One of the most beautiful things about sports is that everybody agrees to follow a set of rules so that everyone knows what’s expected, all while challenging one another. Those rules don’t change often, so it’s pretty easy to enjoy the game.
We have rules socially, too. For centuries, our country’s worst rules told us that discrimination based on race was perfectly fine and even expected. Thankfully, millions of voices today are calling foul on that.
While this may be the start of a hopeful journey, do we have real proof that we can change and rewrite the racial handbook?
If my own family is any example, then yes, we do.
An old pool, a new team, and dinner guests
My mom grew up in a part of Arizona where racial attitudes were really strong. My grandfather had a big cotton farm there. When my mom was young — back in the 1950s — he even built a pool out on the farm so his children wouldn’t have to swim at the public pool with Black kids.
After marriage, my parents settled in California. When my grandfather got sick, we packed up and moved back to Arizona to be closer to my mom’s family. My dad had been a varsity coach for a few years, so he ended up taking over a freshman team in our new town.
But there were additional challenges to taking on this team that my dad hadn’t yet encountered. Racial divisions were still prevalent in the town. My dad discovered that the varsity coach wouldn’t play his Black players. They never left the bench. My dad didn’t coach that way — you play your best players. Period.
The team wasn’t exactly known for bringing in the trophies — but my dad was able to work with each player, emphasising their strengths. It worked. The team started getting wins. My dad was moved to the varsity coach, where he continued to build real relationships with these players.
That’s when he started bringing them home for dinner.
For the record, my mom never outwardly made racist comments. But with the way she’d been raised, you can imagine what she must have been thinking when my dad started bringing the players over to our home. Here she was — the person who’d been taught she couldn’t even swim with the Black kids — and her husband was having people of colour pull up chairs at our table like family.
These dinners solidified my understanding of how we are meant to treat others. We’re all here together — why not act like it?
My dad continued to go above and beyond for the kids on the team. For instance, most of the kids lived outside of town, so he’d take them home in his pickup truck after practice. One player, Robbie, started gaining interest from college recruiters — but Robbie’s dad had just passed away. He was 17 and about to be placed in foster care, but Dad didn’t let that happen.
Robbie ended up becoming part of our family, and my dad signed for him. He became the closest thing I had to an older brother. Eventually, Robbie got drafted by the San Francisco Warriors — and if it hadn’t been for a car accident that messed up his knee, nothing would have stopped him.
My dad’s influence was significant in Robbie’s life and throughout our family. He did what felt right, and while it might not have been what mom was accustomed to, she adjusted accordingly.
I saw mom change.
Eventually, the girl who’d been told not to be around people of colour ended up packing up plates of food for them to take home at Christmas. And when she passed away about 15 years ago, rainbows of skin tones attended the funeral. Because of my father, she had learned to respect people of different backgrounds.
Don’t be passive — take action and change
Not everybody we shared dinners with was crazy successful. That’s life. But their stories prove that, no matter how you’re raised, no matter what someone else has taught you, you can still learn. Taking action can set a new tone and put you on a better path. Daring to do something, even as simple as dinner, can result in actionable change.
Set the example because if anyone has the power to rewrite the rules, it’s you.
David Partain is CMO FlexShares Exchange Traded Funds, Northern Trust Corporation.