Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Racist Anti-Racist

Oxymorons. Gotta love them. I strive to become one. Oxymorons are about defying stereotypes, turning conventions upside down, proudly flaunting contradictions, and being human. The line between an oxymoron and a moron is day and night, red pill and blue; oxymorons laugh at the face of criticism and judgment, morons are by the book, seek order and fit in.

At first glance, there is nothing inherently oxymoronic about sports culture. The couple years before coaching, I spent my time exclusively around political leftists and organizing circles, debating the merits of anarchism versus Marxism or united front versus popular front, all the while building organizations to fight against *insert fucked up issue here* (citywide budget cuts, workplace oppression, illegal detention centers, police brutality). Like reading a line from a script by a revolutionary playwright, personal introductions ran like I'm anti-racist, third world feminist, for workers' liberation, for democracy from below...oh yeah, did I mention that I'm also for queer and trans liberation, how silly of me to forget. As the months went by and I became involved in new campaigns, it seemed like I would add more adjectives in my self-descriptive introductions. It was preaching to the choir, or to those new or apart from the scene, what the fuck? I knew more about Huey Newton and Malcolm X than Michael Jordan and Lebron James. The idea of sports culture repulsed me to my core. Everything about the culture went against my 'revolutionary ascetic': the elitism of jocks, the hierarchical militarism of coaching, the homophobia, the machismo, the privilege. This culture created the bullies who drove me suicidal and depressed in my younger years.

Naturally then, when I joined the coaching staff of a high school basketball program, these stereotypes rang true. Like a lone ship battling against Poseidon's vicious storm, I felt like having to navigate myself in a sea of 'morons'. The heaviest anchor weighing me down was the racism that I both saw and felt. The school I work at is situated in the North End of Seattle, economically better off than Central and South Seattle. According to Wikipedia, 60% of the school is white and only 9% black. On the ground, the ratio of whites to blacks feels even more pronounced. The basketball program reflected these demographics.

The first impressions I got from the head varsity coach didn't exactly assuage my feeling. With film favorites like Team America and Scary Movie, the man is crude humor epitomized. Apart from comics by profession, this coach packs more humor line-by-line than Slim Shady when he is not instructing. The catch is, like Trey Parker and Matt Stone, there are no bounds for him, and, race is, when I'm around, a go-to topic of his. All my facial features, from mustache to eyes, have been subject to the laughs of all players. When he needs a computation of number of hours that players should be conditioning per week, I'm the go-to guy during practice. Aren't you Asians supposed to be good at these things? During one of our pregame talk sessions, while waiting for our varsity guys to gather around, he drew a penis to the side of the white board. Spotting it, one of the players asked him what the drawing was. He said it was an amplified projection of my penis, but he needed a magnifying glass to view it because it was so small. No limits for him, but he is funny and, to his credit, indiscriminate on his targets. He'll make fun of little kids at Hoop Camp to their face as he will his newly born daughter. I expect you guys to deny all penetration in the paint, like I will deny penetration to my daughter when she's all grown up on her prom night. Who the fuck really says this? Think the classic Samuel L. Jackson from Pulp Fiction and The Boondocks cast as Coach Carter and you'll get a sense of who this guy appears to be on the surface. Suffice it to say, my anti-racist proclivity, hardened through the previous couple years of organizing, made me feel extremely uncomfortable around him and reinforced the 'moronic' one-dimensional culture of sports that intimidated and drew me away.

Actions speak louder than words. I have always heard and used this adage in the context of a person who walks the talk and practices what they believe. Activists who talk the talk but fail to walk are disdained as 'armchair revolutionaries' or worse, 'mactivists' who mistake picking up women for organizing with them. Pastors frequently remind congregations that faith without actions is dead. There's a reason why organizers and pastors repeat this theme. The 'cause' requires intense dedication but the practitioners often meander, setting limits to their walk (as long as it doesn't involve too much of my money or time). So it came as a complete shock when I discovered that the principle was also true when words ran entirely contrary to one's actions. To knowingly say one thing, but to do another. A true oxymoron.

And that is exactly what the head varsity coach is. An oxymoron. A walking contradiction. For under the veneer of a frat boy-who-never-aged racist jokester was an anti-racist man in practice. Coaching basketball has been the most challenging activity of my life. Last year, my first, was the most difficult. Since I had minimal exposure to the game of basketball prior to coaching, I underwent a literal baptism under fire. The parents were brutal. One in particular would get other parents rallying against me during games, snickering at me and giving me dirty looks whenever opponents scored. Others would, in a typical Seattlelite fashion, passive aggressively give me looks, offer to volunteer their coaching experience, and/or fail to acknowledge me altogether. After an away game in which we were blown out by the opponent, the parent refused to allow their son to ride home on the team bus (a mandatory policy), bluntly telling me that I needed to learn how to score against that particular zone defense that shut us down before their child should have me as their coach. A few nights later, the parent went directly to the varsity coach (whom I was beside at the time) and told him that I should not be a coach in a reputable boys' basketball program, I had no experience, I was a babysitter when the job required a leader, and that all I did was yell at the kids without purpose. I'll never forget the coach's response. Here's the deal. When you say that Veryl's doing a poor job, you're saying that I'm doing a poor job. Is that what you're saying to me, m'aam? Because that's what I'm hearing. That shut the parent up for the rest of the season and prompted them to join the passive aggressive jeering section of the audience.

This one experience was NOT an anomaly. Parents at the varsity level questioned his ability to run a successful basketball program because of my hiring. His job was on the line and the school administration was involved. I still don't fully understand why I was offered the coaching position, and, like the parents' attitudes last year, to this day I think it was a crazy hire. Him and I recently conversed about this and he told me, I don't say this to many people, but Veryl, you're the type of guy I would lose my job over. I don't give a shit what others think. I know what I'm doing. I'm all about effort and attitude, and you've got those both.

In my time organizing with anti-racists, the quality guys who walked the talk were the ones who listened to me and trained me to be a leader. It was important to break the perception of the model minority, and I credit them for my transformation from a docile yes-man to a free-thinking public speaker. This coach has done no less. In a profession dominated by anything but Asian, he stood alone defending me against valid complaints and redirecting my focus from the haters to the learning process and the growth. He inspired confidence in me, believed in my character and potential instead of judging my skin color, saw through and willingly broke the stereotypical projection to which I actually embodied having no athletics experience, and in the process, allowed me to experience and achieve something I had never even dreamed of doing. I absolutely love the game.

Some morons turn out to be oxymorons. Perhaps they never were, and I was the moron in thinking so. This year has been a markedly different experience, with many of last year's crop of parents coming around and supporting me. As I become a better coach, I hope to shatter more stereotypes among athletes, parents, and others I meet. It is the life force of an oxymoron. But I will never forget the racist anti-racist who started it all.

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