Early Spring, 1991.
I was in my final year as an undergraduate student in college and heavily involved in what I hoped would be my life’s work: working with children.
In this case, I was heavily involved in coaching baseball and softball, and had been for several years despite my young age (23).
Although I was the manager of my brother’s Little League baseball team that Spring, for some reason I wanted to coach softball as well; to keep myself busy and occupied and continue to obtain the necessary experience that was needed for my career plans…
Which was to either become a social studies teacher or a P.E. teacher/coach, or both.
So imagine my feeling that a golden opportunity had revealed itself when I took a look at my college newspaper and found an announcement that a girls’ softball team from a different little league from where I was coaching my brother was looking for someone to join its coaching staff.
I wasted no time in calling the number listed in the ad that evening, confident that I would impress the person doing the hiring with my knowledge of softball.
On the other end of the line was a woman who was the manager of the team, which consisted of nine, ten, and 11-year olds. She informed me that as she was a parent who volunteered to coached and wasn’t too experienced in softball, she was looking for someone who was and could teach her charges how to play the game.
I also recall this lady stating that her players weren’t very enthusiastic about being on the team or playing softball in general, that at times those girls behaved like they were only there because their parents wanted them in an enrichment activity. This lady – who shall be nameless – likewise said that being that they were from an affluent area and well-to-do families, they sometimes acted entitled.
Not that they were exactly spoiled brats, but a more accurate description according to her would be kids would were not used to, and didn’t like, hearing the word “No”.
I could easily tell that this manager of the team was very much impressed by my replies regarding experience and reactions to her various issues with her players as I was giving anecdotes about how I handled similar situations with the teams that I had coached, as well as what I do to get her team up to speed, namely putting them through batting and fielding drills.
In other words, do activities with those girls that would make them better softball players.
My enthusiasm for potentially working with these youngsters, which I conveyed over the phone, was what I believe impressed her the most.
As our phone conversation went on, it was painfully obvious that she liked what she was hearing, and eagerly invited me to her team’s next game so we could meet face-to-face and – or so I assumed – formalize my officially joining the team’s coaching staff.
Imagine how taken aback I was when I arrived at the park a few days later and approached this lady whom I had such a good interview with over the phone, all enthusiastic at what was going to be a good adventure and experience for me…
I could feel the freezing tension from her as she gave me a most peculiar look that said, “What the hell?!” like she was shocked at the sight of me, which looking back I’m sure she was.
In what was a much more unfriendly tone than she exuded over the phone, she told me to have a seat in the bleachers behind her team’s dugout, watch the game, and she would talk to me afterwards.
So the game began and ended, and afterwards I approached this woman to make arrangements to impart my knowledge on her band of ballplayers as an official coach when with that same unfriendly look, she told me something that nearly 25 years later I have not forgotten:
” I’m going to hire someone else to join us because he asked first, but I’ll put your name on the board for future opportunities, if any other openings come up.”
Which of course was a fancy way of saying,
“We’ll keep your name on file.”
Or more accurately, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you,” both of us knowing full well that there would be no intention of doing so.
Now I understand that there will be folks who will say that I shouldn’t pull the race card, that I am needlessly crying victim and maybe someone else really did ask first.
However, here’s the rub in all of this…
This was the same lady who was so impressed with what I had to say and was so friendly with me over the phone, she practically anointed me as a superhero-like savior.
Then she takes one look at me and her body language and vibe turns 180 degrees from how she was on the phone, to where she seemingly saw me as an Ultimate Pariah who in her opinion ought, to coin a phrase, “Stick with his (my) own kind”.
Of course she didn’t tell me flat-out that she didn’t want me around her team or her girls because of my being an African American, that she was uncomfortable with some big black dude coaching and interacting with her little white girls – at least to my face.
For the record, I’m not sure if this was a huge factor, but the league that her softball team was in was, at minimum, 98% white with a handful of Asians thrown in; I was told by a parent that the only African American kid in the entire organization was the son of some celebrity.
I strongly suspect that during the game in the dugout, out of earshot, she was expressing her unpleasant surprise that my skin color wasn’t the same as hers and that she was most apprehensive about working with someone who was of my ethnic culture.
I should have confronted her about it that afternoon, saying…
“I would like you to tell me something, and please be as honest as you can…”
“Being that you were so friendly and enthusiastic with me over the phone and you interacting with me in such a different way now – which is how I perceive it – is this a case of you being uncomfortable with having black men among you and your players, that when it comes to situations like this you feel that African Americans and whites are better off separated?”
I would have respected this lady if she had told me that I was right in my assumptions, because I have always felt that raw, naked, brutal honesty is needed as far as espousing racist views if any true progress is going to be made in this country.
As opposed to the old standby, “I’m not a racist, but…” that so many people seem to say.
Unfortunately, that is all a moot point in this case because after this manager said what she said, I simply stood there, replied “OK”, and went home.
I don’t even remember her shaking my hand.
What I should have done was go to her league’s board and file a formal complaint/accusation of racial bias. But alas, that failed to cross my mind.
I would go on to have a great season coaching my brother’s team, which (along with that league) was much more culturally diverse, but what happened on that softball field that cool spring afternoon bothered me for a while.
I certainly received a valuable life lesson, that despite all the gains that African Americans and other people of color had made during the previous 30 years there were still – and most likely always will be – folks who will see you as a lesser being because of your skin color, or your surname, or the fact that English isn’t your first language.
And will consequently refuse to hire you because of that.
Please don’t misunderstand – there’s been a lot of water flowing under the bridge since that day in 1991, and it would be very ignorant of me to harbor any grudges or hate of this girls’ softball manager for what happened over two decades ago.
But how I was personally affected by this rejection, and how it remains entrenched in my memory, says something about how seemingly indelible this issue of racism continues to be.
Despite the presence of an African American president.
I do remain hopeful that things will change, that every living person will at all times be judged strictly by the content of their character; I believe that it’s only a matter of time.
How much time, however, remains very debatable.