I’m running hard on an indoor basketball court in Tucson, Arizona, and my team has just scored, and our opponents, disgruntled, make a change on defense. One of the guards calls out, Who you got? and his teammate says, Skinny nigga. He means me. I’m twenty-four years old, a mixed-race grad student in a new city, a new state. He’s a black guy, and the guy he’s speaking to is black, too, but the guy who’s switched onto me has light skin for a black guy, and I think about how it’s messed up, the way we decide who’s what.
I’m in my grey and orange Stu Vetter Basketball shirt, which I’ve worn since age ten: since then, some things haven’t changed. One of my high-tops has a hole beneath my big toe, and when I run around outside, now, I get a slow-forming nick in my socks—like I’m walking across an iced-over lake and the surface melts, melts, melts open. My shorts are Livestrong—as in, Lance Armstrong, the doping cyclist; my folks gave them to me. Lightweight, soft against skin.
I don’t think the guy who said skinny nigga means, I’m guarding the skinny, black guy or that he means, I’m guarding the skinny, brown guy. But I can’t remember being called nigga before and—because my father is a lighter-skinned black man and my mother is a lighter-skinned white woman; because folks most often see me as just plain white; because I desire most of all to settle down somewhere in between blackness and whiteness, somewhere cozy and soft where I might comfily sleep; because this is just another racy moment in a life full of them—I grin and laugh to myself, running down the court, ready to defend again, ready to throw around my thin-skin-sweating body when a shot goes up.
This is not like back home, all through my adolescence in the D.C. suburbs, where my basketball teammates did not count me among the black players on our mostly white team, though they knew my father. I remember that conversation in our high-school locker room, always teenager-messy with navy-blue rec bags and white bottles of lotion and blue-white Nike high-tops and greasy bags of Mickey D’s. After Kevin and Kyle graduate, somebody said, we won’t have any black players. Assent from all over: silence from me. I wondered what counted as black for my teammates and if, for them, I even counted as mixed.
No, not like back home: there I’d slump against chilled bus windows on late-night drives after far-off games in mid-January, never saying anything, while everybody rap-battled and laughed. That didn’t feel like a race thing, then—just felt like me. But it does now: the muted-ness, the heaviness, the not-belonging.
Not like back home, where quarterbacking, confidence-is-king, always-popular Jordan Smith told Kevin and Kyle of my father’s blackness during a midseason practice and they said, Really? Their faces taken with What? You-mean-the-Easter-Bunny’s-fake-fake-fake? surprise.
No, nah, not like back home: here I’m the skinny nigga. This is new, surprising, like the monsoon rains that descend, sometimes, from our grayed-out Tucson skies, washing over everything, bringing the cool—this town I felt would be sun forever, heat forever, warmth on my lanky frame even in December.
This is a new start.
Here, I sit sipping water as Latino teens call each other nigga at an outdoor court near the freeway, and I’m surprised—but not offended. Here, a man of uncertain ethnicity calls me brother at hot-hot midday, in Himmel Park, and I wonder how he means it. Because brother is another of those words, like nigga, that sometimes means brothers-in-experience, or family, extended. Another word that means more than one thing, like blue, as in sometimes I am / sometimes we all are sad. Or green, as in this place could be / this place is not new.
Like skinny nigga: white. Like skinny nigga: black.
But he didn’t look black to me.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/forever carrie on