Open Mind, Closed Mouth
Upon writing this article, I have come to accept the fact that I may lose friends, be resented by family members, or have my views be dismissed because of the color of my skin. However, I can no longer maintain my silence on the current events taking place in this nation. While reading this, please understand that these situations are based on my personal experiences, opinions, and realizations that I have come to over the past few weeks. Not everyone who reads this will be happy by the end of it and that is something that I have learned to accept. My goal is to merely provide my personal realization of my own mistakes, share conclusions I have come to after diving into them, and pray that others may learn from them.
The Foundation of Silence
Growing up in rural west Missouri, I learned the basic values of life through my parents and grandparents. These basic values included, how to walk, how to stack hay, how to run the tractor, how to treat others, but most relevant to this situation, how to speak. I had never spent a lot of time around anyone of another ethnicity, let alone carried a conversation with such a person. With that being said, I will never forget the first time I truly understood the power of words and speaking, which was the day I first used the “n” word. I was around 10-11 years old and riding in the backseat of my mother’s car. As the word slipped out of my mouth, within an instant we were pulled over on the side of the road. With the most sincere look I’ve ever seen on my mother’s face she told me, “I never want to hear that word come out of your mouth again”. I was shocked and confused. I remember thinking “What did I do wrong?” It was just a word to me, I had heard it from my father, grandparents, and countless friends at school. These were good people, ones that I looked up to and admired. . How could that one word possibly be worse than any other curse word? I had heard all the terrible jokes and all the conversations about other ethnicities. Every terrible thing you can imagine, I heard as a child. I just didn’t know what I was hearing was so wrong until I was nearly a teenager. It was not until I saw the look on my mother’s face that I understood the true nature of that word.
It was not until I visited Benedictine College on a recruiting trip for football at the age of 18, that I had a conversation with a black man. That young man would soon become my roommate and one of my closest friends throughout college and surely the rest of my life. Isaiah was the first person to give me an insight to what it was and is really like to grow up a young black man in America. Obviously, I could never fully understand. I didn’t grow up in the city and I certainly didn’t grow up as anything other than your average German, Irish white kid. He had given me a few examples of when he had to overcome unnecessary obstacles presented in his life, merely because of the color of his skin. Honestly, I found some of them hard to believe. Not in the sense that I thought he was lying but more in the sense of there is no way this stuff is still happening “Why would any of this matter” or “So what if you’re black? That shouldn’t change anything about the situation.” These were some of the few things that I would continue to think. I didn’t see why anyone would hold a prejudice against someone who had no intention of doing any harm to anyone. The main reason I found these stories so hard to believe based off of the fact that Isaiah is one of the kindest men I have ever met. I thought, “This stuff may happen in movies but surely not in real life.” Wrong.
Late August 2014 was when I was first introduced to the nature of racial prejudice in America. Riots in the streets after the death of a young black man, Michael Brown, were taking place in my own home state. I vividly remember seeing the constant updates on my phone and just thinking “Holy shit this is real. How could this happen?” Soon, I would see updates that the riots had started in Baltimore and every day I would be shocked with what I read. This was the biggest news story I could remember in my life outside of 9/11. I didn’t know how to respond. Naturally, you are probably thinking I would be outraged? But no, I wasn't, because back then, in my head, the situation didn’t concern me. I had nothing to worry about. Looking back it feels so ignorant to say that my thought was “Just do what the officer tells you to do man, c’mon. Don’t break the law and this stuff is avoided” A man had died and I was trying to justify it. I was a part of the problem. Despite all the news and all of my black friends pleading on social media for support, I tried to justify it.
You don’t need three guesses to figure out who this section is about. In the 2016 NFL season, San Francisco quarterback Colin Kapernick took a knee during the National Anthem. There was only one way to react to this, and that was with absolute hatred. With this gesture, I didn’t want to hear the reason behind his protest. I didn’t want to hear what he had to say or why he said it. I just hated him. To me, when he did that, he might as well spit in my grandfather’s face while he was at it. My grandfather, a man that received two purple hearts in the Second World War. A man who was part of the invasion of Italy to help drive back the German front line. A man who was part of the liberation of Europe and helped cease the mass genocide of millions of people. One who had seen unspeakable things that he shall never soon forget.
I believed that there was no greater way to disrespect my grandfather’s service and what freedoms that represented. Even after his interview explaining that he meant no disrespect to those that have served this country, I didn’t care. I had set my heart on hatred. Again I would try to justify it. “How can he talk about white privilege? He grew up with a rich family. How could you spit in the faces of those who died for your right to protest?” Anything I could think of was adequate. I was not going to let this go, and Kapernick would get what he deserved.
When he was essentially exiled from the league, many of my black friends were outraged. Who was to blame them? Someone they believed in was released from a team because of his protest. What could you expect though? He did something that a lot of people didn’t like so the owner did what almost any other owner would have and got rid of him. You have the right to protest, but that doesn’t mean that everyone has an obligation to agree. However, would I say that to any of my friends back then? Absolutely not. I didn’t want to lose any friends. I also didn’t want to have any of my white friends or even my family resent me for speaking about the subject. So, I did what most white people did when it comes to the subject of racism in modern America, I kept my mouth shut.
A year would pass and Isaiah was now my roommate. As juniors in college we had both experienced some great times together and had truly grown as friends. Yet somehow two conversations that year would make me begin to question things. Not our friendship, but rather how I had treated him, and my specific contribution to the problem of racial inequality in the U.S.
During a conversation that had started over a story on Kapernick concerning why he wasn’t in the league, even with his skill, I would experience my first blowback with my best friend. I had told him, “Racism isn’t something that just ends. It’s taught to kids over multiple generations by their parents and grandparents”. Knowing he would most likely understand that is what probably happened to me, but I just knew better than to hate someone because of the color of their skin. He replied, “You can’t say shit like that man. That’s the exact problem. Saying nothing CAN change because people DON’T change”. Feeling nearly ashamed and confused as to why he missed my point, I stuck that exchange in the back of my mind.
Later that year, we went to a house party with a couple of my other friends. Again, being juniors in college it goes without saying that we were absolutely hammered drunk. Regardless of my intoxication, I will NEVER forget what Isaiah told me that night. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I love you man. Even if you are a little racist, I love you like a brother”. I squinted and told him the same. As he walked off I immediately thought, “What the hell did he mean I’m a little racist? I’ve never done anything remotely racist to him or anyone at this school for that matter”. I was so confused. Why would he say something like that to me? He’s my best friend and he called me racist. Once again, I began to try to justify it. He was probably just joking with me because I have a strong German heritage. He’s also very drunk so he probably didn’t mean it. However I forgot the one phrase that had never proven wrong while I was in college, “Drunk words are sober thoughts.”
Open Mind, Open Heart
All of these experiences have now led me here. With everything that had happened in the past, and all the signs that I ignored, or attempted to justify, it took only one experience to truly open my eyes. One specific series of events to help me to understand that for my entire life, either without knowing it or refusing to accept it, I was part of the problem.
George Floyd is murdered. Riots begin. More people are killed. An officer of the law has been shot in the back of the head. Stores around the entire country are being looted. Protestors are on the freeway being hit by oncoming cars. WHAT THE F**K IS GOING ON. With all of these things happening, what truly opened my eyes was one interview with Drew Brees. During the interview, the New Orleans Saints quarterbacks says, “I’ll never agree with anyone who disrespects the flag.” Immediately, lines were drawn because of that statement. I couldn’t believe the amount of hatred that could be shown to one of the most beloved and respected players in the NFL. Everything that he had done for the state of Louisiana, for the black community, for the poor, for those affected by Katrina, all of the good things that he had done were instantly negated in one interview. I was furious. Why would they be so mad? It’s just his opinion! Yes, it was not good timing, but it’s not like he’s saying he hates anyone who does kneel during the anthem. He’s simply said he didn’t agree. I was so hurt to see that backlash and know that as this was happening I could guarantee that his family was receiving death threats. It broke my heart to know that his entire legacy had been tarnished because disagreement had somehow become synonymous with hatred.
I waited in anticipation for his apology. Knowing that many people would not care what he had to say anyway. Yet, I wanted to know how he would respond. How do you come back from something like that? Finally the day came and the apology was released. It seemed heartfelt, sincere, and true. Everything that you would expect from a celebrity apology, except for one phrase that stopped me in my tracks. He said for years that he had “missed the mark” and I stared at that exact phrase for probably ten minutes. I began to think, “What does he mean by that”? The phrase made sense but I didn’t quite understand how it correlated with his situation.
This is when it happened. The phrase finally hit its mark in me and with a flood of emotion, I slowly started to realize the meanings behind everything; Kapernick kneeling for the Anthem, the riots, my conversations with Isaiah, my mom stopping the car on a dime. Everything began to make sense. I couldn’t understand how I had been so ignorant for my entire life. How one phrase could just break down walls I didn’t even know I had built. How could I just overlook or try to justify every thought in my mind as to why these protests happen? Then the responses to the interview came.
Become the Solution
Michael Thomas’ response was the first one I saw to Brees’ apology. Saying that, “we are taught as Christians to forgive.” Soon after I would see Demario Davis’ video response saying, “It takes true leadership to admit when you’re wrong. The whole nation for a very long time has ‘missed the mark’”. To see Drew acknowledge his mistake and then have his teammates truly accept that apology, gave me hope that I could also be forgiven if I was to acknowledge my own.
I began to relate everything into situations that I could personally involve myself in, because that was my biggest disconnection. The water is not drinkable in Flint Michigan, but I don’t live in Flint so it doesn’t affect me. That was basically the same process of thought I put into the idea of racial injustice in America. Even if I did not consciously make that decision, that was the same concept to me. Then I REALLY began to think. What if that was Isaiah? Or Cole? What about Matt and Alex? What about any of my college teammates? What if it was one of my clients who are eighteen year old kids with their whole lives ahead of them? What if they were the ones that didn’t come home tonight because they were the “wrong” color, in the wrong place, at the wrong time? Could I live with myself then knowing this whole time I was part of the problem? Absolutely not. Being raised Catholic I was taught that all life is sacred, but for years I had made a subconscious exemption for an entire ethnicity because their struggle didn’t involve me. Abortion is legal and I NEVER had a problem addressing the evil in that. If I was going to be true to my faith and to the HUMAN RACE I needed to change my ways. I needed to break my silence. I needed to become part of the solution. To do that, it was time that I said something. There is no neutrality in this fight. It is a decision to make between right and wrong. An objective truth. It always has been.
Sharing my story is to help create a common ground. To help those who may still think the way that I used to, to understand that silence is not just as bad as racism itself, it’s worse. You can acknowledge the fact that judging someone by the color of their skin is wrong, but you simply do not choose to speak up because it does not concern you? This is not a berating article meant to tear you down and make you feel terrible for being white. You could argue that the people that do that are just as much of the problem. You cannot fight hatred with hatred, you will only breed more of it. If you are reading this and you are afraid to say anything, to go protest for the life of others because you are afraid that you will be resented by the ones you love because they may see it as a “betrayal of your race”, understand that I once felt the same. It is only within the last week that I have come to understand the true error of my ways. If we are to be resented by friends, family, lose business or anything else you feel you may lose, so be it. A new decade is upon us. How will we set the tone?