We're used to seeing that strength/weakness dichotomy manifest itself on the court, where the same confidence that led Bryant to 24,374 shots and fourth on the NBA's all-time scoring list makes him difficult to coach at times, even for Phil Jackson. A similar split can be seen in the comments he made in a recent The New Yorker profile, in which the narrative went from the Miami Heat's hoodie-wearing show of support for Trayvon Martin to Bryant's personal policy on race-related stories:
"I won't react to something just because I'm supposed to, because I'm an African-American. That argument doesn't make any sense to me. So we want to advance as a society and a culture, but, say, if something happens to an African-American, we immediately come to his defense? Yet you want to talk about how far we've progressed as a society? Well, then don't jump to somebody's defense just because they're African-American."
We live in a world in which people are often motivated by fear -- especially the fear of the unknown -- and embrace the opportunity to play the role of victim. But those things don't apply to Kobe Bryant in his 30s.
Kobe is fearless, doing and saying what he wants without regard to consequence. He doesn't think of himself or others as victims. He doesn't feel things just happen to people. He thinks people determine what happens to them.
Those are admirable traits, but they got him in trouble in this case.
Black Twitter, the same social-media subset that drove the Trayvon Martin story to prominence in the first place, pounced on Bryant's comments. The perception was that Bryant provided distance and criticism of the Heat -- and, by extension, the African-American community -- with his words.
When I ran into Bryant before the Los Angeles Lakers' game against the Phoenix Suns Sunday night, he said that the quote in question does not reflect his thoughts on the Martin case specifically, but in a general sense. Bryant was dismayed that a rift was created between people attacking him for what he said and people defending him -- staunch Kobe supporters, the anti-PC crowd rallying against groupthink -- for saying it. All that does, he said, is create another obstacle when everyone is after the same goal: equality. As for his opinion on the Martin case, which eventually resulted in a not-guilty verdict once George Zimmerman was brought to trial, he echoed the tweet he sent out on Thursday that read:
- Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) March 27, 2014
The flaw I find in Bryant's comments to The New Yorker is the notion that blackness could shroud perspective or preclude people from doing the right thing.
Even though it turned out that the Sanford, Fla., police department was correct in its initial determination that it did not have enough evidence to get a murder conviction against Zimmerman, it was still important for people to call for a trial -- for the legal side of Trayvon Martin's story to be written as an extensive essay rather than a brief Facebook post, to have a conversation about the dangers of racial profiling, to ask whether our country values the right to own and use a gun over the right to live. If all of that came from African-Americans rushing in, so be it.
Sometimes, the African-American perspective simply means sympathy, not advocacy. It's wondering if wearing a hoodie while walking my dog through my mostly white neighborhood automatically makes me a crime suspect and a candidate for "justifiable" homicide. It's president Barack Obama saying "Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago" and bringing up the common African-American experiences of hearing car doors lock while walking down the street or seeing women clutch their purses while stepping on an elevator. "That all contributes, I think, to a sense that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario," Obama said, "that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different."
For many African-Americans, it was the moment they had been waiting for from Obama. It didn't have to be a policy statement or a law enacted, simply an indication from someone in such a powerful position that he feels the same way. That's why Black Twitter felt so disappointed in Bryant and let him know about it: He didn't seem to come from a place of understanding.
There's no such thing as the African-American perspective, but there's certainly an African-American perspective, and it shouldn't be dismissed as merely a victim's mentality. You don't need a desire to be a victim to become one.
Trayvon Martin was a real victim. At the very least, he was a gunshot victim, but there were questions beyond that -- murder victim? Victim of racial profiling? -- and, at first, it seemed that African-Americans were the only ones donning the Sherlock Holmes hats. A system predicated on checks and balances requires someone to speak out, or at least question. Sometimes, passive acceptance can be more dangerous than overreaction.
Kobe doesn't mind being defined as black; he just doesn't want to be restricted by that definition. He made that clear in his comments right before The New Yorker passage in question, when he told the writer: "There is a bigger issue in terms of being an African-American athlete and the box people try to put you in because of it. And it's always a struggle to step outside of that."
There's speculation in the article, and elsewhere, that spending his childhood in Italy and in the American suburbs led to a disconnect between Bryant and black culture. But that, again, implies that there is a singular black experience with which to connect. Bryant chooses to focus on the path laid down by Martin Luther King Jr. and downplay differences. That was never more evident than in his Instagram post from Thursday that quoted King -- "I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character" -- and added "WE can't further the movement if WE don't further the movement ourselves. #equality #colorblind embrace our cultures history and how far we've come while continuing to take it further #itsonus."
It's an idealistic view, one that assumes that if you don't discriminate based on skin color that no one else will, either. It's shaped by his confidence in the power of one and the ability for individuals to overcome all. What he learned is that failing to believe in the possibility of being a victim can be the quickest path to victimhood yourself.