Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan in May 2011. Photo: Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

Why Do White People Assume Successful Black People Are Athletes or Entertainers?

During a trip to Las Vegas, I arranged to interview a wealthy source in his fancy hotel suite. At the resort in question (and probably at all of them), there was a separate entrance to the area where the suites are located, with its own elevators. Other guests can’t go in there. Anyway, we shared the elevator up with a fit, well-dressed young Black man, who smiled politely and said hello. Later, my source, who is white, told me the guy was for sure a pro athlete. “I could tell,” he said.

But could he really? I mean, it wasn’t an outlandish guess based on the man’s build, but would he have assumed the same of a fit young white guy? This actually happens to Black men a lot. I write about it in one chapter of my book, Jackpot, titled “Thriving While Black.”

The chapter’s lead character is a successful Black business executive named Erwin Raphael, who happens to be quite fit. He’s my age—56—and back in the day, he was pretty good at basketball, he said, but he was nowhere near good enough to make a career of it. Yet white people in luxurious settings constantly assume he’s a former athlete. Why else would a Black man be playing golf at the Riviera Country Club in Southern California, where it is said you need to plop down several hundred grand up front (the club won’t comment) to become a member—if invited, that is—and then hefty monthly fees on top of that.

This had actually happened to Raphael at that very club the day before we sat down to talk. A white member had spotted him preparing for his round of golf. He came over, all friendly, and asked Raphael whether he used to be an athlete. “Now, there’s a better than even chance that my physical appearance would justify this question,” Raphael admits. But “the stereotype is that wealthy Black people are not creators of wealth.”

To resist the cultural bias, he says, he usually respond to these inquiries by saying something like, “‘Nope, not at all. I was quite the nerd’—and I am a certified, card-carrying nerd!” On this particular occasion he was straightforward, and then annoyed with himself afterward. ”I thought, ‘Wow, you idiot! He clearly assumed that the only reason you would get to be a member here is had you been an athlete.”

That the athlete/entertainer wealth trope contains a hint of truth—the majority of Black American billionaires fall into those categories, for example—may be evidence of the relatively narrow path our society still offers Black people in terms of wealth and visibility. Black Americans who thrive as entrepreneurs or who reach prominent corporate positions are often overlooked, Raphael says. He likes to ask his white counterparts a question: “I know it makes them uncomfortable but I want to prove a point. I say, ‘In the last 12 months, how many of the people that you’ve invited to your home were Black?’ The answer is almost always zero.”

His point: Your Black work “friends” are colleagues, not real friends, even if you grab drinks on occasion. “You don’t see them as Black people,” Raphael says. “Where most white people see Black people are on TV or in the movies. And the ones who are successful, very rarely is it the professional, the businessman, the entrepreneur.”

Although Raphael’s family was dirt poor, growing up on Dominica and later St. Croix, but several of his siblings ended up successful. His brother Sam now owns a resort in Dominica. Guests regularly ask Sam how he made his money. “The assumption is he must be a drug dealer or something,” Raphael says. (That’s the other trope.) “His going line is ‘I grew up a coconut picker.’ People don’t walk into hotels and ask a white owner, ‘How did you get your money?’”

I have an amateur musician friend who is also most definitely a card-carrying nerd. Mark also happens to be Black and six-foot-nine—and has basically zero interest in sports. Every week for the past three decades, since he reached his adult height, he said in an email, “a total stranger would ask me the same four-word question. It’s practically a script.” He included the script. (I told you he was a nerd!)

EXT. STREET — DAY

MARK is standing on a street corner, minding his own business. Suddenly we see GENERIC EVERYPERSON approach him from the front, looking up at MARK’s height in amazement, mouth opening in slo-mo as a question stumbles out of it.

GENERIC EVERYPERSON (beatifically): Do you play basketball?

MARK (neutral, but like so over this): No I do not.

GENERIC EVERYPERSON (confused, with a hint of hostility): What? Why? If I were your height I’d play all the time! Yadda-yadda-yadda Michael Jordan yadda-yadda-yadda high school coach yadda-yadda-yadda basketball-specific reference that I assume you understand…

MARK (totally checked out): Uh-huh. Uh-huh. That’s nice. Uh-huh.

GENERIC EVERYPERSON (still rolling): Yadda-yadda-yadda Are your kids tall?

FADE OUT

Mark makes a solid living as a creative director for various marketing and tech firms, where he is invariably the company’s first Black creative director. At one job, he befriended a white colleague an inch taller than he is. “None of the above has ever happened to him,” Mark writes.

But “the upside to people thinking I must be a rich ex-baller is that I receive MUCH less racial abuse than other Black people. I’ve gotten free food at restaurants, high fives from numerous drunken men at airport sports bars, and exceptional service at hotels, all because I look like I might have a high-priced attorney on retainer. Fame—even perceived fame due to skin color and height—is more potent than racism.”

Raphael had it good, too, in a way. Despite his family’s relative poverty, his formative years were in St. Croix, where successful Black role models were to be found in every profession one can imagine. Indeed, if you pay close attention, those role models can be found in America, too. The Black community has plenty of whip-smart entrepreneurs and businesspeople; brilliant authors, scholars, scientists, and inventors; doctors, diplomats and judges. But successful people of color are “under-indexed” in America, Ford Foundation President Darren Walker, who is Black, told me in an interview. Our misguided racial narratives contribute “to the lack of achievement and the collective sense of limitations.”

Just food for thought the next time you feel tempted to make an assumption about a person, but lack the knowledge to back it up.

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