Warning: There will be descriptions of sports and people playing sports. I don’t know how to do either.
When handed your newborn, there simply isn’t time to stereotype your baby. But don’t fear, you’ll get to it.
Admittedly, the blank canvas of an hours-old human with that new-person smell fairly begs you to swaddle their future with fabulous expectations. As excited and exhausted new parents, imagining who your baby will grow up to be is as playful and harmless as trying on improbable hats.
Because Grace was adopted, no one uttered, ‘She has her dad’s eyes and her mom’s eczema’, but because Grace was born with long muscular arms and six pack abs and Black, they’d envision boundless futures for her.
‘The Next Serena Williams’, ‘The New Mo’ne Davis’ and ‘The Tyra Banks/Oprah of the 21st century’ were all floated by infatuated relatives as possible futures for our six pounds of Grace.
Within weeks it became evident Grace inherited her birth mother’s long elegant neck, cheeks so full they might store acorns, and massive sparkling Coca Cola-dark eyes tinged with a hint of melancholy.
Within a year, Grace’s height and weight broke all records, she outgrew baby clothes before we could take the pricetags off them, and her dexterity startled everyone but us- we didn’t have anyone to measure her against.
Tongue poking out of her tooth-free mouth, Grace killed drooly hours of babyhood screwing and unscrewing the elaborately threaded top on a water bottle. She was eight months old. Grace refused to walk until she could run. When she ran eloquent circles around the other kids, parents pulled us aside, uttering:
PARENTS: Hello! Can you spell college scholarship?
A relentless, ruthless competitor Grace killed it in soccer since she was three, regularly cleans her dad’s clock in chess and only puts on her pajamas and brushes her teeth if we time her and let her try to beat last night’s time.
At six, Grace believed soccer had nothing left to teach her and campaigned hard for Pee-Wee basketball. She wanted the trophy, new uniform and because bff Marty was playing. Since her birth grandfather was a 6′ 7″ semi-pro basketeer, we sauntered into the team evaluations. Well, I sauntered. Grace skipped.
Lining her up with Silver Lake’s best white hopes for hoops, I tried to not act like the mom who’s bringing the ringer, despite soaking in it. Aside from a few Hispanic and Filipino kids, or to use Grace’s terminology, ‘light brown-ish people’, Grace was the only ‘more browner person’ there.
The coaches were all white, save one inchy Filipino guy maybe 5′ 2″. We also ran into old friends, whose son Walter was a year older and a foot shorter than Grace and also trying out for a team. I’m ashamed that a nugget of smug took root in my heart.
Bleachered with other parents, we publicly cheered and silently ached for the kids who played as if this was their first time holding a ball while walking. Pondering the rando nature of talent, I winced in anticipation of crimes being committed against sport as Walter took the ball. All previous assumptions based on height, race and creed were soon rendered baseless, as all prejudice is when confronted. Walter dominated like a wedding cake-top sized LeBron, pivoting midcourt, barely eyeing the basket, casually dropping a three pointer. Even the net was shocked.
His diminutive parents shrugged haplessly. Pale as only an indoorsy artist and a writer can be, they seemed baffled to be parenting a puny 6 year-old basketball prodigy. “Sometimes we wonder where he’s really from, cuz he’s so not of our Jewish loins” she muttered. Suddenly, her eyes widened, face reddened and she uttered the 400th unnecessary apology we’ve heard since becoming a transracial family.
Grace was next. Tongue poking out, Grace committed no unforced errors, nor was she a sudden-onset Mo’ne Davis. When they asked her to shoot, she pulled a full Jackie Moon and came within five feet of hitting the rim.
The uniform didn’t excite her as much as the team name – The Fire-Eating Dragons. During practice, Coach Mia was unflappably patient, despite Marty’s predilection for running full-bore into the padded walls behind the hoop. Walter was also on Grace’s team, but he wasn’t there for friends or laughs, he was there to basketball.
First quarter, first game, with the ball in actual play, Grace suddenly sat on my lap, whining about a mosquito bite on her arm. Her coach, team, ref, opposing team, opposing coach and all parents gaped as I fiercely blushed and scratched her itch.
ME: I’m no king of sports, but I’m pretty sure leaving your team in the middle of a game is uncool. Doesn’t teamwork makes the dream work? I’ve also heard there’s no ‘I’ in team.
Crazy things run through one’s mind when one’s child does not behave according to plan or prejudice. Not wanting to be the Tonya Harding sports mom bullying my kid to grow a pair, nor did I want to be the coddling white helicopter mom to her fragile child of color, I settled on a strategy: ignore her till she goes back in the game.
Two minutes later she was beaned in the noggin by the ball. Tearing off her jersey, she threw herself on my still warm lap and quit. My face re-heated to the steamed lobster hue it had just been. I beg-threaten-bargained with Grace in a fierce whisper I hadn’t used since my last holy confession.
ME: I’m really sorry you’re hurt, but how’s about we explore shaking it off? At least finish the game. You can’t let down your team. I mean, you can, but it would be so much cooler if you don’t. Please don’t give up on you. And them. Okay, don’t do it for them. Do it for me.
GRACE: Mom. Basketball hurts. You don’t want me to hurt, do you?
After administering an ice cold Coke Zero to her non-existent head wound, I bribed her into finishing the game for twenty dollars. Never have I been more grateful for 8 minute quarters and 24 minute games in my life. The Dragons lost 8 to 2 and the only one covered in flop sweat was me.
The rest of the season was spent ignoring Grace with bags covering my lap, because she interpreted eye contact and an empty lap as a tacit invitation to stomp off court in high dudgeon or artificial pain. As Grace sulked on my lap, I’d watch Walter’s indomitable defiance in the face of not having anything genetic going for him, as my child, with everything genetic going for her, begged me to let her play Candy Crush on my phone. This time I pushed her off my lap and bribed her with ten bucks.
She was going to suck but she wasn’t going to suck sitting on my lap. If she was going to suck, she was going to suck in the game, with her super-sucky team.
Over the season Grace’s game improved in that she stopped leaving mid-game. If the ball accidentally landed in her hands, she passed it to Walter or Mercy, a large, Latina, slightly cross-eyed flat-footed girl with unbelievable hair and the menacing glare of a Pee-Wee Patrick Bateman as she drilled down court, flattening anyone who dared to block her or just didn’t have the sense to get out of her way. It dawned on me like a sunrise of shame: full of other people’s expectations of Grace based on her lineage and her race, I racially profiled my own child.
All remaining racial preconceptions were face-washed by the inchy Filipino coach’s team, the Filipino kids no other coach picked. Parents gaped as the fun-sized Asian kids CREAMED everyone else. With the speed of tadpoles, they zipped around full-size lumbering 6 year-olds, but their shooting prowess left us all slack-jawed.
Not just content to racially profile my child based on her race’s propensity for talented athletes and her family genes, I managed to racially profile ALL the children.
After Grace went to bed, I illuminating the darker corners of my heart. With the help of podcasts, books and a Black activist, I educated myself. Sadly, the seemingly innocuous compliments of Grace’s body, lineage, and assumptions about her abilities was a pleasant and acceptable objectification of the other, the one who is not us. What if she just happens to be excellent at math and shows no interest in hip hop, double-dutch or Beyonce? This very human tendency has a name: social discrimination. And, if we aren’t trained not to, many of us automatically use acceptable compartmentalization techniques to group people based on race, religion, status, sexual preference and/or perceived disability.
Seemingly harmless, social discrimination quietly diminishes the accomplishments of others based on what has been collectively assumed is their race’s safe and acceptable contribution to society , whether it’s math (Asian), sports (Black) and/or entertainment (also Black). For the record, folks, telling a Black person that they are ‘articulate’ is not a compliment. People of color hear the unsaid, ‘for a Black person’ at the end of that sentence. And colorblindness only exists in the truly blind. My husband and I have been called racist (only by white people) for acknowledging that our daughter is of a different race than us. Pro-tip: try treating each person of color you meet the way you treat people of your color: as if they are a completely complex individual that you can’t compartmentalize as a jock, genius or asshole until you actually know them better.
After the season took pity on me and mercifully ended, Grace won the ‘Most Improved’ trophy, for remaining on the court for the duration of three or four entire games. Season two is a year away. This time I know better than to have any expectations. About anyone. Myself included.