When Daved Benefield was growing up in Pasadena, he used to boogie board on the beaches at Malibu and Santa Monica.
He once got into big trouble as a teenager when he and his friend Chris crashed Chris’s father’s Lamborghini. The first time he heard rap music his mother, Betty, was driving him to his largely white high school in Pasadena. She said, “That’s awful,” and turned the volume down.
At Cal State-Northridge, he pledged to a largely Jewish fraternity. As a football player, he admits to experiencing prejudice because his coaches didn’t believe he was black enough. And when he got to the CFL, his American teammates thought he was Canadian because of the way he talked.
Benefield, in short, can put the lie to any racial stereotype. But here’s the thing. He’ll tell you putting the lie to that racial stereotype is also a racial stereotype. He’s a black man who surfed, who took art classes, who likes to write and now works for a plumbing wholesaler. So what? None of those things define him anymore than being a black, retired football player from Los Angeles defines him.
“When I first got here in the ‘90s I know there weren’t a lot of black folks (in Vancouver), but it bothers me that people don’t take the time to get to know you,” he says. “Sometimes I think that’s racist; that you’d just look at a black person and generalize.”
Like when he’s stopped at a traffic light and sees the driver of the other car lock their door. Or when people meet him and assume he’s from Seattle because that’s where black people come from in the Pacific Northwest. Or when people tell him his eight-year-old son Ty is a great natural athlete.
“That’s painful,” says Benefield, a 6-foot-4, 250 pound man who made all-CFL twice in a 13-year professional career and, presumably, knows something about pain.
“You take all that in and you ride with it. You just see how people react to you and you go from there.”
Benefield has been following The Province’s series on racism in British Columbia, and when he was contacted about being interviewed for a piece in the series, he said he’d been thinking about writing to the paper. About what, was the next question?
He knows his story isn’t as dramatic as some of the stories which have appeared in these pages. He hasn’t been subjected to violence. He hasn’t been denied a livelihood or a place to live because of his race.
Still, he wanted to tell his story. Benefield, in fact, loves Vancouver and chose to make this city his home with his wife A.J., an investigator with the Vancouver Police Department, and their children, Ty and six-year-old Addison. But there’s a lot that goes with being a black man in Vancouver — a lot that’s funny, a lot that’s sad, and a lot that’s painful — and that’s what Benefield wanted to talk about.
“People look at you and they make assumptions,” he says. “And they don’t want to see anything else.”
That’s what he’d like to change. So he sat down with someone who’s known him for 15 years and he talked; talked about the funny stuff, the sad stuff and the painful stuff. And in telling his story, he hopes he can change perceptions about race and colour and what we see when we look at a black man.
He’s aware he doesn’t fit into a nice, neat box. He was raised about two blocks from the Rose Bowl in an upper-middle class neighbourhood which has long been home to black families. Jackie Robinson and his brother Mack are from Pasadena. So’s George Patton and Linus Pauling. Benefield’s father, David, was a military man who owned grocery stores and other businesses in the Los Angeles area.
One of the first lessons Benefield senior taught his son was how to deal with the police. He said be polite, be respectful, say, “Yes sir,’ and ‘No sir,’ but don’t be subservient.
“That was a big life lesson,” says Benefield. “I’ve always remembered that.”
He also came of age when, as he says, a wave of blackness hit the United States. Michael Jordan was one of the most visible faces on the planet. The Cosby Show was a huge hit on television. Michael Jackson might have been the most popular entertainer in the world.
And yet he doesn’t recall a moment when his black consciousness was raised. He went to the beach with his friends. They raced around the San Rafael Hills. One of his pals, Jason, ended up going to MIT.
“I was the Fresh Prince or the Huxtables,” he said with a laugh.
“I wasn’t Finding Forrester (a movie about an inner-city kid who befriends a famous writer).”
He was also an athlete and football took him to Cal State-Northridge. There, he joined the Jewish fraternity.
“They sought me out,” he says. “I had no idea they were Jewish. I thought they were hip white guys because they wore gold chains.”
And there he began to understand his colour changed people’s expectations of him.
The conceit in football circles is colour doesn’t matter; that the only thing that matters is a players’ ability to contribute to a winning effort. Benefield says that’s true to a point. But he’ll also tell you there’s an institutional racism embedded in the game which prejudges a man based on his colour.
A black quarterback, for example, is generally referred to as a natural athlete. He’s seldom referred to as field general or having a high football I.Q.
As for Benefield, his problem was a number of his early coaches didn’t believe he was mean enough to play defensive end, his position in college, or linebacker, the position he morphed into in the CFL.
One coach called him Pretty Boy. Enis Jackson, his teammate with the Lions, had to be convinced Benefield was from California and not Canada.
His cousin, Marcellus Wiley, had the same problem. Wiley went to Columbia and lasted just 10 years as a defensive end in the NFL.
“I used to hear this all the time, ‘you’re not really black,’” says Benefield. “That meant I had to be a certain way and I took that to heart. I used to act up and hit the anger button.”
And he played angry. In the CFL, he painted his face and adopted the alter ego, Mr. Furious. He played 13 years that way, 12 in the CFL, including six with the Lions, and the 1996 season with San Francisco in the NFL. Then he retired after the 2005 season and settled in Vancouver.
He says he still loves Pasadena and the area in which he grew up. But he doesn’t like the direction the United States is headed. It’s the Blue State-Red State thing. It’s the deep polarization on the most important issues.
“Politics,” he says, “is screwing everything up.”
So he’s made Vancouver his home. Again, Benefield isn’t railing against the injustices he faces as a black man or the intolerance he encounters on a daily basis. He simply asks people to look past the colour and see the man.
He can laugh about a lot of it.
“I know they shoot a lot of movies in Vancouver,” he says. “But I get these looks. It’s like people think I’m either Denzel Washington or Don Cheadle.”
He recently ran into someone who insisted he’d met Benefield. Turned out the guy in question had met James “Quick” Parker, another former Lion who’s 10 years older and six inches shorter than Benefield.
But it also wears on him. He talks about coaching the defensive line at UBC and having young black men tell him it’s difficult for them. They don’t get the same level of coaching because they’re supposed to be naturals at the game.
“It’s like ‘there’s the bass,”’ he says. “Go play it. You don’t need any lessons.”
Benefield talked for the better part of an hour and, as is often the case when the subject of race is discussed, it raised a couple of issues for the two men involved in the conversation. His interrogator has travelled extensively in the United States and felt compelled to share this with Benefield. There are times he’s walked around a city like Detroit or Chicago or Philadelphia and felt uneasiness when he’s come across a black face.
Why is that? Benefield asked.
Wish I could tell you, was the answer. Ignorance. Self-preservation. Fear. It’s hard to say.
Benefield thought about this for a minute, then said: “That’s OK. There are a lot of places in Vancouver I don’t feel safe.”
And both men shared a laugh.
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