They’re called microaggressions. They are small and brief behaviors and comments, everyday messages that just happen in the flow. They are offensive and derogatory, just not enough to rise to the level of rebuttal.
Red Sox minor leaguers Josh Ockimey and Josh Tobias feel them all the time, subtle reminders of the skin they’re in. It happens on the road, in restaurants, in hotels, even in clubhouses and dugouts that are supposed to be safe spaces for ballplayers. Navigating the minors, before the fame can shield them from the darts, is burdensome.
“I’ve gotten comments like, ‘Oh he’s just that Black guy that doesn’t stop talking,’ ” Tobias said. “Or ‘He’s the Black that’s a jokester.' You get comments like that. They’re hurtful, and the person doesn’t think they’re hurtful. You kind of just brush it under the rug.”
These are different from the macroaggressions — being called the n-word, for instance — that draw the most attention and can’t be easily overlooked. But microaggressions keep stacking up until they become just as heavy.
“It’s the sort of stuff that a lot of people wouldn’t see as racist or prejudice,” said Ockimey, a Philadelphia native. “Like, ‘That guy doesn’t talk Black’ or ‘That guy doesn’t act Black.’
“I notice it when I go on my morning runs. I’m walking back and people cross the street or they hold something they have really tight because they think I’m going to steal it. That’s racism.”
Ockimey, 24, played all of 2019 in Triple A Pawtucket and was a nonroster invitee to spring training this year. Tobias, 27, played in both Double A Portland and Triple A, where he and Ockimey were teammates.
Tobias grew up in Greensboro, N.C., and said people often tried to dismiss his Blackness because he played baseball, a game dominated by white players even at the youth level. He’s now battling to prove why his Blackness matters. He and Ockimey represent a Red Sox organization with very few Black players in it.
Ockimey is the only Black player on the Sox’ Triple A roster. Tobias and Marcus Wilson are the only Black players on the Sox’ Double A roster.
Being Black requires being bold. Survival requires a hardened exterior. For both Ockimey and Tobias, they can’t focus just on getting better and being good teammates. They have to exist and thrive in a space that doesn’t embrace them the way it does most teammates.
This is the challenge of nearly every African-American in the country. How to manage the emotions and reactions to being the, well, black sheep. How to best gauge intent, separate the well-intentioned mistakes from the Freudian slips of bigots.
For Ockimey and Tobias, and many other Black minor leaguers, the challenge can seem especially difficult because they play on predominantly white teams, playing largely in parts of the country with less than progressive views.
“It’s about knowing how to navigate a space,” said Dr. Marc Lamont Hill, a media studies professor at Temple University and the author of “Nobody: Casualties of America’s War on the Vulnerable, from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond.” “Black people have had to survive in this country.
“We know when we’re in Black spaces we can operate with some level of comfort. When we’re in white spaces we can’t. In the NBA and NFL, there are Black spaces.”
Major League Baseball, and its minor leagues, are decidedly not Black spaces.
Because of the low numbers of Blacks in the sport (just 7.7 percent in the majors last season), baseball’s culture hasn’t had to confront its own issues with diversity and inclusion. Sure, there has been a lot of talk about the decline of the number of African-American baseball players. But the culture of baseball is mostly allowed to exist unimpeded because it is predominantly white — until some macroaggressions bring a negative spotlight.
Typically, a Black player (and the same could be said for Latino players) is tasked with fitting into baseball’s culture. That often requires swallowing the offensive and insulting elements. That requires being held to different, often harder, standards and processes.
Both Tobias and Ockimey said the idea of speaking out against certain injustices they’ve witnessed or experienced as Black men in baseball has sometimes given them pause.
“In most cases, we are maybe one or two Black guys in the locker room,” Ockimey said. “We’ve felt if we speak out on something, we would be seen as the angry Black guy. It’s a messed-up way to label it, but it’s true. You’re always going to be outnumbered.”
The recent death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police officers has all but erased the hesitation for many. That includes Ockimey and Tobias.
Both are now using their social media platforms to say what’s in their hearts. They’ve criticized the nation for its defenseless killings of Blacks in America. They’re now willing to speak about the discrimination, subtle and otherwise, they experience in baseball.
They have lost “friends” in the process.
“If somebody’s upset about me posting this,” Tobias said, “then they’re really not my friend.”
I don’t understand how someone can see everything that’s going on, say nothing about equality and stopping police brutality on Black people, but first thing they want to talk about are riots. Ignoring something that makes you uncomfortable is not going to lead to progress.— Josh Ockimey (@josh_ock) June 1, 2020
Ockimey and Tobias did acknowledge that some white players have joined them in denouncing police brutality and systemic racism in America. But they are clear about this: It is just a start. They are like many African-Americans who aren’t ready to give a lot of credit to people who are now deciding to speak out on something so obviously unjust.
“This is an uncontroversial move,” Hill said. “Nike is speaking out against this. Ben and Jerry’s is speaking out against this. The issue isn’t speaking out but it’s speaking out when it’s unpopular.”
Baseball has long been considered America’s pastime. That was true for multiple reasons, and one of them is how it reflected the system of racial injustice in the country. The prejudice of Americans, embedded in pockets of white culture, has been woven into the DNA of baseball culture. So even while recent events have opened the eyes of some white people, or at least inspired them to speak up, the actual changing of the culture will take time.
Until that happens, and many doubt that it will, the experiences of Tobias and Ockimey and other Black players, especially at the minor league levels, may not change so much.
Sometimes being Black in America means dimming your light or biting your tongue in order to survive. That holds true in baseball, too, particularly for those Black players in the minors trying to navigate their way to the majors.
“You always take into account who’s [inside the clubhouse],” Tobias said. “Me and Ockimey been playing together for a while now. I used to be quiet. I wouldn’t talk a lot. [But] then part of me was like, I’m just going to be who I want to be. If they don’t like it, they can get over it.”