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Some Poor Sap in a Big-Box Store (on mis-education & fear)

So there I was, looking for a little brainless recreation, a (slightly) guilty pleasure that doesn’t expand the horizons of my waistline. It was the latest edition of Sports Illustrated, which is about sports (and has lots of photos). I thought I’d be reading about football and basketball, and I was, but I wasn’t far into a profile on an NCAA hoopster I’d never heard of before I got slapped in the face with a frozen sociocultural mackerel.

Honest, I wasn’t planning on extracting any Higher Meaning from this piece. Luke Winn tells the story of Alan Williams, a master of one of the less glamourous aspects of basketball, rebounding. Snaring missed shots is deeply important to successful teams (and even more to unsuccessful ones, like the one I’m trying to coach these days), not to mention under-valued. I thought maybe I’d try to convince a few of my players to read his story and learn from his approach, with no great expectations or hopes even on that lukewarm front.

But then this chunk of backstory happened: Williams, as a nine-year-old, offers himself as a translator for a Hispanic man in a Toys “R” Us. (Deep prejudices leapt forward from the shadows: I used to call the place Toys “R” Satan when my kids were young, because it was a hellish place to take little boys. I swore I’d never enter one again, and so far I’m good, something like 23 straight years.) Alan Williams is black, and his parents are prominent in the legal and law enforcement communities of Phoenix, Arizona. Maybe you’ve heard of the draconian and frankly racist laws enacted by that state in targeting immigrants. Williams’s parents, on the other hand, pioneering figures in Arizona – his dad is the only African-American elected as a justice of the peace there, and his mom is a chief of police – looked at demographic change and put their kids into Spanish immersion schools. Downright un-American! – or at least, it seems that way to many, which seems downright creepy to most of us in bilingual and fervently multicultural Canada.

To recap: the big-for-his-age black kid nimbly flips into Spanish to help a shopper so that the Anglo clerk can understand what the Hispanic customer wanted. The clerk certainly did not. The clerk was mystified, and couldn’t help asking the Williams family afterward,

“What are you?”

Yes, that’s the quote, by Joe or Janice Retail America, and no, not all service industry types down south would have been so discombobulated, but there’s so much reading  to do there even though there’s only one line  to read between or around or through.

I am fascinated by Americans. Many of my heroes – athletic and literary, champions of justice and faith and ecology and personal excellence – are from the Excited States, yet like many Canuckleheads, I can’t help but scratch my noggin or chuckle or lament some of the crazy stuff that goes on down there in Canada’s basement. Canadian thinker John Ralston Saul claims that we have always been fundamentally different from Americans (or many European states, for that matter) because we have never espoused a monolithic, “melting pot” view of what it meant to be a citizen of our country. While we didn’t always act like it, the ideal of Canada was always a variegated one, the idea of a societal “mosaic” becoming more and more valid as our cities became ever more diverse.

After an initial spike of mild disgust — what could you mean, ‘what are you’?! — I quickly came to feel sorry for somebody who would find a Spanish-speaking African-American family so disconcerting, so odd (if not appalling). What would it be like to live in a mind with apparently so little experience of, or appreciation for, difference and multiplicity? And education? And openness to the world? And speaking Spanish? Goodness knows I still have a lot to learn in these areas (especially the Spanish), but it’s a thing to wonder at – that urban Americans in the 21st century would be so, well, I’m still not sure whether this was simple befuddlement or caustic suspicion, but so disoriented by an altogether benign encounter with a small token of world citizenship and cultural integration.

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