Marcus Smart's painful postgame incident a lasting reminder that racism is taught

One of the arguments made by people who are afraid to have their exceedingly narrow world view pierced by Black athletes and those who support them is that Black people of a certain means, who have succeeded materially and financially despite all of the barriers put in place for Black Americans — usually because they are one of a small number of people who are obscenely talented at one specific thing, not because they climbed the corporate ladder or had venture capitalists drop millions in their lap to develop an idea — have therefore ceded all right to speak about the Black condition in this country.

You know how it goes: Player X can’t possibly experience racism because he earned some certain amount of money at some point in time.

There are countless examples of this not being the case, but originality and intellectually competent arguments aren’t exactly standard fare when it comes to race and racism.

Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart offered another example in a Players Tribune story that posted on Tuesday, and he also offered another reminder of the truth: racism is taught.

In an entry titled, “This Article Is Not About Basketball,” Smart reveals an incident from a few years ago that happened right outside of TD Garden after a Celtics win.

If you don’t know the area, Causeway Street after an event at the Garden is madness. There are people everywhere, walking to the nearby T station or a nearby bar or maybe looking for the ride that’s taking them home. There are also cabs and ride-share services and buses, all crammed into a pretty tight space.

It was in this hectic atmosphere that Smart says he was pulling his car out of the players’ lot when he noticed a white woman with a boy he estimates to have been 5 or 6 years old. They were crossing against the traffic light and cars were starting to come toward them.

Boston Celtics' Marcus Smart (36) talks with Jayson Tatum (0)nduring the second half of an NBA conference final playoff basketball game against the Miami Heat Friday, Sept. 25, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. The Celtics won 121-108. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
A racist postgame incident has had a long-lasting effect on Marcus Smart. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Afraid something bad was about to happen, Smart “yelled to her, politely, that she needed to hurry and get out of the street so the two of them wouldn’t get hurt.”

The woman was wearing a Celtics No. 4 jersey, for Isaiah Thomas. She was surrounded by other fans. They had all just watched the team win. She was with a small child.

“I figured she’d be cool,” Smart wrote. “Nope. She swung her head around it was ... ‘F--- you, you f-----g n-word!!!’

“For a second, it was like I couldn’t breathe. ... In an instant, just like that, I was made to feel less than human.”

He notes, correctly, that to this woman Smart wasn’t a person; he was entertainment and nothing more. It’s an attitude demonstrated over and over again in the years since WNBA players and Colin Kaepernick began raising their voices against systemic racism, and even more in the last few months, when college football and NFL players were ordered to return to play games, their health and the health of their families be damned, because a segment of fans were “bored” during these COVID times.

No matter how wrong and insensitive, it’s far easier for too many people to treat Smart and others like pixellated players in a video game, where you can manipulate weight and height and hair style with a couple of clicks, rather than the worthy human beings they are.

Even more revealing — this time about Smart — is that he says he thinks about that moment a lot, and what he thinks about most is the little boy who was with the epithet-screaming woman.

“I think about that kid all the time — and, honestly, now more than ever,” he wrote. “Everything about that experience makes me so sad for him.

“I mean, to openly spew hate like that? In front of a child?

“It just reminds me that racism is not something you’re born with. It’s taught.

“And the fact that people are actually out there teaching their kids — through their words and actions — how to be racist … that truly breaks my heart.

“Dozens of times since that run-in, I’ve prayed for that child who was clutching his mom’s hand that night. For his future. And for all the kids out there being brought up to hate rather than to love.”

He’s right. Racism is taught. And that child had a front-row seat for a lesson, the most influential teacher in his life grasping his hand through it.

Before COVID-19 upended everything, my husband and I were the owners of an indoor playspace in Boston, a place where caregivers could bring their small children to run and play and use their imaginations and celebrate birthdays.

When we took over, I bought multi-racial baby dolls to add to the play cottage, a wonderful set that included a white baby, Black baby, Asian baby and Latinx baby. It didn’t take long for me to notice that to the children who played with them, the color of the baby usually didn’t matter: they just saw a baby to care for, to “cook” pizza for in the play kitchen, to push around in one of the small carriages, to clutch while they went down the slide.

It was the same when it came to making new friends, and even how the children interacted with me. They played and created games together; we danced in the rain of bubbles from the bubble machine together. If any of their parents or caregivers were bothered to see their white child playing with a Black child or caring for a Latinx baby doll, I never saw or heard it.

It made me hopeful to see that to children, a friend is a friend.

Smart feels much the same.

Despite the lingering sting of that interaction outside the Garden, Smart prays for that little boy, now likely middle-school aged. And he’s been buoyed by his experiences in his adopted city in the late spring, after recovering from his own bout with the coronavirus and before the Celtics headed to Orlando to finish the season in the NBA’s bubble.

“One of the first things I did was get to marching in Boston. I wanted to join the people out there doing all they could to speak out against injustice and hatred and police brutality — folks looking to ensure the future of our country is better than its past. And what I saw was awe-inspiring,” he wrote.

“It was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. A multitude of races and ethnicities and age groups and just … people of compassion coming together. It was a beautiful thing. And it brought tears to my eyes. It really did show how powerful we can be, and what we can achieve, if we could all just get it together. ...

“And, more than anything else, the one thing that has really helped to lift me up and keep me hopeful is …these kids.”

These kids, our kids, they can teach us. If we let them.

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