Is it Racist to ask a Tall Black Kid if He Plays Basketball

My 14 year old nephew is 6’ 2” tall and wears black-horned rimmed glasses.  He received the highest possible score on the Chicago Public School high school entrance exam and had his choice of any of the high schools in Chicago.  He spent last summer learning Cantonese.  His favorite and best sport is soccer.

My nephew is African-American.  Inevitably, despite his background that I described, the first question or comment he receives from a stranger relates to basketball.  “Do you play basketball?” “Are you a basketball player?” “Where do you play basketball?”

Is it his blackness or his height that prompts the basketball inquiries?  While a short, white man like me may find the constant questioning annoying and verging on racist, my nephew (let’s call him Russell) doesn’t really seem to mind and is, at worst, annoyed.

Interestingly, other people want to make an issue out of the inquiries and have urged Russell to respond aggressively and say something along the lines of, “No, I don’t play basketball.  I have a 4.5 grade point average and received a scholarship to foreign language camp.” And, by the way, these people are not members of Russell’s family or those closest to him.

As we juggled a soccer ball in my backyard during a Mother’s Day party, I asked Russell how he feels about this and what he thinks.

“The questions and assumptions don’t really bother me,” Russell said as he repeatedly bounced the soccer ball from knee to knee, showing the kind of skill and touch I hadn’t seen in quite some time.  “I just tell them that I don’t like basketball.  I never have. I really like soccer.  In fact, I'm trying to improve my midfield skills since I'm always being put at defender."

I asked him if he ever wants to answer differently, as has been suggested. "Not at all," he answered.  "These people don't really know me, so it's just what they see and not what they know."

In the driveway adjacent to the yard where we were kicking around the soccer ball there was a basketball hoop. So, as we ended the soccer ball juggling, I took the ball and started shooting baskets.  As Russell picked up the ball and shot an air ball from about 8 feet away, I commented, “I can see why you don’t like basketball.”

As good-natured as can be, Russell responded, “You can see why I use my feet instead."

Going back to the basketball questions, even though they don’t bother Russell, I’m wondering if those questions are, indeed, racist.  On one hand, could people argue that it is a fair presumption that a tall, young black man who lives on the south side of Chicago is a basketball player? On the other hand, is such a logical presumption racist on its face? Or, is racism in the eye of the beholder? If Russell doesn’t care, why should we?

I’m not sure what the right answer is.  Turn the example around a bit and confront a white young man who is 6’ 4”, weighs 280 pounds and looks like a brick s___house.  Would it be wrong to ask him if he plays football?  Isn’t that a logical presumption?  If not, is it therefore inappropriate to ask the question? Is it “racist?”

Is it racist to make judgments based on Indian children’s success in the national spelling bee? Am I a racist if I presume that the Asian kids in my daughter’s class are going to score well on tests? Am I a bad person if I base presumptions on facts and statistics?

It reminds me of the conversation my African-American stepson told me that he had with a classmate about a year ago.  One of his classmates suggested that my stepson take my credit card so the two of them could go on a shopping spree. After he told me about it, I asked why the kid would suggest that.  "Because you're white and you're Jewish.  People assume you've got a lot of money.  But, I know better."  You know better about what? I had asked him.  "I know better that you don't have any money." Thanks a lot.

Are those who are asking Russell if he is a basketball player really racists?  Or are they just ignorant and insensitive?  I’d vote for the latter. And Russell? He also knows better and just wants to play soccer.

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