Working in college athletics has eroded many of the barriers I no doubt had. Being proximal to all kinds of diversity — socioeconomic, geographic, cultural, ethnic — has enriched me ten-thousandfold. Athletics are, by nature, more diverse than the general campus. It is incumbent upon us to live, work, thrive, strive, eat, laugh, celebrate, train, travel, rest, relax, in community. It is a privilege and a joy to be within these folds.
And yet. I can tell you stories that would blow your hair back. These are not stories about my university, but they do orbit there because that is the setting, not the reason. These stories happen every-damn-where. And you know what else is incumbent upon us about that? To speak to these truths.
Not until I traveled with a black colleague did I ever have a clerk in a shopping mall store request to hold my purse and bags behind the counter while I shopped. Oh, it happens all the time, said my colleague. Umm, actually, it doesn’t, I answered. Well, she said, it might not happen to you, but it happens. That first time, it made me uncomfortable. When it happened again, it made me stop shopping at that store. And then at another store. Finally, it made me write a letter to the company asking why black women had to surrender their purses and bags to shop, but white women did not? Also, sidebar: our black students (even our highly recognizable basketball players) do not like going to the mall because they are asked to not walk together in a group. That is a sociology study for a different day.
Once, I had a black student complain to me that he wished his coach would recruit some black freshmen. Why?, I asked. “Because I’m so HUNGRY!”, he answered, laughing. At that time, our freshmen and sophomore students lived in campus housing, which included multiple daily cafeteria visits. Often, junior and senior students borrowed the campus ID from their younger teammates for a meal-swipe. But this student didn’t look like anyone else’s ID photo, so he was not getting the same free meals as his teammates. Flawed meal-plan system aside, let’s just focus on who was better able to have access, and who felt truly that they had less because of how they looked.
There was a time when our urban campus sent out email alerts for crime on and around campus, encouraging students to be aware. As a parent, I had told my own children, when they were students at the university, to be alert. Nearly every student is carrying a laptop or iPad, most are walking around with earbuds, staring at their phones. If I was criminally-minded, they would look to be easy targets. Thus: stay alert. Our campus crime emails included a description of the perpetrator, usually “young black male in hooded sweatshirt”. Our black male student-athletes, in team-issued hooded sweatshirts, were highly frustrated, and pretty vocal (to us) about the dog-whistle of ‘matching the description’. Sidebar: if you’ve never been pulled over for ‘matching the description’, I am here to tell you that is how many stories, that don’t always end well, begin.
Speaking of that, before you pull away from your house or workplace or gym or grocery store, do you secure your driver’s license and proof-of-insurance to your car’s dashboard in a clear plastic bag, visible from, say, outside the driver’s side window? No? Well, my black students do. And my black colleagues do. If you don’t think twice about reaching for your wallet, that is a freedom not afforded everyone. It’s a simple act, but for too many, a lot could be riding on it. It could be tragic.
I could go on and on. Until you are proximal to diversity, you are not a true observer of the racial divide. If you are watching through the lens of the evening news or listening to your favorite radio talk show or scrolling your social media feed, your miss the nuances that make up an integrated community. You are in a city that would cheer for an NBA player on the court, but arrest him after midnight for parking across two spaces in an empty parking lot at Walgreens.
I’m from Ohio. Not all that many years ago, there was a school shooting in the suburb where some of my family lives. The shooter, a white teen who was armed and quite dangerous (having already killed people), was taken into custody, very much alive. At his court hearing, he wore a t-shirt that said “Killer” in bold letters across the front. He had one goal: to kill people. Later, he escaped from prison, and was on the run. He was taken into custody again, very much alive. Twice. This happened TWICE: taken safely into custody, despite being very vocal (and armed) about wanting to kill people. Both times he was apprehended (alive), he was considered highly dangerous; he wasn’t asleep in his house, or walking with Skittles, or out for a jog, or playing with a Nerf gun in a park, or talking on a cell phone in his grandma’s yard, or reaching for his wallet, or selling CDs or cigarettes. That difference there — that’s the divide.
Or this. Last month in Florida, a white man went for a run, with no shirt, hat on backwards, and carrying a television. That’s right: carrying a television. He was certain he’d be stopped. He ran 2.23 miles — yes, to honor Ahmaud Arbery but also to test his theory. Some folks laughed or applauded, or shook their heads. But no one stopped him, or called anyone else to stop him. He theorized correctly: it’s not the running that’s the problem.
For those of us who do not know hurt linked to the color of our skin, we can ally with those who do. In the world of allies in the throes of racial injustice, you will feel the sting of the stones being thrown; if you don’t, then you are not standing close enough. We heal together, we lend strength and solidarity. We listen. We speak when there are wrongs. We cannot understand all of it, but we can stand united. And when the news distracts, and blame is shifted, we say ‘that is not right’. We note the differences, and work to ease them. When we tell the stories, we speak the truth. As one friend says, it’s not “it’s terrible so many black folks are being killed by police, but all this looting and burning has to stop.”, rather, try “it’s terrible all this looting and burning is taking place, but this killing of so many black folks by police has to stop.” Reach to close the narrative gap. It matters.
Pay attention to the facts. If you hold your knee on my neck for eight minutes and forty-eight seconds, plus another two minutes and fifty-eight seconds after I stop responding, I will die, I will be dead. A coroner might learn I am a cancer survivor, and participated in a drug trial that compromised my heart, so I do cardio nearly every day to make sure my heart stays strong. If cancer comes back, it might kill me, but not as fast as your knee on my neck. They’ll find scars from surgeries, and silver fillings in my back molars, and that I have a tricky back and some right hip pain that comes and goes. I sunburn easily, I hydrate mostly with water and coffee, and I am within striking distance of my goal weight but still have a few pounds to shed. Those things won’t kill me, though. If I die, and your knee was on my neck, the cause of death is: I was killed. Speak the hard truths, and don’t distract from the facts.
Maybe being an ally feels too giant of a leap right now, but you feel called to take a step. Anguish is often that first step; I’ve written about this pain before. Read the poem “Bullet Points” by Jericho Brown. It’s a powerful starting point. I could list resources for learning, though others with richer depths of experience than mine are better positioned to lead the path to being an ally, to unpacking racism. I’ll be there, too. It’s a simple act, but there is a lot riding on it. This is our work: reach for it.