kids raised primarily by a single mom and my paternal grandmother was one of the strongest women I ever met. She put up with insane behavior from men in her life and held her family together despite unimaginable grief and destructive behavior by people she cared for. Both were extremely influential figures in my adolescence, and I realize not everyone has that same set of experiences, but I still for the life of me can’t understand how someone makes it through life with the sort of blinders on that Simmons displays in that above quote. You don’t realize society is plagued with gender inequities until, well into middle-age for you, your privileged family starts getting involved in youth sports in some bougie suburb?

I’ve always considered myself a feminist and a believer in equity and inclusion, but becoming a parent does make me focus more intently on those responsibilities. It is important as a father of a daughter that I help her learn what she should expect and demand from men she will encounter in any relationship as she grows up – social, professional, romantic or otherwise. But I think too often, discussions of feminism gloss over the importance of fathers teaching their sons those same values – not focusing solely on how to treat women with respect, but how to immediately call attention to or not be passive bystanders to bad or destructive behavior from men in their peer groups.

My son finished kindergarten this year, and I had the opportunity to spend time in his school and in his classroom on multiple occasions. One of those days was field day. He was part of a group that included both boys and girls, rotating to different stations to play games outside. One game – I can’t even explain what the object was, as I’m a pretty useless volunteer and didn’t pay attention when the gym teacher explained all of the game rules to the parents beforehand – required kids taking turns doing something. I think throwing frisbees into a bucket … whatever, they wouldn’t listen to me anyway.

A girl in the line next to ours was getting frustrated because all of the boys who were also in her line weren’t giving her a turn. There was nothing malicious going on – she wasn’t being purposefully picked on or excluded. The kids were excited, she was smaller and shyer than all of the boys, and the overall exuberance of overhyped six-year-olds caused her to get lost in the shuffle. But it’s also the sort of behavior – accidental exclusion, ignoring the needs of others, etc. – that contributes to many boys growing up believing that not knowing a problem exists is a fair excuse for not caring about said problem.

So I talked to Oliver about what was happening. I explained to him that it was important to make sure everyone got a turn. And he immediately went, picked up some frisbees and let her go in front of him in his line. It’s amazing how much sense simple fairness and respect makes to children – that’s by far my favorite aspect of being a parent. Common decency, something adults struggle with on a daily basis, is second nature to children. They naturally want to love and respect each other. It’s adults who eventually ruin that beautiful world kids are trying to show us is super easy to create.

Oliver is incredibly lucky to have women in his life who obliterate any potential for him to give any credence to gender stereotypes, especially one that he’s growing up right next to.

My daughter is only two, and she and my son are already best friends. He has friends who exhibit the stereotypical “no girls allowed” behavior, and occasionally he brings that home. Fortunately, he has a sister who, even at this young age, REFUSES to be excluded, and anything he picks up from boys at school is quickly extinguished at home. And he honors that because, even at his young age, he enjoys being around her and understands that he needs to respect her wishes and interests in order to have a strong friendship with her.

He has a sister who enjoys playing with his WWE wrestlers and superheroes as much as she enjoys wearing princess outfits or putting on tutus and dancing. She’s completely happy to wrestle with him, watch his shows and, when she feels like it, demand that he watch Sofia the First or Frozen with her. They certainly have fights like all siblings do, but not only does he often comply with his younger sister without any protests, there are times when he actually suggests they watch her shows or turns them on for her (she still relies on him for his mastery of the Roku, but I assume she’ll figure that out and further solidify her independence soon).

The beautiful part of their relationship, to me, is how they cooperate. He doesn’t like Sofia the First that much. But he watches it because he enjoys her companionship, respects her and likes making her happy. In turn, she can recite the New Day (she REALLY hits the ‘feel the POWAAHHHH’) entrance theme (along with the Ric Flair ‘Woooooo!’) verbatim because she has fun with him doing things he likes.

Even at their early ages, one is clearly introverted and one is clearly an extrovert. But they love each other and respect each other, so they humor each other. If Isla wants to dance, Oliver … reluctantly … will dance.

That’s the greatest gift being a parent has given me … hope. The times I’ve been able to observe my kids in environments with their peers, things are just … easy. There are no preconceptions, there are no complexities, they are all just nice to each other. Or, when they’re not, they quickly resolve whatever petty issue got in the way of them having fun.

Younger generations are increasingly willing to simply reject the outdated notions we adults continuously effe up. Current news is depressing, and it’s easy to get wrapped up in it. But my kids and their friends have allowed me to just check out. They’ll fix it. I have no worries. My only job is to support them and to tell other adults to wake up and pay attention to the beautiful world they are going to create.