Ignorance can end, but can the same be said for racism?
I base this question on my experiences growing up in the Maine town of Millinocket and playing high school basketball in the mid-1970s at Stearns High School, which was then a Class A school, lower in enrollment and a bit more geographically secluded than some of its counterparts.
In our school, I can’t remember there being any African-American students and don’t recall playing against any on other teams. My perceptions of them were prejudicial, perpetuated by stereotypes and due to my lack of knowledge.
Some friends and I bought into the stereotype that African-Americans were better athletes than us. This came from our limited reading of college and NBA games in newspapers or watching games on TV — and yes, this was during a time of just NBC, CBS and ABC.
It also came from home. I was fortunate to grow up in a kind, respectful and loving environment. Thoughts or acts of meanness and superiority to other races were not tolerated, but stereotypes still flourished.
My ignorance was lessened when I left my small town and attended the University of Maine in Orono. For old friends who chose to stay in Millinocket and those who dedicated many years working in the paper mill, this isn’t meant to put you in my category as many of you expanded your knowledge base and became more enlightened without having to attend college.
During one Christmas break from UMaine, a group of friends — some in college and some millworkers — headed to Presque Isle to compete in a men’s basketball tourney. One of the teams was from Loring Air Force Base and most of its players were African-Americans. The example set by our treatment of the Loring players wasn’t made by the college guys, but instead by the millworkers, who were respectful and just happy for the chance to compete.
For me, those lessons were best nurtured on the UMaine campus, where an atmosphere of inclusion and equality permeated in the classroom, dormitories and the field house basketball courts.
On the field house courts, you learn that yes there are great African-American athletes, but there are also those who are good, average and poor — just like your race. If you’re fortunate to play basketball against some of the great African-American athletes like UMaine football star Lorenzo Bouier and basketball standout Clay Gunn, you learn that they are patient and tolerate your lesser skills that can cause some hard fouls — just like players of your race like UMaine standouts Kevin Nelson and Jim Mercer.
The recent case of the Hyde School of Bath pulling its boys basketball team out of the Maine Principals’ Association, citing racial slurs and biased officiating during a tourney game as the reasons, may cause you, as it did me, to reflect on your past and assess the present.
If you try to move forward and get more knowledge, then that combats ignorance. If you chose to pass these lessons on to the next generation, your children, then that may lessen racism.
Unfortunately, some in our state are still not making that choice.