There is a big Native American basketball tournament in Phoenix every summer. This year we decided not to take our girls, because they weren’t all that interested, it seemed; this ended up being the right decision because we would have gotten eaten alive. But my co-coach and I still are here, bringing some of our boys who are playing and going to all their games. And let me just say, I love these boys.
Partly it’s really fun to watch them play. These boys throw themselves into basketball the way I wish they would commit to school. But their schools fail them over and over again (this teacher lost my assignment and gave me a 0, I have a long-term sub in this class so I failed the test because she didn’t teach us anything, that teacher showed up drunk to school, I had an A in that class till the state test, and then I didn’t know any of the material that was on it…and I personally checked into these stories, because I didn’t believe it could be that bad, but IT REALLY WAS THAT BAD. But I digress.) Basketball gives them an activity, a friend group, a team, and an identity. It’s a venue where putting in the work connects to excellence more readily than in many other areas of their lives. For many of them, basketball is a chance to succeed when other parts of their lives seem doomed to failure.
They are fabulous at it.
But one of the most fun things about taking them on away trips like this one is to see the other sides of them. Sure, they cuss like sailors and act absolutely ridiculous when a girl walks by. They’re 14 to 17 year old boys. But they also hold doors for little old ladies and say, “You go ahead, ma’am.” They stay up till three in the morning, not doing anything illicit or sneaky, but playing basketball video games. They get super excited about the swimming pool in the hotel and spend every free moment splashing away. They intersperse their rap music on the car speakers with “My Girl” and “Stand by Me” and sing every word at the top of their lungs. They sleep six to a hotel room and wake up cuddled around each other like puppies. They really are such good boys.
It’s also interesting watching them interact in a very different setting than they are used to. In Gallup, they’re comfortable. Most people are Navajo, and they’ve known a lot of them their whole lives. Here, most people are white. They keep joking about how hard it is to find me in a crowd—usually I stand out, but there are just too many blonde people here! They are so relaxed and crazy most of the time (and believe me, sometimes I wish they’d tone it down a little!) that I forget they aren’t always like that.
None of this is earth-shattering psychology. Psychologically speaking, you notice what is different about yourself more if you are in the minority; there are added power dynamics when that difference is a racial one, and there are even more complicated issues of colonization, age, and rural/urban dynamics in this situation too. I don’t know how consciously any of them are processing this, but I can see the uncertainty on their faces when they come up against these issues that they are not used to confronting. One of the boys said it straight out: “White people I don’t know make me nervous.” (Side note: we talked about this a few months ago, and not a single boy has more than 5 white people they talk to on a regular basis. For two of them, I am the only white person they counted. I say this not to make myself feel special, but because I was genuinely shocked at how little they interact with white people outside of seeing their teachers in class.)
In some ways I’m glad they are having this experience, because it’s a necessary life skill to get by in uncomfortable situations and when they go outside of Gallup, they will be in the minority most times. But my heart clenches watching the worries flit across their expressions: what do they think about me? Did I do something embarrassing? Why’s he staring? What should I do now? You want to reassure them, because they deserve to exist in all situations with confidence and pride in themselves, and because you know how wonderful they are. But that’s not real either, because the truth is that some of those people are staring at them, and I don’t know what they’re thinking either.
As a middle-class white girl, I will never have that same experience. I had similar self-conscious feelings when I first moved to Gallup, as the only middle-class white girl in many situations. But it’s not the same, because even when I’m the only white person in the room, most of the country and most of the power looks like me. It’s not uncomfortable for me to get in an elevator with two old white couples in polo shirts, but even when they are perfectly friendly and joke around with the kids, the boys still squish to the side away from them in a physical manifestation of their discomfort.
At least until we get to the lobby, pile in the car, and put on “My Girl” again. Then we’re all good.