They say removing playground basketball nets is about noise—I say it’s about race

"The stereotypes about basketball culture are so pervasive that anti-Black racism is at work here, regardless of the race of the youth who play at the courts."

Photo: iStock photo

We have at least four basketball nets on our small street. At any point during the evening hours, I can hear the relentless thump, thump, thump of a basketball being dribbled on the ground. I know that sound. I know the pitch the ball makes as it’s dribbled on the driveway asphalt, I know the bang of every missed shot. I also know I would never think to walk over to my neighbours and ask them to take their hoop down because the noise of the bouncing ball was bothering me. But that’s exactly what several community members did in Toronto, when a local school put up a few new nets. The local school board removed the nets due to multiple “noise complaints.” 

When I first heard this news, I had two thoughts. Firstly, you can bet those same neighbours were cheering the Toronto Raptors as they worked their way to championship glory. My second thought was, I bet a lot of the kids who frequent the nets are Black.

It turns out this happened in a community that is extremely multi-cultural, with the court being mostly used by kids from Regent Park (a lower-income neighbourhood with a higher representation of visible minorities) and one of Toronto’s multiple Chinatowns.  So they may not be all Black, but they are largely all racialized.

The reality is basketball as a professional sport is dominated by Black men. It is accessible, there are hoops in every inner city, and its association with Black culture and Black identity cannot be denied (despite the fact that it was invented by a White Canadian man).

Surely basketball isn’t the only sport played in this neighbourhood. I’ve heard hockey slap shots—they can be pretty loud. Are the complaints coming in to stop kids from playing hockey in the evenings? We all have an image in our head about what a teenage or young-adult basketball game on a court in the evening looks like: We see kids of all races, maybe predominantly Black, we hear trash talk, maybe there’s music playing.  The kids are street-wise, with a hip hop aesthetic. That’s the stereotype, right?

So, when a group of neighbours get together and lobby a school to remove basketball nets that were just put up, are they really railing only against the noise? They’d say yes. I say no. What these neighbours are really saying is that they don’t want ‘that’ culture in their back yard. It’s the policing of Black and racialized bodies that has happened since the days of slavery.  It plays on the idea that Close up of part of a painting that has historic black figures on it. I took my daughter on a Black History road trip there’s something inherently unsafe, unsettling and threating in the gathering of Black bodies.

Frankly, it doesn’t even matter that the youth playing basketball aren’t all Black. The stereotypes about basketball and basketball culture are so pervasive that anti-Black racism is at work, regardless of the race of the youth. Complaining about the noise is simply more acceptable than complaining about a group of racialized children gathering near your home.  It’s a dog whistle. Saying one thing but meaning something else entirely. And it’s oh so Canadian. Like basketball.

For years, basketball rims in specific neighbourhoods across the Greater Toronto Area have been removed after 6 p.m. This has happened in poor, racialized communities without much attention for years. But recently, a video surfaced of a basketball rim being removed from a City of Toronto park while two White youth where trying to play. In the context of a city that just won an NBA championship has provoked outrage. It didn’t matter when it was just racialized kids who couldn’t play in their communities; there wasn’t outrage when Doug Ford and his late brother Rob were two councillors who voted voted against a Raptors practice facility that would have benefited kids from lower income families. But it matters now. Now that Raptors have won. Now that basketball has transcended race. Now that kids, who used to play hockey in front of their homes, are picking up basketballs. Now it matters.

The fact is, the complaint about “noise” made by basketballs is really a symptom of the racial undertones that has plagued the Raptors path to the championship. From Kyle Lowry being roughed up by a Golden State warrior owner, to the racial profiling of Masai Ujiri, the Raptors president who was stopped by police at the championship game (that is, until a colleague yelled, “Not him,” by which he meant, “You will not target THIS Black man’ and he was pulled onto the court by Lowry), to having an entire city cheering for Black men because of their prowess on the basketball court, while ignoring the crisis of anti-Black racism in our schools, child welfare system and criminal justice system here in Canada, sent a clear message of when Blackness was worthy of celebration.

As the mother of a Black son, I have spent a fair bit of time clapping back at the “Black boy loves basketball” stereotype. I’d bet the neighbours who don’t want the nets in their community are the same individuals looking at two-year-old Black boys and asking them if they are going to be a basketball player. Yes, that’s happened to us. The fact is, like many Canadian kids, until recently, he was more into soccer than basketball, and I was fine with that. I didn’t want him at just 8 years old to feel that he had to live up to people’s restrictive expectations about who he is or who he should be because of how he looks. But now, like nearly all the kids on my street, of all genders and identities, my son is outside everyday, dribbling a basketball, attempting and failing at lay-ups, working on imaginary jump shots, taking the ball down the asphalt court, like Kawhi.  I would hate to think that his new-found enjoyment for this sport could be stifled by a group of neighbours claiming to be offended by the sound of a thumping ball.  The ridiculousness of this complaint, just begs belief and reinforces the idea that there is no way, this can be just about noise.

Without question, the noise complaint, the removal of rims from schools, which the City of Toronto claims is a common practice, is about control and is an exhibition of anti-Black racism at work in community and within systems. It is Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY-ism) layered with racism. It’s also laying bare an uncomfortable truth. There are a lot of downright miserable people living amongst us. The kind of people who hate bouncing balls. The kind of people for whom the bounce sounds louder depending on who is doing the bouncing. The kind of people that need to get over it, live their life and let young kids get out, get some exercise and shoot some hoops.

Read more:
Your kids are learning about race right now—make sure they’re learning the right things
As a mixed-race woman, I’m nervous about the royal baby

 

 

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