Sports has a way of being a platform to talk about a variety of social issues in profound ways.  Perhaps it’s because in a lot of ways our sports teams, similar to our military, at once encapsulate our society while playing to their own set of rules and expected behavior and culture.   So we hear from former Michigan State Fab Fiver, Indiana Pacer, now ESPN analyst, Jalen Rose who has produced an ESPN documentary about the Fav Five, Michigan State’s 1991 freshman basketball class.  The comments which have sparked such controversy come at the four minute mark as Mr. Rose launches into a tirade about how Duke’s coach, Mike Krzyzewski only recruited black players who were Uncle Toms.*

Ignoring the fact that Coach K actually recruited Chris Webber, one of the Fab Five (and that the Fab Five never won anything and that their lasting contribution was encapsulating and popularizing style over substance), Mr. Rose stuck with his comments** with “we said that to them” as if that’s supposed to make it right.

Of course, Grant Hill, one of the Duke players Mr. Rose played against, had an on point and classy response.   This is an on-going conversation in the black community.  I take the matter personally as Uncle Tom has been an epithet sometimes leveled at me.  I even get the flip side from the white community in the form of me being “the whitest black guy they know.”  This idea of blackness and racial identity prompted a yearlong examination on my blog a while back.

I don’t know if Mr. Rose is even aware of the words that he’s using.  On the one hand he seems to define the kind of recruits Duke went after as economically successful, from two-parent households, educated, with a strong work ethic … as something to be resented.  Not stopping to ask when these attributes became negative experiences or definitions of blackness; and he was oblivious to the fact that his own children fit this description.  Yet at the same time, he goes onto say that Uncle Toms are subservient to whites, sell outs to their race, playing up to white folks, who disavow their culture and people, which is an entirely different issue of self-hate, though no one seems able to pin him down on whether this is how he would characterize his now friend, Grant Hill.

Oh how we love to come up with new ways to denigrate one another and put each other in place:  nigger, bougie, sell out, Oreo, house Negro, Uncle Tom.  Calling another black person an Uncle Tom is not like a black person calling another black person a nigger, though they both have their roots steeped in the long history of hatred.  “Nigger” has become so ubiquitous in our language and music that it is woven into the fabric of who we are as a community. Some people argue that using the word saps it of its power, that by using it we were reclaiming the power of it from those who had used it against us.

It’s gotten to the point where we can call one another a nigger with a familial familiarity, use it as a term of endearment and brotherhood on one hand; and then act shocked when we’ve sent a mixed message to the millions of white folks who buy the hip hop CDs and sing along, repeat the routines of their favorite comedians, or who want to hang out with “their boys” in that way.

No, that word only rationalizes the internalization of hatred. It perpetuates the legacy of hate, in one powerful word encompassing the history of slave ships to Jim Crow. The word is the penultimate form of dehumanizing, the spit-in-your-face kind of assault to one’s sense of dignity and self-worth.  And it’s that same spit-in-your-face level of vitriol “Uncle Tom” can arouse when one black person aims that epithet at another.  Because where nigger marks one as less human, Uncle Tom marks them as less black.

The frustrating part is that the idea of Uncle Tom bumps up against the idea that being from the hood is the real definition of blackness.  This “true” black experience of our culture too often reflects the self-hatred that comes from living a nihilistic existence and ignores the reality that we have more than one story or definition of us.  In this way, class plays as much a role in defining a culture as anything else, and there is the burgeoning folks whose blackness strays to something more middle class. And for our troubles, we enjoy a different epithet: Bougie.

It’s that tension of being accused of forgetting where we’ve come from vs. remembering where we’ve come from … but wanting to get the hell out.  Bougie, as an epithet, strikes me as a reaction to the idea of betraying community, a term to keep us in line as we’re policed by other bougies projecting their black insecurities. The Blacker than thou crowd demonstrating their superiority by shaming us back in line with their charges of “Uncle Toms” and “Bougie”.

Like being called bougie—which was probably the epithet Mr. Rose would have been better off reaching for and might have better served his weak point—it’s an attempt to pigeonhole a group, people who don’t fit perfectly into some predetermined cultural box, and not allow for split cultures and interests. As if no one is allowed to like things not seen as “black”.  “Uncle Tom” is the language of the arrogant, entitled, and immature.  It points to a level of assimilation, having grown up in the dominant culture. It points to how large our class problem is, often trumping our race problem as we assume that only one group can have middle class values or any kind of middle class culture … as opposed to redefining the boundaries of that culture.  And it points to our continuing confusion as to who we are (and who we can be).

Ironically, the men Jalen Rose and Grant Hill are today aren’t that different.  When our children are in such great need of road maps and role models of success, we don’t want to be  reduced to some “blacker than thou” argument that only ends up seeming to pit the educated against the uneducated, the middle class bourgeoises against the poor. However, I can’t stand how quick we can be to toss around epithets like “sell out” or “house Negro” or “Oreo” whenever someone breaks with our accepted group think, be it via philosophy, idea, or political agenda.

Every people has a story to tell. When all is said and done, “blackness” (any racial identity) is about shared story. A story that defines us and continues to form us. When stories are reduced to law or dogma, their vitality is drained. When people no longer tell or listen to others’ stories, they become locked in their provincial mindset, cultural ghettos of their own making. In fact, when people become so removed from another’s story, they become compelled to destroy those (other’s) stories for they suggest other ways of living. Their stories become a threat.

I’m raising biracial children and my dream is for them to be free of the b.s., free of the hate, free of the baggage of history (but not its lessons).  Part of that history is how hard we fought for the right of equal education.  Education is the silver bullet against cycle of poverty, not something to be looked down upon as somehow “acting white.”

I’ll leave you with a few words from Chris Broussard as he breaks it down for real.

*Hatred for Duke, mind you, is completely okay.  They earned my scorn back in the early 1990s.  I often say that forgiveness takes time, but I still haven’t worked through forgiving them for defeating UNLV or UK (I don’t care if many consider it the greatest game ever played).

**Before anyone is too quick to launch into saying their words were taken out of context, Jimmy King was on ESPN essentially reiterating this and Chris Webber, well, I’m still not sure what point he was making on his blog.