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When Discussing Black Role Models, You Can’t Neglect Mentioning Race

If you are only able to paint half a picture, then it is best to say nothing at all.

January 27, 2020

Zuva Seven
Photo by Andre Hunter // Unsplash

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a hugely complicated conversation, and here at PULP we recognize the vitality of making space for nuanced conversations and opinions. Read our other two companion pieces by Ryan Fan— Kobe Bryant, Race, And A Complex Legacy In The #Metoo Era—and Why We Have To Keep Talking About Kobe by PULP co-founder Katie Tandy.

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obe Bryant’s passing has brought a lot of complex emotions and reactions unto the surface. All nine passengers on the helicopter did not survive the crash, and five families have had their lives changed forever. For those of us still living, we are finding ourselves navigating complex terrains, regarding Kobe. We don’t wish to be disrespectful or speak ill of the dead; however, it is hard to ignore his past, namely his criminal case that never went to trial.

Many of us are at an impasse, how do we mourn the dead while still honoring the victim? It has been a day, and there has already been a flurry of articles and people wanting to remind us of what occurred in 2003. Which, to me, is not an issue. There is no doubt in my mind that the events we have heard occurred and I believe it is vital to paint a whole picture, even if it is murky and dark in places. However, some of the things I have seen don’t.

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It is impossible to discuss Kobe’s legacy without mentioning race. In the Black community, he was more than just a basketball player but a beacon of hope and a role model. He transcended the game, which is why even I am upset at his death and I’m either a basketball fan or an American.

He was and is an icon for our community as he demonstrated that nothing is impossible, which is why I am angered by the wave of white feminists calling Black women “rape apologists” for mourning his death. It’s why I am conflicted when reading articles by these very same women, who lack the nuance and range for the discussions they are opening.

As Aja Barber stated:

I’m pretty sure black folks are gonna discuss the crimes surrounding this person. But right now within the first hour of breaking news, the conversation seems to be the loudest from white women, and I need y’all to reflect and make sure you put this energy into your own too.

There is a time and a place for these discussions, yet it would be improper to claim race does not play a part in the haste to bring about his previous allegations and the rush to forget about his apology.

Dave Zirin wrote an excellent piece titled Wrestling With Kobe Bryant’s Forgotten Apology in which he says:

Ignoring Kobe’s apology also means we can’t reckon with who he is: someone who apologized for committing an act of violence against a woman and 13 years later was fêted by liberal Los Angeles as a hero. That sends its own kind of message. The message the sports media and Lakers faithful sent was that Kobe’s cinematic journey matters more than anyone who may have been damaged along the way. Even in liberal Hollywood, rape survivors are, at most, supporting characters, and often left on the cutting room floor.

An apology does not make up for the attack however it is essential to remember that the apology was made after the case was dismissed and (it is assumed) Kobe made it out of his own judgement. Which, as the article discusses, is fascinating and something not done, particularly by those in the limelight.

Through the years, it is evident that the man he was in his twenties isn’t the man he was come forty. In 2011, Kobe used a homophobic slur and was promptly suspended and fined. After his remarks, he began working with GLADD, and two years later he was spotted scolded a fan for using “gay” as an insult, illustrating growth and commitment to change.

As John Gorman explored in his piece Kobe Bryant Was A Tragically Unfinished Work In Progress, Kobe was an unfinished work in progress whose life had just begun, which is what makes his death even more tragic.

It is unlikely anything done would have atoned entirely for what he’d done, but I believe it is obvious he was trying. Yet so many people seem to want to ignore these visible signs of growth and change. There is so much haste to paint him as a bad man versus someone who made a (very bad) mistake.

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How long is long enough to forgive those who have done us wrong? It is hard to say. But what I have seen is that there are some people out there who disguise their urge for revenge under the guise of seeking justice. As a survivor myself, it is not my place to control or instruct people on how to react. All the feelings being felt are valid, but I think it is improper to paint these circumstances as black and white when it is complicated.

Branding the Black community’s reactions (and particularly Black women) as wrong means that those in question have omitted race as a factor. It is for that reason I believe, if you are only able to paint half a picture, then it is best to stay in your lane. I assure you, we have not forgotten his history but we are certain you have neglected his growth.

Complicated situations like these demand nuance and sophisticated responses. Yet so far, I am seeing half baked discussions stating he was never held accountable when the evidence shows he held himself to a standard no one else has even attempted.

After the passing of David Bowie, I never saw people bringing forth his history of statutory rape. He and even Elvis are still revered as icons. So, I think it is crucial that those who were silent during these passings assess why they’re so loud for this one.

In a world where Black men are seen as one dimensional and white men are seen as redeemable works in progress, it is clear why so many people have forgotten to take account his growth. It is a damn shame that Joe from You, a fictional serial killer, has been given more grace, nuance and room to grow over Kobe. His family (and all those involved) deserve better.

Here is my guide for true beginners. Filled with all the things I wish I knew starting out as a writer.

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