In the summer of my eighth year of life, I played my first year of Little League baseball. There were three baseball fields at the Little League complex in my hometown. A small field for “B-Minors”, which was the division in which all eight-year-olds played. The second was a regulation sized field that was for “A-Minors”. These were the older kids who weren’t yet good enough to play on the third field. The coveted third field was for “The Majors”. This field had the same dimensions as the “A-Minor” field, but it had grandstands, a fancy scoreboard, lights and a press box complete with announcers who would call your name as you came up to bat. Every summer was kicked off by try-outs to see who would be playing in the Major League and who would be playing in the A-Minor League.
The B-Minor field’s outfield fence, at least from the corner in right field over to the middle of center field, also served as the parameter fence for the county boy’s youth detention center. Thus, for every game, if it was recreation time at the boy’s youth detention center, the outfield fence would be lined with boys dressed in orange jump suits.
At the age of eight, I had no idea this was the boy’s youth detention center. Or what a boy’s youth detention center even was. All I knew is that during our games the outfield fence would be lined with boys in orange jump suits. I also noticed that every single one of those boys, dressed in orange jump suits, was black.
Being that my hometown was totally populated by white people, none of whom I had ever recalled wearing orange jump suits, I was compelled to ask my coach about it. So, one day, in between innings, I did just that. I asked my coach, “Who are those black boys in those orange clothes that are watching our game from behind the outfield fence?” Without any hesitation he answered me, “Those are the bad kids.”
Simple enough right? Afterall, it was the boy’s youth detention center. Thus, all of those boys had broken some law in order to end up in that recreation area, wearing an orange jump suit. Well, here’s the problem. As a white kid, living in a white community, having no interaction with anyone of color, this simple answer became the defining characteristic of black boys for a very long time in my life. Black boys = bad kids.
There is a chance that my coach didn’t mean to make that kind of impression on my eight-year old mind with his answer. Maybe he was stressed out and thinking about who was going to be batting that inning? Maybe he was stressed out because of a fight he had with his wife before the game? Maybe he simply rattled off some answer in order to shut-up an eight-year-old kid that was asking a question that had nothing to do with the task at hand, winning a baseball game?
Whatever the reason, it made quite the impression on this eight-year-old. An impression that was unable to be reformed until ten years later. That is when I went away to college and actually, for the very first time, had the opportunity to attend school and make friends with other students of color.
If I could go back in time and talk with that eighteen-year-old version of myself, I would have probably known that not all black boys were bad. Yet, the eight-year-old inside of me was still there, because of a coach’s words, defining black boys as bad. It wasn’t until I was able to actually be in relationship with anyone of color, that I was able to finally overpower that racial stereotype.
I share this story to remind all of us that impressions matter. What we teach our children, what we say to each other, about each other, matters. Again, I have no idea what was behind my B-Minor Little League baseball coach’s answer. But, it was the answer he gave and it took ten years for me to overcome it. And I am fifty-four and I am still thinking about it.
Your words matter. Your jokes matter. Your posts matter. Your T-shirts matter. Your bumper stickers matter. What are they saying to the people around you, about the other people around you? Especially to that eight-year-old who is listening to you.