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Race: Are we so different

A blog looking at the changing face of race around our region, created in cooperation with Pacific Science Center, the University of Washington Department of Communication and the City of Seattle Race and Justice Initiative

November 20, 2013 at 6:01 AM

Race project | The Celebration and the Graveyard

As he sat in a café in Wallingford, surrounded by mostly white patrons and servers, and across the table from this white reporter, David Shields picked at two scrambled eggs and talked about race with an honesty that can grow awkward.

The 57-year-old author will fess up to acting extra friendly toward black people so they won’t think he’s racist. When jogging in Wallingford, a neighborhood that is 88 percent white, he writes in his book Black Planet: “I often slow to a snail’s pace and really pick it up when black motorist drives by, because I don’t want him to think I’m some boring white guy with no get-up-and-go.”

David Shields

David Shields, an English professor at the University of Washington, has spent much of his career examining the intersection of race and sports. (Photo courtesy of David Shields).

“Race makes us really crazy in this country,” Shields said. “And I’m the idiot who tries to talk about it.”

Shields has been talking and writing about “it” throughout his 30-year career, most notably in 1999’s “Black Planet,” a highly self-conscious examination of race centered on the Seattle SuperSonics. He’s the author of 15 books and a professor of English at the University of Washington.

We sat down to talk about sports, and so inevitably our conversation turned to the Seattle Seahawks, who at 10-1, are off to the best start in franchise history.

I’m a lifelong Seattleite. Shields never misses a game and texts his daughter religiously about the latest Seahawks news. He also never stops questioning the root of his and my, and everyone else’s obsession.

“It really, really fascinates me. These people that we watch on the screen are about that high,” he said, holding his fingers two inches apart, “and we pretend that we know Marshawn Lynch or Richard Sherman.”

Where others see just football, Shields sees centuries of racial dynamics at work. Take, for instance, Seahawks running back Christine Michael. Christine is usually a woman’s name, pronounced kris-TEEN, but the rookie from Texas A&M pronounces it “KRIS-chin.”

Did Michael’s parents not know that the traditional spelling is Christian? Or did they not care?

“The poetic explanation is that, post-slavery, black people finally got to name themselves,” Shields said. “All this playful use of names is a revenge on having to be named by your owners. That’s part of it.”

What about Marshawn Lynch, Golden Tate and Tarvaris Jackson? What are the racial politics behind their own unusual first names? And what does it say about white men like me and Shields to even notice it?

Welcome to the rabbit hole into which Shields can’t help but descend when he turns on the TV.

“Black language, and black expression, is often celebration built atop a graveyard, to put it bluntly,” he said. “What’s interesting to me is to both see the celebration and to feel the graveyard.”

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