assholes and elbows

Like a lot of white kids of my generation, I was introduced to race relations through the miniseries Roots. So yep, the self-loathing started early. Mom did what she could to help it along. Not that I wasn't fascinated like everyone else was, but she made it clear that viewing was mandatory.

"I'm making Johnny watch Roots," she would explain to perfect strangers, apparently hoping they were on the Parent of the Year nominating committee. And during our viewings, she made sure that I identified with the slavemasters whipping Kunta Kinte. "Do you see how horrible we are?" she would say gravely.

"What did I do?!" My confusion was legitimate. I didn't own an Atari, let alone a person. And if asked which end of the whip I more strongly identified with, I would have said Kunta's.

She was well-meaning in her efforts to sow the seeds of accountability, but talk about getting blood out of a rock. In the end, all it sowed was the sense that my mom was daft.

As I grew older, I realized that she also was protesting too much. Whereas my dad was old school "I'm not racist" racist, dropping n-bombs whenever someone dark cut him off in traffic, or whenever he thought they might, Mom was the "I have black friends" sort of racist typical of her generation. Me, I simply had black friends. I wasn't exactly bragging about it. I was just as ashamed of them as I was all my white friends.

There. That's my contribution to post-raciality. If you really think about it, I'm a hero.

What I didn't do was grow up color-blind. Between Mom's posturing and my later being the white guy in my neighborhood, I had no chance of that. Race wasn't so much the subtext of my life as an unwanted conversation from which I could not extricate myself. I wanted, really, was to be able to elbow black guys in the mouth without being thought a racist.

And throw elbows I did. For several glorious years of my life, I mooched off my girlfriend and played basketball as often as my knees would allow. I was a below average player on that court, consistently the sixth or seventh player picked. I made up for my slowness and, oh, let's say inconsistent jump-shot with defense, passing, picks and an unrivaled repertoire of cheap shots. Often I would get selected just because the guy wanted me hacking someone other than himself. I remain oddly proud of that.

If you went over my back on a rebound—and this was an exceptionally easy thing to do—you would taste elbow. If you were covering my teammate, I would gleefully lay you out with a pick—sometimes a pick of dubious legality. If you tried to dunk on me, you did not land on your feet; I made damned sure there was no second attempt. And there was a bench abutting the edge of our court that was christened "the Egger bench," after me. I used it as a sixth defender. You would be bringing the ball up that side of the court, dribbling full speed, and I would herd you into it. Pow.

"And I'll take Egger!" said the guy with bloody shins next time. Cheap shots were my great equalizer, and I was color-blind when dispensing them. I am very highly evolved that way.

Tensions ran high on that court, and I was often at the epicenter. "Motherfucker" was the favored pronoun referencing me. If I really laid out, say, d'Andre, I did what I could to assuage any tensions.

"Race war!" I would bellow over his broken body.

"Fuck. You."

Witty repartee aside, I was mindful that someone, somewhere was going to infer the wrong intent on my part. My elbow was an asshole, not a racist. But it happened occasionally, and d'Andre or Wilson would have to take an enraged black guy aside and explain that I got some latitude. I don't really know what was said in those conversations. It didn't seem like my place to participate. In my imagination, my friends said "Just let it go. He'll start hacking all of us. Especially his teammates."

The one person positively guaranteed to taste elbow was another white guy. That poor bastard. He was my chance to prove that I was an equal opportunity cheap-shot artist, and I never failed to take it. He got it worse than anyone.

"WHAT IS YOUR DEAL?" he would exclaim.

"It's not personal," I would reply.

It was worse than personal. I was putting a little something extra on it because of the color of his skin. And decades later, I'm still somehow okay with this. I mean, did you see Roots? Did you see how horrible this guy was?

I await my Nobel Prize.