At one level, we see the difference afforded in victory and defeat. Reflective of the hypermasculine values of sporting culture that affords privileges and latitude to those who win, Dirk gets a pass because he is victorious. Those defeated, whose are subjected to losses, and who otherwise are weaker (on the court, in elections, or on the battlefield) must accept defeat graciously and must accommodate the rules established by society at large. Yet, the moment also reveals the ways that race operates in the context of humanity.
In each and every instance, we see the emotionality of sports. In victory and in loss, emotions are great, and the responses from players (and fans alike) should be understood as a reflection of the power of emotions within sports. Whether Dirk in victory or LeBron (or Westbrook) in defeat, we “witness” the emotions of sports. We understand this and have no problem with it. Yet, its makes us wonder who can be allowed to be human? Who is allowed to be both imperfect and who is allowed to show emotions?
Frantz Fanon, in “The Fact of Blackness,” argues, dirty or not, professionally dressed or not, law-abiding or not, employed or not, African Americans are never able to be fully human within the white imagination. To be black is to remain savage and inhuman; it is to remain dirty, dangerous, destructive, and dysfunctional, all while maintaining a relationship to the “ontology of whiteness,” which is assumed to embody “rationality and universality” (Bhabha 2000, p. 355). More importantly, whiteness constitutes a marking of civilization and humanity, otherwise not available to black bodies. Homi Bhabha highlights how blackness constitutes a suffering of the stains of white supremacy as “a member of the marginalized, the displaced, and the Diasporic.” He writes: “To be amongst those whose very presence is both ‘overlooked’— in the double sense of surveillance and psychic disavowal – and at the same time over-determined – physically projected made stereotypical and symptomatic” (Bhabha 2000, p. 355).
The handshake double standard brings to light Bhabha’s poignant and provocative commentary, in that black NBA players, and their brothers and sisters living outside America’s arenas and inside a post-Jim Crow America, are simultaneously subjected to state-mandated acts of violence – “surveillance and physical disavowal” – and the logics of racism that reduce black bodies, aesthetics, styles, and cultural performances to little more than those seen has savage and otherwise inhuman. As evidenced by both the demonization of the James during this playoffs (and elsewhere) and the rightful understanding afforded to Dirk in this case, race operates in the context of a discourse of humanity:
The black is both savage (cannibal) and yet the most obedient and signified of servants (the bearer of food); he is the embodiment of rampant sexuality and yet innocent as a child; he is mystical, primitive, simple-minded and yet the most worldly and accomplished liar, and manipulator of social forces. In each case, what is being dramatized is a separation – between race, cultures, histories, within histories – a separation between before and after that repeats obsessively and mythical moment of disjunction (Bhabha in Location of Culture, p. 118).
As Bhabha and Fanon remind us, a handshake is never just a customary gesture, it is a ritual act that anchors racialized scripts, clearing a powerful narrative spaces for the reiteration of the white racial frame. It is a micro-practice in granting or denying shared humanity, whose significance cannot be diminished on a day where broad more macro-practices do the same: Oscar Grant’s murderer was released from jail after a single year in prison, the differences between the humanity afforded to Dirk versus LeBron (and others) provides a window into the material consequences of white supremacy in contemporary America.