Familiarity breeds contempt, goes the old saying. What a colossal falsehood.
Familiarity is the only thing that will save the planet and its people from terrorism, ethnic cleansing, racial wars, religious wars, land disputes, gender hostility, gay phobias, nationalist fevers, and the thousand and one other prejudices and wedges that have for so long served to divide humans as if they were different species doomed to devour each other as part of the natural way of things.
Crossing borders of all kinds—whether geographic, cultural, racial, religious or whathaveyou—is always and everywhere the precursor to understanding, acceptance, and appreciation of others, not merely in their otherness, but in the far more vast expanse of commonality we share as humans.
Familiarity also corrodes ignorance, breaks it down, renders it stupid and passé. Not always and in every case, and often not soon enough, but the trend is inexorable. The world and its divisions are slowly shrinking.
We cannot easily disdain African-Americans when our child marries one, or consider gays to be sinful when our child comes out as one.
In most such instances—hello Dick Cheney, how ya doin’ Rob Portman?—the formerly prejudiced person’s views undergo a sea change. Nothing like a little first-person experience of light to make you see your former prejudice was just a shadow on the wall that you mistook for something of substance.
I grew up in Eagle Rock, a suburb close to downtown Los Angeles and abutting Pasadena, but we had exactly one black person in my combined junior and senior high school, and he didn’t enroll until my senior year. (This was the ‘60s, when “negro” was on the way out and “African-American” had not yet arrived.)
So my exposure to black people would have been virtually zero in those formative years were it not for the Love brothers, Benny and John. No, they were not a singing group. Yes, they were real brothers, yes, their last name was indeed Love, and yes, they were also “bruthas,” in that familiar way blacks began referring to each other at the time (and which whites who had passed certain informal tests of acceptance were allowed to use with them).
The Loves were large men, 6”4” or so, thick bodies, very dark skin, deep voices, and a raging love for basketball that saw them come over from Pasadena many Saturdays and most every Sunday all year round for open gym play at our high school, one of the few in the area to offer such access.
The Loves were probably in their early 30s, major gym rats, serious demeanors, and they exuded quite the imposing air for us skinny 16-and-17-year-old white high school kids who hadn’t much encountered black people in our lives.
The Loves had spread the word about our open gym and were most always joined by a number of other bruthas who showed up in fits and starts to wage serious competitive battle in half-court pickup games that invariably seemed to take on the intensity of an NBA playoff game.
At first, all these grown black men descending on our white kids’ sparkling, spacious gym had an air of the exotic about it. But soon enough, after extended bumps and bangs and the trading of hard breaths and sweat and arguments over foul calls with seven others in a tight half-court quadrant, it was no longer exotic, it was just basketball.
The encounters went on for several years, even after my cronies and I graduated and went on to play college ball where we encountered many other blacks in many other circumstances, but still came back for weekend pickup games with the Love brothers at the old alma.
Over the years, here’s what became evident as one weekend of hoops combat turned to the next: After you’ve repeatedly mixed it up in close quarters with people, whether on the basketball court with blacks, your own home with your kid who turns out to be gay, or shaving daily in the barracks next to someone—who is black, and gay!—there’s not really much “otherness” left. The “other” and alien get dwarfed by the common passion of basketball, or family life, or your allegiance to your unit and country in military life.
Object becomes subject: living, breathing, perspiring, recreating, hoping, occasionally cranky subject. Not so much unlike you.
So then what’s up with Donald Sterling, he of the now infamous, “Why do you bring black people to my games?” plaint?
Sterling certainly mixed with countless black people over many years as owner of an NBA franchise and longtime landlord, so lack of exposure cannot explain his appalling prejudices.
I suspect, however, that the two key words above are “owner” and “landlord.”
Listening to his rant, I can’t help but think Sterling found himself dropped into the wrong century in a tightly sealed container, about 200 years after the glory days of the plantation owner he fathoms himself to be, revealed in these lines late in the tape:
“You just, do I know? I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them? Do I know that I have—Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game? Is there 30 owners that created the league?”
Sterling, for all his wealth and previous stature, reveals himself here as a pitiful man, so far removed and detached from both reality and the riches to be gleaned from fearless and authentic engagement with others that one feels almost sorry for the true impoverishment of his life, laid low now at 80 years old, banished, scorned, the object of worldwide ridicule.
People often question the importance and relevance of sports. I am among those questioners, thinking the incessant pre-and-post game “analyses” ridiculously overboiled, the 24/7 sports talk radio drone nothing short of pathetic.
That said, sports is matched perhaps only by the military as a kind of incubator and model for the melding of people from all races, places and stations in life. Sports is the great leveler, not quite a perfect meritocracy, since nothing human can be perfect, but perhaps close as we come in this forever struggling world.
Shoot a sweet enough jumper or muscle enough rebounds and there will be a place for you on most every court you come across. Sports was ahead of the culture in accepting blacks, though far slower, given its top-heavy masculine ethos, in giving gays a seat on the locker room bench. (Even that is changing now, helped along by the more progressive stance adopted by the military, with the government’s not inconsiderable help.)
When I went to my first pro basketball game in quite a few years in Oakland over the Christmas holidays, I couldn’t help but notice the utterly diverse crowd—young and old, Asian and African-American, Latino and white, as many females as males. It was boisterous and polyglot, joined and glowing in yellow shirts to cheer on the multi-racial, multi-national team that represented them, truly, in the broad range of their heritage.
This is the world that is still being born, that has been dancing to far different tunes in far brighter lights than the one-note, darkened visions of Donald Sterling and his dying times.
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“One Tribe,” the Black Eyed Peas proclaim. And so we are…
Thanks to the photographers:
Rotating banner photos top of page courtesy of Elizabeth Hamlin, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Peapod photo by Koshy Koshy, Faridabad, Haryana, India, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/kkoshy/
Basketball crowd shot courtesy of Mr. Fooji, Wollongong, Australia, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/kevy47/