Q: You live and work in a state in an area that is overwhelmingly white. What do you want people to know about living life as a black man that your neighbors and fellow community members might not immediately know? Does it change your daily life and how you raise your family?
Right up front and making it perfectly clear, I want to say that I am proud to be from this Tri-State Area. Like all places in the world, we have our ups and downs. We have our positives and negatives. But my family is here and my roots are here and I wouldn’t have it any other way. The man I am today is in part a product of upbringing in Lawrence County, Ohio. Life is such a complicated thing, it is very difficult to sum up in a few sentences all the things I would want people to know about what living life as a black man in our area has been like. To put it in perspective, I would ask for a white man to imagine living in a community where over 90% of the people were black. If everything you do and every major decision you make are overwhelmingly influenced by black people. Most police officers, teachers, medical professionals, lawyers, judges, people making your food. Employers ... black. In most cases when you are in a meeting or reception area, you may very well be the only white person in the room.That is the reality for black people every day.
As a coach and educator, do you feel like your race has affected the way people view you — players, parents, bosses, coworkers?
There are many ways I feel race has affected the way people look at me. One of the biggest challenges to overcome is the perception that any position I hold is attained due to my race and not on the merits of my work or ability. Winning or being successful is tough on its own. When you add the pressure of disproving the doubters and naysayers, the slope to success gets a lot steeper. Early in my career, that pressure hindered my coaching and teaching. As I mature, I am better at focusing on what is important. I only have to prove myself to God, my family and the student-athletes. The rest will take care of itself.
I can say without a doubt that race has affected the way some people look at me and players during the spirit of competition. I can name numerous situations where players and myself have endured racial slurs. It is very challenging to get a young man to calm down and play a very intense basketball game. When you add this type of nonsense, working with kids goes to a whole other level. And here’s the reality. Kids sometimes know where those hateful words are coming from, and other times they do not. When this hate goes on unchecked, at some point the anger over someone saying it gets surpassed with the anger of why nobody is stopping it. This all starts with leadership and people doing the right thing. There are so many good people in the world of all races that these situations can be handled.
The ultimate goal is to eliminate racism. But let’s be honest, hate will always be present in the world. As we try to reach this goal, I think it is very important we set up systems that create safety and security for all people. This must be attained before you can ever even talk about reaching the American dream. People have to step up, and it starts with first speaking up.
We hear stories sometimes about interactions with police or government employees in which black men and women feel profiled before a conversation even starts. Does that match up with what your experience has been like? Are there any stories you feel comfortable sharing?
To answer the first part of the question, those stories are real. It’s every day I can give you a personal example or find a situation of racial profiling. It goes beyond the situation with government. Forms of the tactic can be found in your grocery store and hair salon. The examples are there, but to prove it is something else. The intent behind hateful and hurtful actions is hard to bring to the surface. This issue is so deep and complex, I believe a concise response is hard to provide in this format.
You were one of very few black coaches in this area until your retirement. What is that like? What are the repercussions of that for black kids who don’t have many role models who look like them to aspire to in your profession? How much responsibility does that give you, to be that role model?
White or black, as a coach you are a role model, on the court and in the community. I have always taken that responsibility very seriously. As a black coach, one of my responsibilities is to be an example to my black athletes on how to handle themselves. Now, just as important is the larger number of white players I have coached. What message am I sending them about race?
I tried very hard to create a locker room of open conversation. Sometimes that can get a little messy, but I would rather have those discussions in the locker room where I can foster a healthy result, as opposed to not talking at all and letting young men figure it out on their own.
On the topic of role models as coaches, in our area that is a very simple history. Take a close look and you will realize there have not been many black head coaches in our area until about the 1990s. And even then, it’s very limited. In Lawrence County, I believe I was the first black head coach and also the first black school administrator. I was having a conversation with my good friend, Portsmouth coach Gene Collins. It is sad to think that during our conversation that we could literally name most of the black basketball coaches in the history of this area. And like I said ... that history just started in the ‘90s.
I will say I am very thankful to all the people that have helped and been an example to me along the way (black or white). With my previous statements, you can see that black role models in my position as a school administrator and coach are not too often found in our area. I must fulfill my obligation to the next generation of black coaches in our area by finishing my career in the right way and staying accessible to them later in life.
MARK LAFON is the director of student services at Ironton City Schools. The Chesapeake, Ohio native was the boys basketball coach at Ironton High School from 2005-19, following tenures coaching South Point’s boys and Chesapeake’s girls.