I've noticed something very peculiar over my past two years at Yale: At least a few times a week during football season, somebody on campus comes up to me and says, "Have a good game this weekend, man," or "Hey, how's football practice been?"
People's support and well wishes would be much more understandable if I were actually on the football team -- or any university sports team for that matter. I may be an athlete at heart, but in actuality, I haven't played football since I was 11 years old.
To be fair, I did briefly play a varsity sport at Yale. But it was baseball, and I purposefully avoided being recruited. I'd gone as far as to wait until after I had gotten accepted to reach out to the baseball coach. I had focused my time and energy on academics in high school, and my 18-year-old self wanted to know that I could get accepted to college based on my intellectual achievements. I ended up walking onto the baseball team, but when I tore both of my quads, I decided to give up on varsity sports altogether.
Still, I've had people tell me to my face that I was only at Yale because I played a sport. They didn't take the time to find out that I was a walk-on, and that I'd be about as useful to the football team as a practice dummy.
I want people to see me as a man of color who studies and values academics. I can't afford to feed into the stereotype that has plagued Black men in college for decades.
I personally don't get offended by people's assumptions, but I can't speak for those I've seen experience similar type-casting. I encourage everyone to try and ask their peers about their extracurricular activities in order to see if they actually are athletes or not. It's a great way to get to know people -- not to mention a great method of preventing that awkward moment when you find out somebody merely looks like your vision of a certain role.
Let me be clear: There's absolutely nothing wrong with being a Black male who excels at a sport in college. It doesn't make you any less worthy of being there. Many of my best friends are athletes, in or outside of college. And guess what? A good portion of them are smarter and more scholarly than I am.
Next fall, when football season starts back up and someone inevitably asks me what position I play or wishes me luck before a big game, I'm going to take their comments as a compliment to my athletic appearance. But I also hope we can all step back and think about where these assumptions and stereotypes come from. Ask someone when they last saw a Black man in a movie. I find that it's usually in the context of a pro athlete, rapper, or criminal. Even among the successful Black men we see in the media, they're rarely depicted as intellectuals. These images of what it looks like to be a Black man in America are ingrained in so many of our minds.
So yes, I am an athletically-built Black man on Yale's campus, and while we still have a lot of work to do on campus and in this country, I'm not the first or only one to be here. I hope I can help my fellow classmates and community rethink what it means to look a certain way. I hope we can all become more open-minded so that the next athletic-looking person of color doesn't get honorary automatic membership to a team he's not on - so that he's not viewed as an anomaly or as needing another reason for being here. Whether we put on a jersey or not, we are right where we deserve to be.
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Images by Clark Burnett