This past week, The New Yorker ran a profile on NBA superstar Kobe Bryant. The piece touches on Bryant’s 17 basketball seasons and what it feels like to be in the final stages of his illustrious career. The 35-year-old talks about skipping college to go straight to the NBA in 1996, recovering from his ruptured Achilles tendon, the staying power of Katy Perry and Justin Bieber.
But there was one more thing: Trayvon Martin.
The New Yorker writer, Ben McGrath, asked Bryant about his thoughts on LeBron James and the rest of his Miami Heat teammates taking a team picture in hoodies a month after Martin was gunned down in Sanford, Fla.
Bryant replied: “I won’t react to something just because I’m supposed to, because I’m an African-American. That argument doesn’t make any sense to me. So we want to advance as a society and a culture, but, say, if something happens to an African-American we immediately come to his defense? Yet you want to talk about how far we’ve progressed as a society? Well, we’ve progressed as a society, then don’t jump to somebody’s defense just because they’re African-American. You sit and you listen to the facts just like you would in any other situation, right? So I won’t assert myself.”
As Colorlines.com writer Jamilah King wrote, Bryant clings to a “‘post-racial’ identity, this very old, conservative notion that black people should not be treated differently in this country — despite all the evidence … that they are.” Bryant believes America has progressed enough that racism is not really a thing anymore and that the “facts” alone should dictate our response.
Bryant later tweeted that Martin was “wronged” and that’s what “the facts showed,” but he implied in The New Yorker that James and those who donned hoodies immediately after the protests began in 2012 only did so because Martin was black. While some people did only take pictures in hoodies for that reason or to gain “likes” on social media, there was enough information at the time to make an informed decision on what happened between Martin and George Zimmerman; the protests sparked from Zimmerman not being arrested until over a month after admitting to shooting and killing Martin.
What’s problematic about Bryant’s assessment of the Zimmerman trial and race in America is that it relies on the assumption that blacks and other minorities are hypersensitive to race. Hypersensitivity is the idea that people of color are overly reactive to instances of marginalization, discrimination, racial profiling, etc. Basically, people of color cry foul whenever something happens to someone in their racial group.
For instance, Twitter activist Suey Park said that people generally use phrases like “You’re overly sensitive,” “You’re taking things too personally,” “I don’t find this offensive,” and “You probably just misunderstood,” when they want to “derail legitimate debate on the Internet.” Park came under fire last week after starting the #CancelColbet hashtag in reaction to “Colbert Report” host Stephen Colbert’s satirical tweet that relied on Asian stereotypes. Park, who is Korean, was mocked by sports website Deadspin, patronized by HuffPost Live host Josh Zepps and generally blasted for not understanding satire.
While I didn’t find anything wrong with the “Colbert Report” tweet or segment, I am also not Asian. This is not an excuse for not being culturally aware, but it’s the reason why I laugh at some jokes that invoke race and some that don’t. Most of those who chastised Park, including Zepps, were white people who don’t have to worry about race as much as people of color do. Even black people called #CancelColbert a bout of hypersensitivity, even though many in the black community reacted negatively to jokes Don Imus and Steve Martin made.
When it comes to Bryant talking about Trayvon Martin and Park talking about racial stereotypes on the “Colbert Report,” hypersensitivity is not the problem, rather, it is the solution. Duke University student Ronnie Wimberley Jr. wrote a column on hypersensitivity for the campus newspaper, The Chronicle, back in November 2013.
“You want to know why I’m hypersensitive to race? You want to know why I’m ‘angry’? Because I’m tired of fighting,” Wimberley said. “I always have to defend ‘my race,’ whether I want to or not, whether I agree or disagree, and it is unbelievably exhausting. I would love to stop talking about or thinking about or defending black, but I can’t. I constantly have my identity denied, my presence ignored, my experiences invalidated, my realities rejected and my sense of self erased, supplanted and defined by, organized around and reduced to black.”
For those who stood up and put on a hoodie for Martin, and those like Park who defended Asian culture, hypersensitivity is actually the constant fighting and mental gymnastics that people of color have to perform to live a normal life in America. As much Bryant likes to believe society has “progressed,” there is still much more work to be done.
Sensitivity be damned.