“How about those Illini this weekend, huh?” Brandon said. I had been expecting this question. Every Monday, Brandon would pop his head into my office for a quick sports chat.
“Yeah, they really brought it,” I answered, “but I’m worried about next week.”
“Are you kidding me?” Brandon exclaimed. “Did you see that offense? Three hundred yards in the first half!”
“Yeah, against IU. But they’re going to have to step it up big time to run with Iowa.”
“We’ll see, we’ll see,” Brandon replied, ever the optimist. “Hey, did you ever play ball?” he asked.
“A bit,” I said, suddenly feeling the need to get back to work. “When I was in school.”
“I thought so. What position?”
I typed a few words before answering, “Corner.”
“Hey, I was a receiver!”
And so we dove into an entirely unnecessary conversation about the fine points of each position and how they countered each other. It was the sort of conversation I had been obligated to have many times in the past, and it always felt like an accident, a distraction.
Growing up in the middle class Midwest, I was used to having a lot of white friends. For many of them, I was the token black friend. We never paid much attention to those distinctions for most of elementary, but they started coming more and more into focus when our age reached double digits. My friend Charlie Bridger would ask if we were homeboys and wanted to know if I listened to rap. He had started listening to rap, and seemed to think it explained who I was. The habit got increasingly annoying until one day when we were in middle school. He was hanging out in front of the building when I arrived and greeted me enthusiastically. “Brian! What’s up my ni—”
Before Charlie could even finish the word, I jumped him. I had heard him quote rap lyrics that dropped the N word plenty of times, and it had always bothered me. “It’s a black guy who says it,” he would explain, “so it’s okay.” But my family had raised me to understand that word’s history and to hate it. So when that word was actually directed at me, I snapped. Neither Charlie nor I were particularly good at fighting, but our scuffle was still fierce. We both ended up with bloody noses and a bunch of scrapes.
“Now Charlie,” the principal said, “you need to understand that the sort of language you used is not appropriate. Just because you heard it in a song, that doesn’t mean you should use it at school or with your friends.”
“And Brian, it’s understandable that you got upset, but you need to find better ways of dealing with your problems. Violence is a dangerous path, and it can destroy your entire future. You understand?”
He dismissed Charlie, whose parents had already arrived to take him home for the rest of the day, but he asked me to stay behind. A moment later, Mr. Schaeffer, the gym teacher walked in. “Alright Brian,” the principal said, “how about we channel some of that aggression?”
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
“Football of course!” Mr. Schaeffer boomed.
So I ended up as a cornerback, where the long legs of my early growth spurt were put to good use. It turns out that a lot of the black boys in the school were on the football team. I hadn’t been particularly close to many of them before, but we ended up spending a lot of time together now that we were teammates.
“You talk funny,” a bulky seventh grader named Marcus said to me in the locker room one day.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You talk like you white,” another kid named Jarell said.
I shrugged and answered, “I talk like I talk.”
“Ain’t your dad white?” Jarell continued.
“You think you better than us?” Marcus asked, glowering at me.
“I don’t think I’m better than anybody,” I said, hurrying to pack up my stuff. “I gotta go.”
That was the day I started learning to talk “black.” Even as a middle schooler, I understood that it was all a game. My Grandpa Stewart was much darker than me and had actually grown up in the inner-city, but he talked “whiter” than I did. His powerful way of expressing himself was what made him a successful politician. And obviously I would still be considered black no matter how I talked, but it was easier to deal with people if I matched what they expected.
As it turns out, I wasn’t very good at football. The coaches scratched their head, wondering why the tall black kid who was reportedly prone to aggression wasn’t actually very fast and didn’t hit very hard. After warming the bench for three years, I finally relieved them of their confusion and quit playing.
But the real game wasn’t over—the game of meeting expectations. Around some people, I still talk black, though never around my family. Talking sports is another way I fit in. The truth is, I haven’t watched a University of Illinois game all year, but I’ve memorized the Big 10 standings, and I looked up some talking points about how the season has been going. It’s a habit I developed back when I was selling farming equipment for Agrimode. Any path I could take to build rapport with a farmer came in handy. Sometimes that meant talking about animals and crops, other times it meant talking sports. It was pretty much impossible to sell equipment in the state of Nebraska without being able to say something positive and informed about the Cornhuskers. Now, I keep up with the Illini because it’s easier to fit in at work with people like Brandon if I just care about sports the way I’m “supposed to.”
I enjoy football. At least, I think I do. I liked playing it with my friends before I joined the team, my dad and I would often watch football on the weekend, and I had fun going to games I while I was in college. But football has also become a reminder of all the ways that people find me insufficient. Too black, not black enough, too white, not white enough, too aggressive, not aggressive enough. I can wear masks to cover up these problems, but that just makes it hard to tell what’s authentic and what’s performance. Maybe the two will eventually start to resemble each other. But then what’s the real me?