People have called me the “whitest black guy” they know on more than one occasion. Yes, I do have interests outside of the traditional African American culture, but why does it require a label that takes away from being a black man?
When people of color like things that are not typically enjoyed by people of color, why not have a conversation of curiosity? “How did you get into hockey?” would have a different response than, “You like hockey? You’re the whitest black guy I know.” I feel we project what’s important to us, so talking about this is important to me because it bothers me. I’m not angry with it, but it bothers me.
In my early teens, people would say things like, I “spoke intelligently,” which felt odd. I wanted to be accepted and appreciated for who I was. I still wish people would ask questions and be more curious about why I have particular interests versus defining me from the surface level understanding that I have interests outside of typical black culture.
For some people that I’ve interacted with, the way they’ve chosen to understand and make sense of who I am by referring to me as the “whitest black guy.”
The “Whitest Black Guy”
I started playing street hockey in the ’90s, with three of my best friends growing up in Joliet, Illinois. How many of them do you think were white?
Growing up in a diverse community, I had friends, black and white. As I got older, other kids would join my street hockey games, including my neighbors’ kids, who were Latino. Giovanni, the youngest, would come over and ask my mother, “Can Jeremy come outside and play hockey?” I was probably ten years older than him, but I loved it and would play with him sometimes.
Hockey was an opportunity to get out of my environment that I didn’t feel like I fit in. The chase to live the dream of playing professional hockey also gave my father and I many bonding experiences where I could see what my role model looked like in many social situations. Home videos captured conversations with parents, and I saw in person his openness to engage with others at hockey tournaments. Our father-son road trip to Winnipeg for a scout camp opportunity is another memory that’s special for me. I heard stories of his early experiences watching Bobby Hull play for the Chicago Blackhawks and watched Hall of Fame players like Chris Pronger become one of his favorites feel like childhood memories my black father would want his son to remember.
People don’t understand that I learned about how to be a black man in America from this experience. When I met these former players, I shared with them how my father is insanely in love with slapshots because of Bobby Hall and that my dad was so impressed watching Chris Pronger back when he was with the St. Louis Blues that he bought me his jersey for Christmas one year.
In the book, “Flow,” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi gives an example of a teen on vacation that goes snorkeling for the first time and falls in love with life underwater immediately after. “He felt the experience was something good, something worth seeking out again. Thus he built this accidental event into a structure of goals-to learn more,” changing the course of his life and becoming a marine scientist.
“At first attention helped to shape his self, when he noticed the beauties of the underwater world he had been exposed to by accident; later, as he intentionally sought knowledge in marine biology, his self began to shape his attention.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
In high school I had a part-time job ripping tickets and cleaning movie theaters. The automated “Movie Tunes” CD would play on repeat multiple genres of popular music, promoting albums and movies coming out. Spending hours listening to music on repeat, like Kenny Chesney’s, “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy,” and Tim McGraw’s Greatest Hits, while cleaning theaters led to becoming a fan.
In July 2001, during my senior year of high school, NASCAR built the Chicagoland Speedway in my hometown. The day before the first race ever hosted, I worked at a local movie theater and was the ticker usher present that directed NASCAR legend Jeff Gordon to his ticketed theater. That September, I also began playing junior hockey and started three years of leaving town for nine months. Every summer I came home, there was a dedicated week in the city for celebrating the race that drew just under 50,000 people to pack the grandstands. By 2004, I felt I had to see what was going on over there.
The first car on their first practice lap changed my opinion of NASCAR. I’d never heard an engine at such a high pitch or seen a vehicle sliding towards a wall at 186 mph (289kmh) full speed-also turning left. It was one of the most incredible things I’d ever seen live. I thought to myself, what would it look like if 43 cars were inches away from each other, driving that fast sliding towards the wall in some form of control? I wanted to see that. I later started to learn of the attention in the engineering and manufacturing of these cars by hand. Their safety innovation trickles down to the vehicles we drive every day. I became fascinated by that attention to detail, and seeing it live changed my opinion. I’ve seen diverse fanbases at NASCAR races at Chicagoland, Kansas Speedway, Iowa Speedway, the Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania, and a bucket lister at Daytona International Speedway for their “biggest race of the year” in 2019.
It’s about being fascinated by something that caused me to take new actions. The pleasing results and experiences lead to deeper research and increased engagement.
When I listened to country music on regular rotation when I was in Iowa, it was about lyrics that resonate with me, as the chorus from the song, “A Good Man,” by Emerson Drive. It goes:
“I wanna be the one
When all is said and done
Who lived a good life, loved a good wife
And always helped someone in trouble
On the day they lay me down
I want everyone to gather ’round
And say, ‘He was a father, brother, neighbor and a friend
He was a good man’”
I’m about that. Falling in love, being with family, the excitement of having a good time with your best friends, that brought me in. What started turning me off were the songs in the genre that were awkward to hear. Lyrics such as, “White noise for white boys,” and “as far as I can figure, the worst thing that I can think of is a white girl with a n*****.” I heard that one walking to my car from using the restroom at a NASCAR tailgate, I was attending with my white ex-wife.
And is it offensive if I’m attending a country concert and random fans refer to me as “Darius Rucker?” Never mind the fact that he’s released five country albums, and won a host of Country Music Awards, including New Artist of the Year and Vocalist of the Year. Black people having an interest in country music is overlooked. How many months has it been since “Old Town Road” went viral?
Trying to Understand Who I Am as An Outlier from Your Environment
When I read the book, “Metaphors We Live By,” earlier this year, I began a process to learn more about the meanings and structures behind words we use every day, gaining some perspective on meaning I was overlooking.
I’ve never asked someone to call me “the whitest black guy.” Interestingly, one of my good friends back in Iowa said that “I did it to myself.” If I want something that most people typically don’t or aren’t traditionally willing to pursue, then I will have values and goals, and interests that are different from the average in the community. It’s not taking away from it, but merely the exposure to events, actions, and responses of others.
“The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another.” Metaphors We Live By- George Lakoff and Mark Johnson
My point is that being called the “whitest black guy” feels like you’re taking away from me being a black man. Sometimes I get defensive, and sometimes I don’t. I am a black man. If you say you don’t see color, I’m asking you to see my color. See me. Acknowledge that it is part of who I am. Don’t wrestle with a topic we can talk about together, just ask.
If you’ve enjoyed reading this blog post or find a useful idea, please share it with your friends and family. Your referral is greatly appreciated. I look forward to discovering where the change happens with you. Wherethechangehappens.com
Purchase your copy of the book Where the Change Happens, here.