Steelers’ Mike Tomlin teaches faith along with football Coaches were ‘the guys that told me right from wrong’ as he grew up without his father

Millions of fans see the cross hanging from Mike Tomlin’s neck on Sundays as he commands the sidelines for the Pittsburgh Steelers. But when he steps in front of the microphones, the questions are never about faith — they’re always football.

What does that cross mean to Tomlin? What guides the man behind the mirrored sunglasses and guarded coachspeak?

Ahead of his 13th season as the Steelers’ head coach, I spoke with Tomlin about his spiritual life and then followed him to the annual Christian men’s conference ManUp, which supports young people in the Pittsburgh area whose fathers aren’t involved in their lives.

Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin speaks to a group of men during a ManUp conference breakout session. Tomlin’s coaching method involves encouraging his players to grow personally and spiritually.

Justin Merriman The Undefeated

Football is full of overt appeals to God: Touchdown Jesus, postgame prayer circles, players in the end zone pointing to the heavens. After winning the Super Bowl in 2018, Philadelphia Eagles coach Doug Pederson credited “my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Tomlin’s mentor, Tony Dungy, has an open Bible in his commemorative locker at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

None of that is Tomlin’s style. During our interview, and listening to him speak at ManUp, he rarely used the words “God” or “Christ.” He declined to discuss his churchgoing activities. Instead, Tomlin emphasized pragmatic virtues and actions that are needed on the playing field of life.

“We’ve got to find artful ways to instill that moral fiber and that decision-making we’re all talking about,” Tomlin said during a session at ManUp entitled “Coaching to Transform Lives.”

Tomlin’s high school coach burned life lessons into young Mike’s memory as the team sweated through leg lifts in practice. “Maybe your style and delivery is different,” Tomlin said, “but you better find a way to consistently deliver messaging that’s going to push them to be better people. And you got an awesome vehicle in which to do it through your coaching.”

Mike Tomlin (left) is joined onstage by pastor Tunch Ilkin (right), a former Steelers player, as he speaks at the ManUp conference in Pittsburgh.

Justin Merriman for The Undefeated

Steelers tight end Vance McDonald said a subtle undercurrent of faith runs through Tomlin’s interactions with his team.

“He does a great job of his approach as coach, and as leader of the Steelers, of applying biblical and Christian truths but doing it in a way that’s not right in your face,” McDonald told me. “And it’s superdelicate: You’re going to overstep or you’re not going to present it as much as you should. It’s delicate, but he does a great job. He does it humbly, and he does it well, because guys respond to things that he says. And when you are a Christian in the audience, you’re like, ‘Hey, I know exactly what he’s talking about.’ ”

Tomlin, 47, told me his method is to encourage his players to grow personally and spiritually, “but they’re not tangible goals. I want to see continual growth as players and as men, and I think we all should aspire to live our lives in that way. This journey of life that we’re on, or this journey that is a professional football career, you’d like to think that you’re learning from the experiences that you go through. You’d like to think that you’re getting better through the process, and that’s my hope for them.”

Tomlin (center) poses for a photo with a group of men during a VIP meet-and-greet at the ManUp Pittsburgh conference, which drew about 2,000 people.

Justin Merriman The Undefeated

At the ManUp conference, which drew about 2,000 people to a huge church in suburban Pittsburgh earlier this summer, Tomlin showed another side of his coiled-steel work demeanor. He smiled and joked. He wore no hat or sunglasses. He spoke often about the challenges he and his wife face raising their daughter and two sons, including the eldest, Michael Tomlin Jr., nicknamed “Dino,” an incoming freshman wide receiver at the University of Maryland.

Tomlin got one of his biggest laughs at the conference after revealing that his kids accuse him of enjoying their “short-term misery” because it provides teachable moments. Dino finished second in the state of Pennsylvania in the 100-meter dash his junior year, then missed the 2019 championship with a hamstring injury. “Man, I kind of enjoyed it,” Tomlin said, then corrected himself. “I’m just gonna tell you straight up: I enjoyed it.

“It was an opportunity for me, one last opportunity for me, to have my hands on him and be around him as he endures adversity,” Tomlin said. “Injury is a part of sport an any level, particularly once you get beyond high school. So, man, it’s a great opportunity for me to watch him deal with injury in a professional life manner and do the things that you’re required to do.”

Tomlin has a career regular-season record of 125-66-1 with the Steelers and is one of only two African American head coaches in the NFL.

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

He spoke about growing up without his father in the football hotbed of Hampton Roads, Virginia. Until age 5, Tomlin lived with his mother and older brother at his grandparents’ home. His mother then got her own apartment and later remarried. Tomlin credits his grandfather, stepfather and youth coaches with serving as his father figures.

“I didn’t get into this to be the head football coach of the Steelers, to be quite honest with you,” Tomlin said during his keynote address at ManUp. “When you come from a less-than-advantageous background, socioeconomic issues and things of that nature, fatherlessness is very prevalent in those communities. And so those young men, they look around and they’re looking for truth. Forget what people say, they look at how [other people] live, how they conduct themselves, what the day-to-day looks like, and the most stand-up guys in my community were coaches. Those are not only the guys that told me right from wrong, but when I watched them, they were living it out.

“I just had so much respect for the living witnesses and for the lives of those men, and wanted to be like them. I wanted to impact kids that were like me.”

Tomlin on his coaching style: “I try to display legitimate humility. There’s not enough of it. And boy, there’s plenty of opportunities to learn it.”

Justin Merriman for The Undefeated

Tomlin is now a living witness for the grown men who play for the Steelers. He was 34 when he was named head coach in 2007. In 2009, he became the youngest head coach to win a Super Bowl. He reached another Super Bowl in 2011 but lost to Green Bay. Now with a career regular-season record of 125-66-1, and one of the best winning percentages in football, Tomlin is one of only two African American head coaches in the NFL. He should soon surpass Dungy as the most successful black coach in league history.

Asked by a ManUp audience member what role faith plays in his coaching, he cited the Christian maxim that “humility is confidence properly placed in God.”

“That is my coaching style … I try to display legitimate humility,” Tomlin said. “There’s not enough of it. And boy, there’s plenty of opportunities to learn it. I just try to live that out in every way that I can, to show legitimate humility, and that I got my confidence properly placed.”

Ronnell Heard, head football coach at Imani Christian Academy in Pittsburgh, and his twin brother, Rodney, an assistant coach at Imani, said Tomlin’s remarks helped them keep faith central to their coaching. “Coach Tomlin spoke about the elephant in the room,” Ronnell said.

“Faith is the biggest aspect of how we coach,” Rodney said. “Everything we do, we put God first. Our performance on the field is in honor of God. The way we conduct ourselves is in honor of God.”

When I asked Tomlin what role prayer plays in his coaching, he said he never prays for victory. “Just leadership, good decisions, but not necessarily anything specific relative to the outcome of games. We’ve all been blessed in all the appropriate ways. I just ask for the wisdom and discernment that comes with the decision-making and leading these guys.”

He became most animated when I asked if there is any conflict between the qualities associated with great football players — ferocious, violent, merciless — and the kindness and mercy encouraged by New Testament scriptures such as “the meek shall inherit the earth” or the Gospel of John’s “God is love.”

Clinton Bridges, 49, of East Liberty, Pennsylvania, asks Tomlin a question during a breakout session at ManUp Pittsburgh. Bridges coaches basketball and expressed his concern about young men swearing.

Justin Merriman for The Undefeated

“I don’t think there’s a conflict at all,” Tomlin said with a smile. “If Jesus was a football player, I think he would go extremely hard and extremely fair. I think he would finish. I think he would embody all the tough elements of the game that we embrace. Notice I don’t talk about being dirty. I talk about just playing hard and fair, within the rules of the game and the ways that endear you to your teammates. Being selfless in your efforts.”

What position would Jesus play, coach?

“Good question. Let me think about that for a second.

“He’d be a quarterback and a middle linebacker — because you would want to put the game in His hands.”

The NCAA doesn’t have a Rich Paul problem. It has a problem with black men. The move to regulate agents looks like yet another effort to police black mobility and freedom

The NCAA doesn’t have a Rich Paul problem. The problem is that its structure is designed to regulate the freedom of athletes to turn pro in primarily black sports but not in white ones.

And an entity that now preaches the importance of college graduation for agents doesn’t have the same righteous energy for black athletes at its most lucrative institutions.

Earlier this week, the NCAA implemented what was immediately labeled the “Rich Paul Rule,” after the man who represents NBA players LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Draymond Green, John Wall, Ben Simmons and 2019 first-round draft picks Darius Garland and Darius Bazley. The new regulations require that agents interested in representing players who are considering declaring for the NBA draft now must have a bachelor’s degree, be certified with the National Basketball Players Association for at least three years and take a comprehensive in-person exam at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis. Paul, who never attended college, is one of many agents affected by this rule — but unquestionably the most prominent.

The NCAA’s move was instantly lambasted as hypocritical and vindictive. “The world is so afraid of ground breakers.…This is beyond sad & major B.S.,” tweeted comedian Kevin Hart. James, Paul’s biggest client, longtime friend and confidant, could only laugh at the NCAA’s energy, saying, “Nothing will stop this movement and culture over here.”

Chris Rock explained the context for the NCAA mandate years ago. “We’re only 10% of the population,” he said on 2004’s Never Scared. “We’re 90% of the Final Four!”

Only basketball must adhere to the new NCAA mandate. The actual text doesn’t mention race. Nevertheless, the writing is not just written on the wall, it’s been carved. It’s a “race-neutral” rule that isn’t race-neutral. This comes with historical precedence that the NCAA knows all too well.

One of the worst-kept secrets in sports is how top-tier college football and basketball programs directly benefited from desegregation. Before integration, the vast majority of top black athletes had no choice but to attend historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Once the larger and richer predominantly white schools began to integrate, HBCUs couldn’t compete. But there’s been a parallel development too: The graduation rates for black athletes at top sports programs remain consistently and embarrassingly low.

Agent Rich Paul (right), seen here with LeBron James (left), is a threat. To the status quo. To the hierarchy of power.

Photo by Jerritt Clark/Getty Images for Klutch Sports Group

Shaun R. Harper, executive director of the University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Center, found that, overall, black male athletes graduate at higher percentages than black males who are not involved in sports. But that’s not true for the NCAA’s wealthiest leagues: the Power 5 of the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC.

“The [NCAA] has claimed in television commercials that black male student-athletes at Division I institutions graduate rates are higher than black men in the general student body,” the report says. “This is true across the entire division, but not for the five conferences whose member institutions routinely win football and basketball championships, play in multimillion-dollar bowl games and the annual basketball championship tournament, and produce the largest share of Heisman Trophy winners.”

And an entity that now preaches the importance of college graduation for agents doesn’t have the same righteous energy for black athletes at its most lucrative institutions.

Black men made up 2.4% of the Power 5 student population but 55% and 56%, respectively, of its football and basketball teams. Of those numbers, 55% of black male athletes graduated in under six years, compared with 60% of black men in the overall undergraduate population and 76% of all college graduates.

“Over the past two years, 40% of these universities have actually had black male student-athlete graduation rates that have declined,” Harper said. “We’re supposed to be getting better, but actually 40% of these places have gotten worse.”

Meanwhile, the debate over paying college athletes is sharply divided by race. Most whites are against “pay to play,” while most blacks strongly support it because the current system exploits a largely black athletic base.

In the NBA, the sport is still primarily black. (The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport found that during the 2015-16 season, 81.7% of NBA players were people of color and 74.3% were black.) But black athletes have significant power and influence over everything from where they play to who coaches them to the structure of their contracts.

This shifting power dynamic is beginning earlier and earlier too. Bazley skipped college last year to become a million-dollar intern with New Balance. R.J. Hampton and LaMelo Ball, both touted as 2020 lottery picks, are taking their talents to Australia for a year before declaring for the NBA draft. Hampton has already inked a shoe deal with Li-Ning.

As Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel noted, the new rule’s standard doesn’t apply to college hockey players or baseball players, who can be drafted out of high school but can choose to attend college if their draft placement doesn’t appeal to them.

If this wasn’t about a young black man who achieved his success out of the mud and then empowered other black men to recognize their worth in spite of an organization that has for years manipulated their talents for the organization’s gain, if this wasn’t about yet another American institution attempting to police black mobility and freedom, then it’s difficult to see what the actual reasoning is.

This brings the discussion back to Paul and James. It’s often been said there is a Jay-Z lyric for any situation in life. Perhaps the most fitting here is a bar from Jay’s 2001 album The Blueprint, which entered the Library of Congress in March: All I need is the love of my crew / The whole industry can hate me, I thugged my way through, he pledged on “All I Need.” In essence, this has been the motto for Paul, James and the two other members of their inner circle, Maverick Carter and Randy Mims.

When James cut ties to agent Aaron Goodwin in 2005, eyebrows raised and many said that the young basketball phenom had risked his career before it truly tipped off. At the time, it was easy to understand why, given that Goodwin had helped the 2003 No. 1 overall draft pick obtain a bevy of endorsements, including Bubblicious chewing gum, Upper Deck trading cards, Sprite, Powerade and, most gaudy of them all, a seven-year, $90 million shoe deal with Nike. Few believed in James’ vision when he turned to three of his childhood friends to chart the course of his career on and off the court.

“James’ switcheroo a youthful mistake,” the Chicago Sun-Times wrote.

“I will promise you really ugly things will happen,” said former NFL player turned financial adviser Jim Corbett. “This is a big mistake, a bad decision that is going to cost LeBron.”

Which leads us to another Jay lyric, this one from 2009’s “Already Home”: And as for the critics, tell me I don’t get it / Everybody can tell you how to do it, they never did it. Thanks to the friends he entrusted with his career nearly 15 years ago, James is not only the most powerful player in basketball history but also a player in Hollywood, fashion, education and politics.

Money and power elicit respect, as elucidated by Kimberly Jones. But they also open the door for fear and angst. President Donald Trump took shots at LeBron on Twitter last August after the launch of his I Promise School in Akron, Ohio, saying it was hard to make “LeBron look smart” and weighed in on the NBA’s most contested debate, saying he preferred Michael Jordan over James — which Jordan quickly rebuffed. The two were labeled “mob bosses” by an unnamed Western Conference general manager last season after public attempts to move Anthony Davis to the Lakers (a move that eventually happened).

From left to right: Anthony Davis, LeBron James, Rich Paul, Ben Simmons and Miles Bridges attend the Klutch 2019 All Star Weekend Dinner Presented by Remy Martin and hosted by Klutch Sports Group at 5Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Feb. 16.

Photo by Dominique Oliveto/Getty Images for Klutch Sports Group 2019 All Star Weekend

Rich Paul is a threat. To the status quo. To the hierarchy of power. And to the image of an industry that is still dominated by white males and has long exercised fiscal and moral authority over black athletes.

Basketball altered its rules to make it harder for three players who made the game look too easy (i.e., they dominated the white players too much): Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Maybe the NCAA didn’t implement this rule with Paul as its sole motivation. Just like maybe the NCAA wouldn’t be so open to criticism if it made the education of players a higher priority.

Unfortunately, the NCAA addressed a perceived problem while never addressing its own. Sometimes sports really is a reflection of life.

Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown show that cultural appropriation ain’t nothin’ but a G thang In the debate over profiting from black creativity, these country singers prove that turnabout is fair play

Well, look who’s appropriating now.

Amid ongoing debates about cultural appropriation and the pain caused when corporations and white entertainers profit off the customs of black people and other minorities, along come Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown, two African American rappers whose tunes have penetrated the upper reaches of — get this — the country music charts.

Blanco Brown’s “The Git Up” made headlines recently after it topped Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, having also charmed its way into the pop Top 20. Juxtaposing weepy pedal steel guitar against automated rap beats, the tune is a boot-scootin’ dance craze tune along the line of Billy Ray Cyrus’ 1990 breakthrough hit, “Achy Breaky Heart.”

“Old Town Road” is an international phenomenon for Lil Nas X (left) and Billy Ray Cyrus (right). It completed 17 weeks atop Billboard Magazine’s Hot 100 the week of July 30, making it the longest-running No. 1 tune in the chart’s 60-year history.

Photo by Rodin Eckenroth/WireImage

Cyrus, of course, makes a cameo appearance on the mega-popular remix of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” a country-rap track that uses a Nine Inch Nails sample to celebrate rhinestone cowboy extravagance (“My life is a movie/ bull ridin’ and boobies/ cowboy hat from Gucci/ Wrangler on my booty”). As you’ve probably heard by now, “Old Town Road” is an international phenomenon, having topped charts throughout North America, Europe and Australia. The week of July 30, it completed 17 weeks atop Billboard Magazine’s Hot 100, making it the longest-running No. 1 tune in the chart’s 60-year history.

The timing of that achievement is eerily auspicious. Aug. 2 was the 40th anniversary of the recording of Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” the first hip-hop track of any consequence and the song that started a musical revolution. What better way to celebrate rap’s 40th birthday than with a country-rap single whose historic success underscores hip-hop’s border-bounding global appeal?

A track like “Old Town Road” doesn’t spend 17 weeks at No. 1 by appealing to black people alone. Indeed, we can assume that more than a few fans of “Old Town Road” are white Southerners. That raises interesting questions, because perhaps no other art form is more associated with white racism than country music, which flourished during a period when the South’s white ruling class viewed black music as a plot to “mongrelize” America. “The obscenity and the vulgarity of the rock ’n’ roll music is obviously a means by which the white man [and] his children can be driven to the level with the n—–,” said Asa “Ace” Carter, founder of the North Alabama White Citizens Council, in 1958.

Lest the irony of black performers such as Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown appropriating white country music be lost, understand that in the minds of many black folks, cultural appropriation is something only other races do. For the past century right up to the present, white artists from Al Jolson, Elvis Presley and Benny Goodman to the Rolling Stones and Eminem have made a mint assimilating African American jazz, rhythm and blues, rock ’n’ roll, funk, rap and more. We’re so used to churning out new art forms that the idea of appropriating white artists seems almost unseemly, like the crassest of sellouts.

Perhaps that perception will change with the success of Lil Nas X and Blanco. The fact that these black iconoclasts are making inroads with country music fans in an era of resurgent white nationalism challenges much of what we think we know about cultural appropriation and race in America. Are Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown pirating white culture? Or is the controversy over their blackified country sounds just musical racial profiling? Let’s explore.


The Cambridge Dictionary describes cultural appropriation as “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.”

By this definition, Lil Nas X and Brown are tough nuts to crack, though the country music industry has weighed in officially on Lil Nas X. After reviewing “Old Town Road” in April, Billboard elected to remove the tune from its country chart, stating that for all its country/cowboy imagery, the song does not “embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.”

Blanco Brown performs during Day One of the 2019 CMA Music Festival at Ascend Amphitheater on June 6 in Nashville, Tennessee. Brown’s “The Git Up” made headlines recently after it topped Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart.

Photo by Mickey Bernal/Getty Images

While Billboard may be clear about the song’s lack of country authenticity, it’s harder for us laypeople. Do Lil Nas X and Brown “understand and respect” white country culture, at least judging by their hit debut recordings? It should be noted that there was little demand for black country-rap performers before these two guys showed up. So they recorded these twangy singles with little expectation that their songs would make them chart-toppers. Successful black singers such as Charley Pride and Darius Rucker notwithstanding, African American country stars are as rare as desert rain.

Moreover, as any aspiring country performer will attest, it’s danged hard to write and perform a hit. Yet Lil Nas X and Brown nailed it on their first attempts, which suggests they understand and respect country culture, big-time.

But for the sake of argument, let’s imagine that Lil Nas X and Brown really are culture vultures just looking to make a buck in country music. Isn’t it about time we black folks did more cultural borrowing? In the never-ending appropriation debate, we are often the most egregiously offended people, and understandably so. From redlining and voter suppression to racial profiling, we’re constantly reminded of the institutional disdain this country has for its African American citizens. Given this contempt, it’s maddening to witness the white ruling class appropriate our culture, imitating and commodifying everything from our music and fashion to our colloquialisms and mannerisms.

Billy Ray Cyrus (left) and Lil Nas X (right) perform at the 2019 BET Awards on June 23 in Los Angeles.

Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images for BET

Now, with Lil Nas X and Brown tearing up the charts, a turnabout-is-fair-play dynamic has been brought to the debate. For decades, some white people have brushed off black concerns about appropriation, an indifference that was dramatically illustrated when rock legend Paul Simon visited Howard University in 1987. The singer/songwriter hoped to explain how South African Zulu music inspired the songs on his acclaimed 1986 album Graceland. But instead of a warm welcome, Simon was treated to a healthy helping of student scorn —”For too long, artists have stolen African music,” asserted one Howard undergrad. “I tried to introduce this music to people who never heard it before,” a stunned Simon responded. “Sincerity doesn’t seem to be held in high regard.”

Now the cowboy boot is on the other foot. Billboard’s removal of “Old Town Road” from its country chart suggests that some proportion of white fans are sensitive to their music being hijacked. Curiously, the purists weren’t complaining a few years back when a growing gaggle of white country artists started appropriating black music, all to the profit-making benefit of the industry. “Old Town Road” could be considered the latest product of a trend that emerged roughly six years ago. Dubbed “Bro Country,” the subgenre came to life when acts including Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton and Cole Swindell began incorporating rap-style party rhymes and R&B- and blues-inflected rhythms into their songs. With its satiny melody and hip-grinding beat, Jason Aldean’s 2014 hit “Burnin’ It Down” is virtually a R&B makeout song, yet it reached No. 12 on Billboard’s Hot Country chart. Unlike its action on “Old Town Road,” Billboard never questioned the authenticity of Aldean’s tune.

Bro Country was so all-consuming that black performers such as Jason Derulo and Nelly started showing up in remixes, and hip-hop iconography started seeping into music videos. Florida Georgia Line’s 2014 clip for “This is How We Roll” features singers Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley swaggering and fist-bumping like boyz from the ’hood. The song’s opening verse drops iconic names designed to resonate with both white and black listeners. To wit: “The mixtape’s got a little Hank, a little Drake …”

The “Hank” referenced in that verse is Hank Williams, the pioneering singer/songwriter who wrote and performed some of the most popular songs in country history, including “Hey Good Lookin’,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” An acknowledged influence on superstars such as Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan, Williams is held in such high esteem that he is affectionately known as “The Hillbilly Shakespeare.”

And right here is where the whole Lil Nas X/Blanco/cultural appropriation thing gets really interesting. You see, Williams learned to play guitar from Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne, a black bluesman who performed in and around Lowndes County, Alabama. Having assimilated both African American blues and Scots-Irish folk, Williams’ original compositions played a major role in forging the white-meets-black sound we know today as country music. Williams was but one of many white musicians influenced by the African American string band music that proliferated around the South at the turn of the 20th century.

The implications of all this are mind-boggling. Instead of being appropriators of white folk music, Lil Nas X and Brown are actually taking up where their banjo-plucking ancestors left off. Swish!


From its modest 1979 origins up to now, hip-hop has thrived on masterly mooching. The genre’s aforementioned inaugural hit, “Rapper’s Delight,” quoted verbatim from Chic’s sophisto-funk classic “Good Times.” Perhaps more than any musical style in history, rap is defined by the shameless borrowing of other people’s music.

Having assimilated both African American blues and Scots-Irish folk, Hank Williams’ original compositions played a major role in forging the white-meets-black sound we know today as country music.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

But rap also owes some of its survival and current mainstream popularity to outright cultural appropriation. In 1986, hip-hop pioneers Run-DMC teamed with white rockers Steven Tyler and Joe Perry to record a remake of Aerosmith’s 1975 shuffle, “Walk This Way.” At the time, Aerosmith was all but washed-up and struggling to remain relevant. The Run-DMC collaboration changed all that, rocketing to No. 4 on the pop charts. “Walk This Way” not only rescued Aerosmith, it thrust Run-DMC into the pop music major leagues and helped broaden hip-hop’s popularity among white people.

Just as Run-DMC helped salvage Aerosmith, so has Lil Nas X delivered Cyrus from cultural mothballs. And both these examples reveal how appropriation can work to the mutual benefit of artists from different backgrounds. The blues-influenced music of Elvis and other white rock musicians ultimately improved the fortunes of many African American performers. Asked in 1968 about the high esteem in which white rockers held black blues virtuosos, B.B. King said, “I’m grateful … the doors are open now … because of people like Elvis Presley [and] the Beatles.”

This cultural reciprocity is the promise of appropriation, and only time will tell if Lil Nas X and Brown can make cowboy culture more palatable to black people. But even if such a miracle never occurs, who cares? The ultimate message of “Old Town Road” is be yourself, even if that means emulating someone else’s culture. The song’s declarative chorus — “can’t nobody tell me nothin’ ” — appears to epitomize Lil Nas X’s defiant philosophy about his unhip country lifestyle, a notion underscored by the song’s surreal music video in which Lil Nas X stares down a hip-hop dancer. Lil Nas X is refusing to be lumped in with anyone simpleminded enough to only embrace the products of their own race and culture. In this sense, “Old Town Road” is as thematically beholden to Sammy Davis Jr.’s “I’ve Gotta Be Me” as to any rap or country song of yore.

This rebelliousness, along with the sincerity of their left-field hits, helps explain Lil Nas X’s and Brown’s startling success. They’re part of a growing class of black creators redefining what it means to be an African American artist in the 21st century. This new determinism is evident in the endeavors of the Black Rock Coalition and AfroPunk, two organizations that celebrate diversity in black music, offering a fellowship platform for wayward African American musos. Black folkies such as the Carolina Chocolate Drops, J.S. Ondara and Dom Flemons are at once contemporizing and preserving the seldom acknowledged legacy of African American country and bluegrass musicians.

Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown rank among this band of musical gypsies, and they can’t be easily dismissed as cultural poachers. Are they borrowing elements of white country culture? Absolutely. But they’re also combining that with rap and reclaimed bits of their own black folk heritage.

And can’t nobody tell them nothin’ …

HBO’s new ‘Black Lady Sketch Show’ is both funny and long overdue All you need to survive the apocalypse is a headscarf and a League of Extraordinarily Funny Black Women

If there’s a lesson to be gleaned from A Black Lady Sketch Show, it’s this: All you need to survive the apocalypse is a headscarf and a League of Extraordinarily Funny Black Women.

HBO’s newest late-night sketch show, created by Robin Thede, is an instant classic. It premieres at 11 p.m. ET on Friday.

The apocalypse provides a frame for the show’s sketches, which are built around a core cast of Thede, Quinta Brunson, Ashley Nicole Black, and Gabrielle Dennis. The women kiki it up in a well-appointed living room in between each sketch, but when one of them opens the front door, the world looks like a scene out of a Cormac McCarthy novel.

Among the topics explored: How ashiness feels like slavery, groupie culture in the era of the Negro Leagues, and the relative invisibility of plus-size black women and how it makes them excellent candidates for espionage. The last bit is adapted from a conceit made popular by Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy in Spy, but Black and guest star Nicole Byer successfully push the idea further along. That energy propels the show from the start. Its title sequence is populated by Crank Yankers-style marauding puppet versions of the actresses and backed by a Megan Thee Stallion track.

The show, co-produced by Issa Rae, is a rarity in modern television. Its writers, Lauren Ashley Smith, Holly Walker, and Amber Ruffin, are all black women. The show is directed by Dime Davis, whose most recent credits include a directing stint on the television reboot of Boomerang.

Thede, at this point, has grown accustomed to pathbreaking. She made history in 2014 when she became the first black woman to serve as head writer on a late-night comedy show, The Nightly Show, hosted by longtime Daily Show correspondent Larry Wilmore. She then had a short-lived turn as host of her own show, The Rundown with Robin Thede.

While A Black Lady Sketch Show provides ample time for each of its cast members and guests (which include Angela Bassett, Laverne Cox, Aja Naomi King, Gina Torres, and Patti LaBelle) to shine, Thede is exceptionally malleable. One of the great blessings of A Black Lady Sketch Show is that she’s used it to showcase her acumen with accents, from a spot-on send-up of Jackée Harry’s perpetually lustful 227 character to a rarely heard Louisiana Creole drawl in a sketch about a “Bad Bitch Support Group.” Her best may be a character named Dr. Hadassah Olayinka Ali-Youngman, a “world-renowned philosophizer” who marries Iyanla Vanzant-style self-actualization woo-woo ideology with the hotep paranoia of Frances Cress Welsing.

Ali-Youngman is a “pre-Ph.D.” who sports platinum blond locs, African mud cloth, and calls herself a “hertep.” She’s got the sort of pop culture stickiness that’s bound to take on a life of its own, like the Key and Peele sketch that turned TV football player introductions into an extended mockery.

From left to right: Holly Walker, Robin Thede, Quinta Brunson, and Daniele Gaither send up 227 in A Black Lady Sketch Show.

Courtesy of HBO

A Black Lady Sketch Show is so funny, and so packed with fresh ideas that it’s bound to leave audiences wondering: What took so long for something like this to exist?

Well, because like so many other aspects of American life, white guys had a head start, one that began in 1876 with the founding of the Harvard Lampoon, the oldest college humor magazine in the country. The Lampoon has had an outsize influence on American comedy, one that’s arguably just as influential as the writing of Mark Twain. For decades, it’s served as a feeder pool for writers, comedians, and actors to break into television. But that pool has been overwhelmingly white and male.

Seeking to provide a solution to the racial disparities in comedy, Chris Rock attempted to start a humor magazine at Howard University in 1998. The Illtop Journal, its name a takeoff from the university’s student newspaper, The Hilltop, eventually fizzled, with Rock conceding in a 2014 piece for The Hollywood Reporter that a lack of resources contributed to its demise. The piece, was, among other things, a response to an earlier controversy, when Kenan Thompson said in an interview that the reason Saturday Night Live hadn’t hired a black woman since Maya Rudolph left in 2007 was because “in auditions, they just never find ones that are ready.”

Dennis was one of about a dozen black women called in for a showcase aimed at finding such women and the show eventually announced that it hired Sasheer Zamata as a featured player and Leslie Jones and LaKendra Tookes as writers.

Since Saturday Night Live’s premiere in October 1975, seven black women have been either part of the repertory or featured players on the show (Danitra Vance, Yvonne Hudson, Ellen Cleghorne, Rudolph, Zamata, Jones, and Ego Nwodim). Many of its cast and writers come from a farm team of improv troupes around the country: the Upright Citizens Brigade, the Groundlings, and Second City, as well as the Lampoon. Those haven’t necessarily been at the forefront of diversity and inclusion, either. Even though Jones, who was personally mentored by Rock, has carved a niche for herself on SNL, her role there is routinely oriented around the idea that she’s undesirable. See her running gag with Colin Jost, in which Jones is positioned as a hulking, predatory black woman unaware that she’s trying to punch above her perceived dating weight class. The roles for black women there have been stunted by the limited universe of possibilities SNL writers have imagined for them.

A Black Lady Sketch Show simply has a different starting point. In Black, Brunson, and Dennis, Thede has assembled an all-star team from all over television. Black came from Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. Brunson is perhaps best known for her work in Buzzfeed video’s humorous shorts, but blew up in 2014 with her The Girl Who Has Never Been on A Nice Date series. Dennis, who played Candice on Insecure, has worked on a number of shows.

Compared with its people of color-dominated predecessor, In Living Color, A Black Lady Sketch Show highlights the changes in social norms that have taken place since the Fox sketch show debuted in 1990. For one, it’s considerably more queer-friendly. Brunson is a surprisingly handsome stud in a sketch about about a butch lesbian who steals dance moves.

It’s also amazing what happens when a show simply features black women instead of centering men playing them in wigs. A sublime weirdness results, one that recalls the goofy, left-field wit of Key and Peele while incorporating a critique of modern expectations surrounding beauty and grooming.

Because black women have historically been so poorly represented in improv and sketch comedy, especially on the nation’s ultimate platform for it, it was easy to draw a faulty conclusion: Maybe this is just how sketch comedy works. Maybe it’s just an inhospitable form for black women.

That makes about as much sense as concluding that maybe black people just aren’t good at playing quarterback when a black quarterback is shunted into an offensive system constructed for a different set of talents from his own. A Black Lady Sketch Show is the long-overdue meeting of a highly skilled quarterback with an offensive system that works with, rather than against, the athlete’s talents.

Kenan Thompson hosts NHL Awards show that doesn’t shy away from inclusion From the opening monologue to the Willie O’Ree Award winner, it was a big night for hockey

LAS VEGAS — When news was first announced that Kenan Thompson would be hosting the 2019 NHL Awards, it seemed a little too good to be true. The man whom one recent publication surprisingly called “underrated” would be coming to the stage to entertain the hockey world, something he’d been doing since he first appeared in The Mighty Ducks movie trilogy, a series that for many people is their lone avenue into or reference point to the sport, quite frankly.

There was a part of me that was hoping this event could serve as a yet another milestone moment that breaks down the psychological barrier that many still have between blackness and pucks. And while this night wasn’t exactly that from a comedy standpoint, there were a few moments that helped the cause overall.

The monologue was effective, but didn’t stray too far into deep water.

“Welcome to the 2019 NHL Awards. I will be your host this evening and, for the last time, no, I am not one of the Subbans.

“My name is Keenan Thompson. You might recognize me from SNL, All That, Kenan and Kel. … But, let’s be real! You don’t. This is a hockey room. So you only know me as the kid from The Mighty Ducks 2 and 3!”

“You know, I can’t really decide if my favorite player is Ryan Reaves or … I don’t know. Man, I don’t know, maybe even Malcolm Subban, you know, from the Golden Knights. I just … Hey, I don’t know. I feel a strong connection to the two of them. I don’t really know what it is. I can’t put my, can’t put my finger on it.”

See, that’s funny because Ryan Reaves and Malcolm Subban are both black and both play in Las Vegas. I’m still sort of wondering where that joke would have gone had those roster spots not been what they were, but who cares. Point is, that was about the extent of Thompson’s routine about being black in the hockey world, which in truth, is all that was needed because the realities are certainly still harsh enough to not make light of the subject.

Throughout the night, the league highlighted the nominees for the Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award, given to “an individual who – through the game of hockey – has positively impacted his or her community, culture or society.” It’s named after the NHL’s first black player, Willie O’Ree, who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame last year.

Willie O’Ree arrives at the 2019 NHL Awards at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on June 19 in Las Vegas.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

By sprinkling in vignettes of the nominees’ stories, the theme stayed top of mind during the broadcast that this is an enduring battle. So between Thompson appearing as Steve Harvey, LaVar Ball, Charles Barkley and some weird mad scientist character with white hair, you couldn’t lose track of the fact that diversity existed beyond Thompson’s well-known Saturday Night Live go-tos.

There was Anthony Benavides, who runs the Clark Park Coalition, which launched a youth hockey program in Detroit for black and Latino kids, after rebuilding an outdoor rink with the help of his community. Another nominee was Tammi Lynch, the mother of a hockey player, whose teammate, who is black, was racially taunted during a recent game. She didn’t just fight back, she formed an entire movement called Players Against Hate, which aims to educate everyone about racism on the ice.

The inclusionary theme wasn’t just about black folks. Robin Lehner talked at length about his battles with mental health. Laila Anderson, the St. Louis Blues superfan who is battling a life-threatening immune disease, was featured in the cold open with Jenna Fischer and John Krasinski. And Carey Price stole the show when he surprised a young fan on stage, whom he’d met before, following the death of his mother.

Not to be forgotten was the unveiling of the new NHL 20 cover, which features the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews. Matthews’ mother is Mexican, and one of his earliest coaches helped found Mexico’s national ice hockey program. There are rumors that the EA Sports game might even have an SAP option, which is tremendous.

“It’s the way they’re growing the game and, you know, different markets, different countries, and just encouraging everybody all over the world to play hockey,” Matthews said. “I hope it’s not my voice that’s going over it, because my Spanish isn’t very good. But I think that’s awesome.”

But the big winner of the night was Rico Phillips, who took home the Willie O’Ree Award. A firefighter in Flint, Michigan, he started playing hockey in high school. Then his journey took him to the world of refereeing. Now, with the Flint Inner City Youth Hockey Program, Phillips is doing everything he can to give back to the community that built him and he works in today.

“Yes, so when we first started the program, there was certainly a need. There is lack of cultural diversity in hockey all across North America, but specifically in Flint. And as I would look out as a referee, I would see that lack of diversity,” Phillips said Wednesday night, sitting in Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino with his award by his side. “And so when we put it together, I had to get with local community leaders, especially the business community, to be able to provide the funds and the equipment for the kids, because we knew we had to have this absolutely free.”

It isn’t just about getting kids out to play for all the obvious reasons that’s helpful. It’s about an exchange between communities that oftentimes goes beyond the ice, which is essentially the whole point.

“One of the best things about our program is the volunteers themselves. We host eight different high school hockey teams who come in on different weeks and adopt the program. So there are built-in on-ice instructors,” Phillips explained. “What’s great about that is these kids, the high school kids come from the suburbs and rural areas, and then they come into the inner city to work with our kids. And this complete cultural breakdown that happens to where they all become one and it’s magic to see. I didn’t know it was gonna be that way, but that is one of the magic parts to our program, is that it’s really community-connected.”

Afterward, Phillips flashed pics with various hockey players, including P.K. Subban — who, by the way, covered NHL 19, becoming the video game’s second consecutive spokesperson of color — and other greats. Earlier in the day, the NHL also approved the sale of the Phoenix Coyotes to a Latino owner, California billionaire Alex Meruelo. One is topical, one is deep-rooted.

So while the NHL and hockey as a whole are doing their best to put people with brown faces in outward-facing positions, some who are in them know just how tricky that can be in a real-life application. Hockey is only as inaccessible as anyone makes it seem, although the structural problems do create obstacles.

“There isn’t that gap that people think,” Kevin Weekes, a former NHL goalie who is currently an analyst for the NHL Network, said after the show. “Hockey players and NHL players don’t live on Pluto. I feel like the game is a people game. It’s a family game, it’s a community game. … It’s nice to have them recognized. Community leaders need to be recognized.”

Thursday in Las Vegas, many were. But the scars of the realities of racism don’t go away just because a few trophies are handed out. Those rewards just serve as a reminder of the many things that not only the game has to overcome, but everyone else does too.

From left to right: P.K. Subban of the Nashville Predators is revealed as the cover athlete for EA Sports’ NHL 19 by Steve Campbell and Ryan Russell, known as Olly Postanin and Jacob Ardown from On the Bench, during the 2018 NHL Awards presented by Hulu at The Joint inside the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino on June 20 in Las Vegas.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

“In the ’80s, it was a running joke. I was the only black guy on that team. In the whole, everywhere. All right? And I had to absorb that and laugh it off and joke with them,” Phillips recalled. “Otherwise I would have been sad and mad and all those other things. My mother taught me, ‘Well, that is their regular, it’s not yours. Change their minds about who you are. And that’s all that matters.’

“And as a result of that, over time, the cultural things have changed. Now, when I became a young official, the N-bomb got cast right at me. My first season, I was 17 years old. So to think I’d be sitting here today after that dude called me that. Gold, man. Gold.”

‘Blacksonian’ chief Lonnie Bunch named first African American secretary of the Smithsonian The founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture brings a new look to the 173-year-old institution

WASHINGTON — Lonnie G. Bunch III, who used his prodigious curatorial, fundraising, political and people skills to build the National Museum of African American History and Culture from scratch, was named the 14th secretary of the Smithsonian Institution on Tuesday. Bunch, a historian with more than 35 years in the museum field, will be the first African American in the institution’s 173-year history to lead its collection of 19 museums, nine research centers and the National Zoo.

“I’m excited to work with the Board of Regents and my colleagues throughout the Institution to build upon its legacy and to ensure that the Smithsonian will be even more relevant and more meaningful and reach more people in the future,” Bunch, 66, said in a press release.

Bunch told The Washington Post that being the first African American in the post “will open doors for others.”

Lonnie G. Bunch III, founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, addresses the audience at the “Watching Oprah: The Oprah Winfrey Show And American Culture” opening reception on June 7, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Shannon Finney/Getty Images

As founding director of the African American history museum, Bunch oversaw the construction of its half-billion-dollar “green building,” a first on the National Mall. Since its September 2016 opening, the museum has welcomed 4 million visitors, and the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents cited that success as one of the factors that led to the selection of Bunch.

Bunch talked to The Undefeated in 2016 about the ways history has guided and strengthened him when the work gets hard. “Right in my office is a picture of a woman who was born a slave and she is walking up a hill, carrying a hoe that’s taller than her. A basket that’s heavy,” he said. When he felt stressed, “I look at her,” Bunch said. “And I think if she’s still walking tall, well, so can I.”

Now he’s hoping his appointment as secretary will help expand opportunities for African Americans.

In a 2000 article headlined “Flies in the Buttermilk: Museums, Diversity and the Will to Change,” published in the American Alliance of Museums’ magazine, Bunch wrote about the paucity of black faces at a national meeting of museum professionals. He quoted Al Green’s 1971 hit “Tired of Being Alone”: “I’m so tired of being alone, I’m so tired of being on my own.” The African Americans at the meetings would gather after a session to note, “There were just a few of us flies in the buttermilk. Reminding us, though, that we needed no reminder, that the museum field is awash in whiteness.”

President Barack Obama (left) and founding director Lonnie G. Bunch III at the opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 24, 2016.

Photo by David Hume Kennerly via Bank of America/Getty Images

In 2015, when Laura Lott became CEO of the American Alliance of Museums, she said she realized his article “could have been reprinted again in our magazine and it would still be relevant.”

People of color are 39% of the population but only 11% of museum audiences. Studies from art museums, which are about a quarter of the museum universe, show only 4% of leadership positions are held by African Americans, and Lott says those numbers are likely true throughout the museum world.

Bunch’s appointment to head the closest thing the nation has to a ministry of culture will provide representation and know-how that she hopes will make a difference.

“There’s the notion that you can’t be it if you don’t see it,” she said. Bunch’s lengthy experience in the museum field means he intimately “knows the problems and the challenges, the inherent structural racism and sexism and other -isms that kind of pervade the museum field. And so he’s worked with the American Alliance of Museums and other organizations to keep bringing that to people’s attention and find ways to combat it.”

This includes a push for diversity among museum boards, where the tone is set, budgets are allocated and decisions made — 46% are all white, and the rest skew older and whiter than the general public, Lott said.

The success of the museum, known affectionately as the “Blacksonian” — it’s the Smithsonian’s third-most visited museum in 2019 — represents Bunch using all his skills, connections and scholastic rigor. He coaxed money from institutions and people and got them to donate exhibit items from their attics, Lott said. “It’s Lonnie doing what Lonnie does.”

The selection of Bunch to lead the Smithsonian is a signal that the world is changing, museums are changing and the qualifications to lead these institutions are changing, Lott said. “Lonnie as both an African American man, and as an historian and a museum professional, is an example of that.”

Shaq steps in as a ‘triple threat’ to help Papa John’s reverse course Former NBA star will be the company’s first African-American board member

NEW YORK — Papa John’s has a new face: NBA Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal.

The perennial All-Star and four-time NBA champion turned television commentator, pitchman and serial entrepreneur is joining the troubled pizza chain as what he calls a “triple threat”: its first African-American board member, a brand ambassador, and part-owner of nine franchises.

O’Neal said he had been in discussion with company officials for several months. He told the chain’s CEO Steve Ritchie, that “The only way I would want to be involved is if you got some diversity in your leadership,” O’Neal told The Undefeated. “He said, ‘I’ll take you up on that.’ ”

Not long afterward, O’Neal got a call asking him to join the board of the nation’s third largest pizza delivery chain. “I said, ‘How about a triple threat?’ ” O’Neal recalled. “Board member; I want to invest in stores to show you I’m serious; and, of course, I’ll be an ambassador to the brand.”

O’Neal’s involvement with the company, announced Friday, is a crucial step in Papa John’s efforts to rehabilitate its image after back-to-back racial controversies that crippled sales, depressed its stock price, and eventually upended its leadership.

The turmoil was ignited by company founder John Schnatter, who was also the company’s chief executive, board chairman, and the smiling pitchman known in television commercials as Papa John. In late 2017, Schnatter caused a stir when he blamed a slump in Papa John’s sales on what he saw as the mishandling of NFL player protests by the league.

His objection, while widely shared, was backed not just by people who felt uneasy about players protesting police brutality and racial inequality during the national anthem. It also drew support from white nationalists and avowed racists, who named Papa John’s their official pizza.

Then, last summer, the company was rocked after it was reported that he had used the N-word on a conference call during a training session. Schnatter said he had used the word not as a slur, but to illustrate a point. Nonetheless, he quickly disappeared from the chain’s television commercials and promotional materials as the company attempted to distance itself from its founder.

Before long, Schnatter was out as CEO and board chairman, too, although he remains the company’s single largest shareholder.

“All of that stuff was uncalled for and unacceptable. It can’t happen,” O’Neal said, adding that the fact “they have new leadership” made him comfortable with being involved with the chain. As a board member, O’Neal said, he hopes to help foster a more inclusive culture in the chain’s corporate offices, where there were also reports of sexual harassment and an otherwise toxic workplace culture.

NBA Hall of Famer and restaurateur Shaquille O’Neal (right) and Steve Ritchie (left), president and CEO of Papa John’s, at the New York Stock Exchange on March 22 after Papa John’s announced that O’Neal will be joining Papa John’s as a member of the company’s board of directors and as an investor in nine Papa John’s restaurants in the Atlanta area.

Diane Bondareff/AP Images for Papa John's International, Inc.

O’Neal plans to appear in television commercials and make public appearances as part of his reported three-year, $8.25 million deal as an ambassador. He also said he intends to be a regular presence at the nine Atlanta franchises where he is now a part-owner.

“I want to be the one to help cultivate a new culture where everyone knows they are loved and respected,” O’Neal said. “I am not to say I am the savior, but this is a great opportunity.”

O’Neal has been involved in a broad range of outside businesses since the early days of his NBA career. He said he always admired former NBA stars who have gone on to business success, including Junior Bridgeman, the former Milwaukee Bucks swingman, who owns hundreds of franchise restaurants, and Dave Bing, the former Detroit Pistons guard who led a steel company and automotive supplier.

O’Neal said Magic Johnson, whose business interests range from movie theaters and restaurants to owning a slice of the Los Angeles Dodgers, encouraged him early on to think about leveraging his basketball career to launch a business career.

O’Neal said he started by buying a book that laid out the basics of business ownership. Since then, he has bought and sold Five Guys franchises, Krispy Kreme stores, and Auntie Anne’s locations, among other businesses. He also owns restaurants in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, as well as a piece of the Sacramento Kings.

“I try to draw on lessons from my basketball career in how I approach business,” he said. “I do not micromanage. If I was a leader of a team, I did not try to tell the point guard or power forward how they do their job. In business, just try to set a tone. The customer is always right. Have fun, and make sure the product is good.”

O’Neal earned an estimated $292 million during a 19-year NBA career in which he was heralded as one of the most dominant players in league history. Still, he said, he is equally proud of what he is doing as a businessman.

“I have six children,” he said. “And it is cute that their dad was the Shaq. But it is even cuter if their dad can own Krispy Kreme stores, or car dealerships, or other businesses. I want them to see me as something more than just a great basketball player.”

After three years, it makes no sense there are no black female characters in Overwatch Asking for inclusion is not political correctness

The second season of the Overwatch League, perhaps the world’s most popular esports league, has commenced. Ahead of the league’s second week of play, one question must be answered about the widely played video game: Where are the black female characters?

The game’s developers, Blizzard Entertainment, position the team-based first-person shooter as the pinnacle of diversity and inclusion in the industry. Yet, nearly three years since it launched, Overwatch still lacks a playable black female character, although the game does include other women of color. When recently asked about the situation, Jeff Kaplan, the game’s director, talked about new heroes with Nathan Grayson of kotaku.com: “We have no shortage of heroes that we’re currently working on secretly back in Irvine. Right now I think the number’s around six that we have in development. I don’t think people are gonna be disappointed.”

Take a look at the roster of heroes. They have different backgrounds, races and origins. In November, Overwatch introduced its 29th character, Ashe, the game’s seventh white woman, who appeared to be a darker-skinned woman in original concept art. For black female gamers, being unable to play with a character who looks like them is disturbing, yet familiar.

The situation industrywide has improved, albeit slowly. According to Alisha Karabinus, assistant editor for NYMG, a feminist gaming website, there were about 21 playable black female characters in video game history in 2013. Six years later, she bumps the number up to a range of 30 to 32. Thus, Overwatch isn’t guilty of a unique sin. Last month, however, Electronic Arts released Apex Legends, a first-person battle royale shooter that included two playable black female characters out of a roster of eight. Naturally, this precipitated more Overwatch criticism:

Jay-Ann Lopez, creator of Black Girl Gamers, an online community that aims to lift black women’s voices in gaming, has loudly leveled her grievances against Overwatch. “After three years of waiting for a black woman to be revealed, I stopped playing,” she said. “I have no issue with playing characters of any other race, but it stings, a lot, when who I am is left out.” She believes “an unambiguous and non-colorist representation of a black woman” could rekindle her interest.

L.L. McKinney, a novelist, gamer and advocate for diversity and equality, shares a similar Overwatch story: “I got my friends and family into it. They purchased their own copies to play with me and on their own. But as time went on and we kept getting new heroes — and black women kept being left out — my love for the game dimmed. I stopped playing altogether for a good long while.”

Another game, Paladins, piqued her curiosity after it introduced Imani, a new black female character. “I saw the video and was in love. Instantly. In seeing her I saw us, and I felt a multitude of things,” she told me. “And when I played with her, it was amazing. … Hearing her voice, seeing her on-screen, was incredible.”

On Overwatch online forums, some black women such as McKinney petitioned Blizzard to unveil a black female hero. Invariably, venom met these pleas.

One person responded, “You can still live in your lefty diversity dream bubble, but you should better wake up! Real diversity means that it does not matter if a character is female or black, as long it fits to the story.” Another replied, “You seem to put way too much importance on appearances. I highly doubt most people here have a real problem with black women as heroes, but whining to Blizzard and claiming they’re not doing enough is making you sound entitled.” And yet another complained that “people should also not be requesting a specific race, sexuality, or gender of a new character. They should let the creators make what they feel fits it. People coming on here saying they want a black woman because they are. … That’s pandering.

Black folk have grown accustomed to hearing such rejoinders after complaining about the lack of representation in popular culture. The criticism that we encounter amounts to maligning us for asking to be included. Opponents of such requests believe that by asking to see our humanity in the art we consume, we seek some sort of special favor.

When people of color ask for inclusion, some gamers respond with the usual questions: What’s the big deal? Why does the race of video game characters matter? They don’t understand that the answers to those questions undermine their arguments.

If race and gender aren’t that big of a deal, then why the dearth of black female characters? A lack of diversity reflects the desires of decision-makers inside the industry.

When black people complain about the lack of representation in popular culture, we get hit with accusations of demanding political correctness. But if asking for inclusion is political correctness, then the most politically correct of all are white people who harbor desires for representation so strongly that other groups are excluded.