White Assumptions Need Sidelining
Sun., Dec. 29, 1996
A white man stared at a tall African-American man in front of him. The white man turned backward toward me. We were boarding a flight to Atlanta. “I’ll bet he’s got some rebounds in those legs,” the white man said to me.
My response signaled stern annoyance. “He could be a surgeon, you know,” I said.
The white man, stunned that I did not shuffle to his jivin’, stammered, “Hey, I was only kidding.”
By chance, my seat to Atlanta was next to the African-American man. He was Darryll Rasberry, 26, of Kingsport, Tenn. “I heard that fellow say something about my legs,” Rasberry said. “I can’t think of a day in my life that went without someone asking me if I play or played basketball. In the last six months, I’ve easily been asked hundreds of times if I play basketball. Maybe only two people have asked me in the same time what my job is. And you’re one of them.”
It’s so bad that Rasberry ought to have a tape ready to blare at his inquisitors. A tape with sports arena excitement. “Aaaaaand nowwww, at center, the center of the paper plant, at 6 feet, 7 inches, from North Caroliiiiina State! They call him the Engineer … Darryllllll, Rasssssberreee!”
Rasberry is an engineer. He develops better grades of computer paper. Almost no stranger finds out. They never ask. Tall as he is, he often might as well be invisible.
“People asking me if I played basketball does not bother me as much as after I tell them my job,” Rasberry said. “Nine times out of 10, the conversation just stops. Of the 10 percent who keep talking, half of them are in disbelief.
“What gets me is their persistence of the line they think they’ve got on you. One guy, after I told him I was an engineer, said, ‘You’ve got to play basketball, you must have played basketball.’ Another guy asked me if I went to college on a basketball scholarship. I said no. I told him that I did earn a four-year scholarship. He said, ‘Football?’ I said no. He said, ‘Baseball?’ I said, no, it was an academic scholarship. His mouth just stayed open.”
Rasberry was raised in Pine Bluff, Ark., by a single mother who cuts up chickens on the Tyson assembly line. But the mother had spent two years in college before having children and made sure her children got an education.
Rasberry was so good at math that he was tracked into a special achievers program. Participants got to meet then-Gov. Bill Clinton. Despite the clear criteria of brains to get in the program, Rasberry said the first question to him from the future president of the United States was:
“Do you play sports?”
Rasberry said the stereotype of tall black man as more jock than engineer tainted the start of his career. He said he now has respect on the floor, but that was after months of waiting for white colleagues to accept his analysis and recommendations, compared to white colleagues who were trusted right out of college. Some of those same colleagues did not hesitate to ask him to be at the center of production in company basketball.
In addition, Rasberry said many white strangers address him in ways he knows they would not address a white person of serious business. He said, “I get a lot of ‘Hey man’s,’ like, ‘Hey man, how tall are you?’ or ‘What team do you play for, man?’ or ‘Hey man, I’ve seen you on TV.’ or ‘Hey man, you gotta play ball, tall as you are.”’
In truth, Rasberry feels lucky he did not become tall until late in high school. He grew so fast and late, he was too awkward for sports. “All the other kids I knew who were already tall were guided, prompted and prodded into picking up a basketball,” he said. “That’s all society tells them they can do. A lot of the tall kids I knew now work at the local prison as guards, guarding our people at $7 an hour.”
Rasberry said the white people who value his mind before his body stand out, like a college classmate who once told Rasberry’s father that he envied Darryll because schoolwork seemed to come twice as easy to him. Other than that and his hard-earned respect at work, Rasberry is the tall black man who is forever reminded how short white culture sells him.
“One person asked me what sports do I play,” Rasberry said. “I said I play golf. He said, ‘What’s your handicap?’ I said, ‘My height.”’
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