Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Real Talk: Using Athletes to Break Down the Barriers of Racial Understanding

Thank you Richard Sherman, DeSean Jackson, LeBron James, and so many others, you've helped me to start some conversations that our great nation needs so many more of. Racism still exists, but I argue that it's not the biggest problem between anymore, the biggest problem is unconscious discomfort and dismissiveness due to misunderstanding. I'm a young Black man who went to middle and high school in the hood (although my parents were able to move us out of that) and has friends from all walks of life; by being around different people you understand different people and learn how you fit into things. I now work in somewhat of a corporate setting and some of my co-workers are from the most affluent and least diverse upbringings imaginable. I get along with everyone and they see me as a peer, but from time to time I'm reminded that they just fundamentally do not understand much of what I've been through, much less what those truly from less fortunate backgrounds deal with in life. When such a subject comes up, I feel an obligation to speak for speak for a population they shun and will never willing be within 1000 feet of that they're acting bigoted towards because they don't understand them and have dismissed them as lost causes; even when they're completely wrong. For instance, it was laughable that Richard Sherman was being called a thug (and other worse racial epithets) after his emotional interview in the immediate aftermath of making essentially a game-winning play to send his team to the Super Bowl. With the exception of those who immediately went racial, I'd assume those who haven't been around young Black males or around football players were largely uncomfortable with this level of aggressiveness and decided he had to be a thug. No, he's a football player, who plays a position that all but requires over-confident, in the heat of the moment. He's was a young man strong to beat the odds and make it from a very bad neighborhood (between Watts and Compton, in South L.A.) to Stanford (where he had a 3.9 GPA) and then the NFL. He's hired by Sports Illustrated as a writer on the side. This isn't a bad apple; those who dismissed him were unequivocally wrong. But they wouldn't call the hockey players who started off a game by throwing down their sticks as fighting such a strong word when they fit the definition. Upon cutting DeSean Jackson, someone in the Eagles organization apparently told the media that part of the reason was his ties to gangs or gang members. My co-worker tried to convince me that if he was from such a bad neighborhood, he'd move his family away from there and never go back. He went as far as to say he'd take off running the other way if he ever saw anyone from his old neighborhood. Really? No giving back to your community? No trying to help more kids make it out? No going home...ever? Taking off running from a high school teammate? Furthermore, isn't instantly moving and paying for dozens of people one of the major ways athletes cited as going broke on the "30 for 30" special "Broke"? That's not a sound financial decision. When life hands you a raw deal as a kid, those who help you navigate and make it through that form a bond with you that should last a lifetime. Like I said, I lived in a decent area but went to school with "undesirables" and I tell people that they were part of the reason I didn't get involved in anything bad; despite teenage curiosities, they shielded me from that because I had the potential for much more. I'm sure DeSean Jackson has similar more dramatic stories. I have former teammates who went the wrong direction and friends behind bars or dead. Like me, he has to be careful about exactly how he interacts with them now and it might not be appropriate for you to be rolling with them how you once did. But if I was a celebrity and I ran into them, I'd dap them up, if they wanted a picture, I'd take a picture with them, I might let them sit at my table at a restaurant and chat it up. But that would be it. You show love. But those raised among the rich don't get that because A) the rich are quick to shun or forget someone else if they fall of the pace of their rich peers, and B) they may never have to deal with someone from DeSean Jackson's background. I have these conversations because even if they don't agree, even if having their perspective makes them mad, I want them to physically hear the other perspective from someone they respect as a peer. Then I use the LeBron example. LeBron is a kid from the projects of Akron who became the best ball player in the world, did he turn his back on his childhood friends? No, he kept them close and put them to work. One of his teenage friends, Rich Paul, is now his agent and quickly becoming one of the most powerful agents in the NBA. They don't get more famous and successful than where LeBron is now, but rather than shunning Akron; he brought them to the top with him. And they're not ghetto, they're not freeloading leaches, or just a useless social entourage, they're legit, they're earning the place they were given at the table. So he's allowing others from a less fortunate situation to make it because he has made it; he's opening up new avenues, which is powerful. That doesn't happen if you're quick to turn your back to them. So even if my coworkers don't agree, I want them to hear it said by a peer and it bouncing around in their minds, because that's at least a step towards understanding. And that also is powerful and we need more of that everywhere. Real Talk...

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