“It bothers me a lot that you want to…broadcast that you’re associating with Black people. Do you have to?”
These are not from a Hollywood script or historical slave narrative from the 1800s. These words were spoken by billionaire Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers and successful real estate investor and businessman to his alleged girlfriend, V. Stiviano—a woman of Black and Mexican ancestry whose now infamous recordings have exposed the underbelly of racism and plantation politics in professional basketball. In these recordings, Sterling is heard not only pleading with Stiviano to disassociate publicly from Black people, but also stating, “I’m living in a culture, and I have to live within the culture.”
What “culture” is that? The racist, patriarchal culture that has informed and cultivated a lingering social and economic inequality in this country since the 1600s. The one that excused the violent behaviors of slaveowners to the perceived inhumanity of Black people. The one that permitted slaveowners to rape slavewomen and “reward” them with small tokens, but never the full cloak, of privilege. These are the politics of the plantation. The “culture” that Sterling references, which accepts that there is no value to walking, talking, or posing for photos with Black people, is one steeped in the belief of White male supremacy. The roles in this consciousness extend far beyond Black players on a basketball team. As a multiracial Black woman on this “plantation,” Stiviano was a high-ranking “slavewoman” who no doubt benefited from the favor of the boss—ol’ massa so to speak. However, with the release of these recordings, she exposed the presence of these plantation politics in professional basketball—and from all of this, she’s been labeled a gold digger. A groupie. A snitch. A homewrecker.
But that’s too easy.
Let me be clear. Stiviano is no Harriet Jacobs or Sojourner Truth. Her own internalized oppression is evident in the recording when she states, “I wish I could change the color of my skin.” However, Stiviano was ultimately a woman who–willingly or not—played a plantation card that sprinkled a little poison in Massa’s tea.
I don’t know if she’s a gold digger…
But I’m saying she may be a whistleblower.
The truth is that women are routinely treated as trophies in this industry. They are portrayed as an all-encompassing Jezebel Sapphire who is at once vindictive and hypersexual. But this depiction is about as stereotypical as the over-simplified narrative about the perceived sexual choices of Black male athletes. The treatment of Black people in sport is arguably no different than in other industries that exploit Black bodies for profit and produce a particular vulnerability to plantation politics, rife with owners, overseers, under or unpaid labor, and abuse. Yes, most of us are outraged by Sterling’s comments. But we should be upset by so much more. Instead of focusing so intently on the transgressions of Sterling and Stiviano, we might consider that this is an opportunity to tear down the house that institutionalism racism and sexism built. This is a chance to rethink the structure of team ownership and renegotiate the values articulated by Sterling as central to the “culture” in which he operates. Remember, a culture is created by more than one, and it operates in multiple industries. There are others who share Sterling’s beliefs.
Frederick Douglass stated, “Power concedes nothing without demand.” Plantation politics is more than a mentality. It is a practice that affects how we connect with others, whether we feel they are worthy of our public displays of affection, the extent to which we invest in their wellbeing, and the extent to which we recognize their inherent freedom of choice and action as a human right. And so the figurative plantation has to go. Our challenge is to develop new models for doing business, establishing ethical codes, and elevating practices that are rooted in a commitment to implement the demands of justice.
In other words, if we rebuild the foundation upon which the game is played, the power structure will have to adjust. This may be the ultimate “victory” of the Sterling banishment from the NBA.