There are times when even well-meaning white people become so comically confused and paranoid about what they can or can not say on the topic of race that even the most innocuous, non-racist of messages make them nervous.
Like, say, one white person describing to another white person how they saw a firefighter charge into a building and heroically rescue three children.
"Awesome, I know a lot of firefighters in town, do you know which it was?"
"No, I don't, but he was maybe in his 30s, tall and strong and, um, he had a mustache, and, um, um, um [looks around three times], he's, um, [begins whisper] an African-American [ends whisper]."
Then they pause and hope that wasn't construed as terrible. Then the other person has to explain that describing an African-American as an African-American isn't racist, it's just descriptive. Or else they just nod and look around in panic also.
When it comes to race, many have concluded it's best to say nothing out of fear of innocently saying the wrong thing. It's one of the reasons why there are so few honest discussions about race in this country.
There are just too many people on the fringes of every side of every debate topic eager to be immediately offended, or eager to be immediately offended that someone else is offended, or, especially on social media, eager to demand someone is fired or sanctioned for supposedly offending them. Or someone. Or something. It goes in circles.
Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, decided Wednesday night at a forum to speak publicly on the issue of race while being interviewed by Inc. magazine.
It put him in the crosshairs, and the crosshairs can be awful.
Cuban was asked about controversial Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling and if you listen to his full comments – not the pared down versions good for 140 characters or even a column on the subject – it's clear he was condemning ignorance and bigotry. What he said was unfiltered and free flowing. The casualness with which he spoke suggests a positive comfort level on the topic. This wasn't his first introspection. He wasn't entrenched in his opinion. He wasn't attacking others.
Instead, in the interest of transparency after repeatedly condemning bigotry, Cuban wanted to note that he was hardly perfect, that he too had room to grow.
"I mean, we're all prejudiced in one way or another," Cuban said. "If I see a black kid in a hoodie and it's late at night, I'm walking to the other side of the street. And if on that side of the street, there's a guy that has tattoos all over his face – white guy, bald head, tattoos everywhere – I'm walking back to the other side of the street.
"And the list goes on of stereotypes that we all live up to and are fearful of," he continued. "So in my businesses, I try not to be hypocritical. I know that I'm not perfect. I know that I live in a glass house, and it's not appropriate for me to throw stones."
Cuban could've done better. His analogies were anything but perfect and he later acknowledged as much. There's a big difference between purposely shaving your head and getting (presumably) a lot of tattoos in essence to look a certain way, and wearing a hoodie, which is suitable to stave off rain or cold. It could also just be someone paying homage to Bill Belichick.
Moreover, the use of the image of a black kid in a hooded sweatshirt immediately invokes the tragedy of Trayvon Martin, which is understandably painful to so many. Cuban later acknowledged as much:
P/1: In hindsight I should have used different examples. I didn't consider the Trayvon Martin family, and I apologize to them for that.May 22, 2014
Again, he could've done better. And he shouldn't just shout down his critics, who may offer a perspective worth hearing.
However, because it's unlikely billionaire Mark Cuban walks too many streets late at night, all by himself where his physical safety could ever be threatened, it's fairly clear this was an analogy. This should create debate, but little more.
These are just words. Picking them apart in search of signs of racism – all while the guy is admirably explaining his own failures on the issue – is counterproductive and pointless.
It's far more important to look at Cuban's actions.
Would he ever hire that black kid in a hoodie? Would he rent or sell real estate to his family? Would he be willing to overcome whatever initial apprehension he might have, recognize that it's foolish and get to know the real person? Would he support progressive initiatives to aid the disadvantaged? Would he recognize the feelings and position of the less powerful person? Does he run his companies and family along these lines?
Cuban's very public life and many comments suggest "yes" on all of those items, actually with a track record probably stronger than almost anyone reading this.
This is why the Donald Sterling story was always a little off-kilter. What he said on a leaked tape obtained by TMZ wasn't particularly impactful. They were just stupid thoughts.
The way he and his wife ran their real estate companies – repeatedly settling lawsuits from the United States Justice Department for housing discrimination that isn't just illegal but un-American and immoral – was real life.
Throughout the Sterling mess, that should have always remained the focus. It's why it was always so troubling when the NBA, the players association and even individual figures in the league (owners, coaches and players) never offered even the slightest public criticism of him even as he kept settling those cases.
Being sued for forcing hardworking, honest minority families to remain in poor, dangerous neighborhoods by denying them the ability to move into the large tracts of Southern California real estate you control is reprehensible. It shouldn't have taken the ramblings of ignorance on a tape to cause the outrage.
Sterling and his lawyers will no doubt try to draw a parallel between the two NBA owners as they try to maintain control of the Clippers. Individuals and groups eager to be upset, or pretend to be upset, to gain publicity or profits will too.
By calling out his own misguided thoughts though, Cuban offered an example that others, undoubtedly, have also engaged. Perhaps it allows them to see the mistake the way he has.
Either way, this is a far better country when people are capable of acknowledging the areas they need to grow and try to speak openly and honestly about it, than one in which they are absurdly too afraid to say even innocent, descriptive words, even in private conversations about positive topics.
Forced silence benefits no one.